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Taking Notes


Memory Almost Full


We generate far more actionable information than is encoded in all of our combined genetic material, and carry much of it into the future. We’ve been pumping out persistent data since that first caveman’s painting on a wall, and we’ve kept on pumping ever since. We crank out something like 2.5 quintillion bytes of data a day, more than a billion, billion, bytes. The question is, what do we do with information that is useless, taking up a lot of space, and how do we decide what has no reason to be kept?

Back to the caveman, that primordial writer, and to us — the art of taking notes.                                                                                                              

I must confess, I’m not a master of this art, but I’m a serious practitioner. I take a lot of notes, and maybe you can learn from my mistakes.

There are all kinds of notes. The quickly scribbled, possibly brilliant, ideas that come to you while you’re watching something stupid on TV, or washing dishes, on your way to work, or at work, in some foreign place, you witness something, an epiphany you know you will forget if you don’t write it down—gone like a dream you wake up from.

There are bits of information that might turn out to be relevant for future plots: fragments of poems, and ideas, diaries from trips to other places, photos, plans, codes for house alarm and route, translations. Details—how things smelled, or felt, or sounded.

I’ve accumulated many notebooks. I have notebooks by the TV, in the car, and on my desk, and in my pants. Men used to carry notebooks in their pants. ‘Little black books’ they were called. I started using them in collage: class notes, addresses, important dates. I still have dozens of them stashed away with names, past lovers, places, books I wanted, clever quotes and such. Some are from fifty years ago. Why am I saving these?  You never know when one might hold some data that’s exactly what I need—although this is extremely doubtful.

Back pockets are hard on notebooks. Those early black books lasted twelve or thirteen months. But thirty years ago I found the perfect replacement. A police notebook, heavy leather, cover holds a pad—one of those things the cops flip upon when they’re making an arrest. I’ve had the same one all these years.

I’m probably one of the last to have a little black book. They have been replaced by cell phones that hold gigabytes of information; even photos saved in seemingly into a galaxy of space.

Travel Notebooks. 

I am one of many who keep travel notebooks. I count four now scattered on my desk, for no good reason, possibly romantic, semi scrapbooks interspaced with ticket stubs, recites from hotels, boarding passes, restaurants, and currency exchanges. They take up desk space, but one might hold information needed later.

I see half a dozen other notebooks in arms reach. One has data that pertains to an unfinished novel that has been through two revisions and a viciously professional, expensive editor who found so much wrong I put the thing aside. Another notebook’s for a magnum opus has gone through three revisions. I would like to finish it before I die, but not sure I want to devote the rest of my life to it. A hundred fifty thousand words—it should be two books, one of many problems.

All in all I count a dozen notebooks on my desk and nearby table, far too many. I’m a data hoarder, but determined to get rid of some of my accumulation, one page at a time if nothing else.

If you look carefully at upper center of this photo, you can see one labeled, ‘Trash’. Why haven’t I thrown it away? Needs one more look through, on some other day, not this one. Smaller notebooks have been used for less important and intentionally temporary items: deadlines, submit places, contests—scattered here and there.

My desk is a constant mess, but I have a cognitive map of where things are. When notes go digital into computer’s ‘Documents’, I’m never sure, and often forget what I named the file I saved them in. There have been PC crashes. We have all been there—the horror.

I take notes, on paper that will never disappear. They might get lost, but will be found, if not today, than some day later, possibly by chance as I am looking for an unrelated subject. Ah the joy of it, like finding money on the sidewalk.

I hope you are better than myself or keeping track of things, more organized, skilled cell phone users, but there may be one or two of you who know whereof I speak.

I’ll end with what I think is true story I read, about a playwright. He was tree trimming, and had stopped to rest upon on a branch. An idea for a play came to him and he went through the whole thing, from beginning to the end, and it was brilliant. When he set foot on the ground again it was completely gone, and never came back.

So keep on taking notes of thoughts in passing, but keep better track of them than I do. Never be without a pin and paper, in the car, airplane, or living room, have something you can scribble on. Save often and save early. I have two small tips.

  1. Numbering notebook pages, with an index on 1st page will help find specific notes, rather than having to look through all the pages to find one description, or a thought.
  2. Don’t be too brief. I look back at notes taken a year or two ago and can’t remember what the hell I was thinking about.

One good thing about notebooks, no one can steal our ideas, without breaking into house. Notebooks are a look into the past, more subjective than diaries, an endless flow of ideas, titles, plots and feelings ready to be shared. Some writers struggle to come up with a new ideas, some keep notebooks.





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