Keeping a Notebook

“Don’t just say you have read books.  Show that through them you have learned to think better, to be a more discriminating and reflective person. Books are the training weights of the mind. They are very helpful, but it would be a bad mistake to suppose that one has made progress simply by having internalized their contents.” – Epictetus, Stoic philosopher

Since childhood, I’ve had a penchant for collecting things – from stickers to swimming race ribbons to drawings (mostly of my gerbils).  As I got older, the habit matured.  I kept an avid diary which I rebranded as a journal and kept boxes of old notes and photographs.  My own little “coming of age” capsule.  Unfortunately, I had to abandon the habit due to impracticality.  In the last 14 years, I’ve moved nearly every 1-2 years with my longest stint in Singapore.  The capsule didn’t make the cut when I decided to move to Asia.

But, this year, I’ve properly revived the habit after realizing it wasn’t just a strange tick; it’s apparently more deep seeded (or so Strength Finders tells me with “Input” in my top five strengths).

You are inquisitive. You collect things. You might collect information — words, facts, books, and quotations — or you might collect tangible objects such as butterflies, baseball cards, porcelain dolls, or sepia photographs. Whatever you collect, you collect it because it interests you. And yours is the kind of mind that finds so many things interesting. The world is exciting precisely because of its infinite variety and complexity. If you read a great deal, it is not necessarily to refine your theories but, rather, to add more information to your archives. If you like to travel, it is because each new location offers novel artifacts and facts. These can be acquired and then stored away. Why are they worth storing? At the time of storing it is often hard to say exactly when or why you might need them, but who knows when they might become useful? With all those possible uses in mind, you really don’t feel comfortable throwing anything away. So you keep acquiring and compiling and filing stuff away. It’s interesting. It keeps your mind fresh. And perhaps one day some of it will prove valuable. – Strengths Finder, Input

Based on a recommendation from my creative writing teacher, I’ve started keeping notes again, but this time digitally in Evernote (easier for the nomad).  It might sound basic, but it’s probably the most useful new habit I acquired this year (to be fair, my other habits are even more basic, like poaching eggs and eating more quinoa, so, take it as you will).

They say that creativity is merely connecting the dots in a different way, which means, you have to collect the dots in the first place.  In Evernote, I have about 20 or so folders, mostly to keep items of inspiration – from quotes (I meticulously archived all the quotes from my Kindle this year) to art to writing ideas to thoughts on life to places I want to travel.  If I’m walking around and something interests me, I snap a photo or type it down (you can even record yourself if you can stand hearing yourself speak.  I can not).  It’s then searchable and easy to discover patterns of what interests and excites you.

At first, it felt a little self indulgent, but after some research, I’ve realized I’m not the only one.  Apparently, the habit of keeping a Common Place book precedes me by several centuries.  In Early Modern Europe, people kept scrapbooks filled with recipes, letters, drawings, proverbs, etc which looked something like this:


And, as my writing teacher said, it looks like most writers and creatives do the same today.  Joan Didion even wrote an entire essay on it (and seems more compulsive than me).

Why did I write it down? In order to remember, of course, but exactly what was it I wanted to remember? How much of it actually happened? Did any of it? Why do I keep a notebook at all? It is easy to deceive oneself on all those scores. The impulse to write things down is a peculiarly compulsive one, inexplicable to those who do not share it, useful only accidentally, only secondarily, in the way that any compulsion tries to justify itself. I suppose that it begins or does not begin in the cradle. Although I have felt compelled to write things down since I was five years old, I doubt that my daughter ever will, for she is a singularly blessed and accepting child, delighted with life exactly as life presents itself to her, unafraid to go to sleep and unafraid to wake up. Keepers of private notebooks are a different breed altogether, lonely and resistant rearrangers of things, anxious malcontents, children afflicted apparently at birth with some presentiment of loss. – Joan Didion

So, if you’re creative (or would like to be more creative) or if you are often too much in your head and want to get it out on paper (or the virtual cloud), I recommend in 2017 that you keep a notebook.  If you show me yours, I might show you mine.

Photo: San Francisco, Self Portrait, 2016


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