It’s one thing to have an idea; the trick is to package it in its most effective form.
Arrival at that ideal place requires deciding which elements to discard, which to retain and refine, which to combine; which new elements to consider. It’s an often confusing journey of decisions-decisions-decisions.
“The Road Not Taken,” one of Robert Frost’s most popular poems, speaks to that journey: “Two roads diverged in the wood / And I took the one … / And that has made all the difference.”
Little could I know when the phone rang that evening in 1954 that I was about to discover a “shortcut” that would simplify my own journeys — in the realm of ideas, and life itself.
The call was from Don Edwards, a guy from New Canaan I’d met freshman year at UConn but scarcely knew. Don had a date lined up, and would I like to meet and party up with her friend?
Saturday night, I saddle up my ’43 Merc in Greenwich and course the Merritt Parkway to meet Don in greater downtown New Canaan. I jump into Don’s vehicle and, en route to datesville, seek to find out where Don’s coming from — other than New Canaan. At one point I asked what his dad did.
“Oh, he … he’s Robert Frost’s editor,” Don tosses off. He could as easily have said, “He’s the assistant bookkeeper for the Horticultural Society.” It was that ho-hum.
(I mean, here I am, a literary wannabe extraordinaire, and this Don guy, did he say … Robert Frost?! America’s poet damn laureate?!)
“Your dad … Robert Frost’s? … editor?”
“You … ever … meet? … Robert Frost?”
“Spend any time with him?”
“TELL me about him!” I keep pumping him, 83 questions in 92 seconds. But Robert Frost isn’t of interest to Don — fingers drumming steering wheel; not-answering, not-answering, not-answering.
Finally. “Oh yeah. Went to Frost’s farm when I was a kid. Stayed overnight. Took walks with him sometimes.”
“You walked with … ?! What happened? He say or do anything … ?”
“Nah. Not much. We just walked. Around. You know. Through woods and stuff.”
“Must be something you remember about it! Anything, Don. C’mon, Don … gotta be something!”
“Oh yeah. One thing. His old jacket … every now and then as we’re walking along, he grabs a stubby pencil and piece of scratch paper from a pocket … scribbles something … sticks it in another pocket. On the way back, we stop at a cabin up from the house. He opens the door, grabs the scribbled papers, chucks ’em in a beat-up old leather mailman’s bag on the table right inside the door there.”
Wow. Robert Frost’s thought file: Empty the bag onto the table. Paw and scan the scribbles. Most go smack back in the bag. Some in the wastebasket — “Whatever the hell was I thinking?” A dozen maybe get spread on the tabletop. Mix and match. “This and this might work together … a germ somewhere in these three … but how about this … with this?! These boys … connect!”
I’ve adopted it as a primo organizational-formatting device. I call it Connect-a-Thought. On a given project: A slew of thoughts-bearing 3-inch-by-3-inch pad pages spread out on a tabletop. Winnow, winnow, winnow. Add a couple new ideas. Now — maybe the best part of the system! — rearrange the sequence … maybe three or four times … just by reordering little pieces of paper! Now type up that final sequencing — as opposed to typing or longhanding a whole new page each time you re-sequence a multi-item list.
That Robert Frost anecdote is ripe with possibilities, none of which is that I made it up. This much I know for sure. From Lawrance Thompson’s “Robert Frost: The Later Years”: “Alfred Edwards, head of Henry Holt Publishers in New York in the appropriate years, who commuted to his home in New Canaan, was a close friend of Robert Frost -— to the degree that he was “executor of the estate of Robert Frost.” And though Don misspoke in calling his father “Frost’s editor” (technically, he was Frost’s publisher), Al Edwards did often visit Frost and stay on Frost’s farm in Ripton, Vermont. Frost’s cabin was just up the hill from the main house.
The bonus kicker to this improbable-but-true story is that my date that night would turn out to be the love of my life. The Merritt Parkway made all the difference.