Friday, September 07, 2012
In praise of nonelectronic notebooks
Sometimes when I have a lecture or essay to compose I sit at my computer, open a word processing program, and write. The words flow because I've done enough thinking in advance that I'm ready to go. More typically, though, I open multiple windows of electronic notes on the e-desktop while surrounding my laptop with a collection of printed outlines and drafts (usually blue with my inked annotations) as well as physical notebook thick with ideas, odd sentences, and even full paragraphs. I posted one of these notebook jottings on Facebook yesterday, and if you've read this blog for several years you know the saga of how I lost one of these notebooks and how through what seems like a miracle had my "paper brain" returned to me.
Although a technophile, I've never found a satisfying electronic platform for capturing thoughts and keeping notes. I've tried everything from simple and easily searchable text documents to various programs that look and feel like physical notebooks to workflow software (most recently, this one -- but, meh). For Stories of Stone I maintain an electronic notebook using Word that has divisions for each chapter, various outlines, ideas to incorporate, and lists of things to do or references to track down. For collaborative projects I had the idea of using a shared notebook via Dropbox to enable asynchronous brainstorming, but that fizzled. None of these e-tools have held their promise for long, and so I've returned, inevitably, to my low tech notebooks. Partly it's a question of immediacy: it's easier to scribble into one than to open a laptop or iPad, start a program and then type (or at least it feels easier: many times I jot things down that have arrived during an early run, or while showering, or in the midst of cooking). I don't want to lose these inspirations that seem to appear from elsewhere, so into the notebook they go. At the same time, though, a notebook makes me slow down: I can't write with pen and paper as quickly as I can type, so what ends up in my hard copy notebook often combines the instantaneous with the protracted, quick thoughts with gradual expression. Sometimes these scribblings turn out to be dead ends, silly, or insane. At other times they yield an entire paragraph, or maybe the overarching structure of an essay.
Yesterday as I was working on my BABEL co-plenary I thumbed through my notebook and drew copious material from its pages. I'm happy I wrote these things down, because without the notebook much of what I ended up using might have been lost.
I also came across some jottings that I made while on my recent Iceland and Maine trip. They may end up, in some form, in my stone book. Or they may be dead letters. Either way, I thought I'd share them here to provide a glimpse of what kinds of ideas a writing notebook is good for catalyzing.
Aug 12 Iceland
Iceland is simultaneously ancient (traveling back into medieval history, landscape saturated with ancient story; look of island frequently described as prehistoric in guidebooks) and new (Iceland's geography shaped by "recent" volcanoes, tectonic movement, glaciation: it's a young landscape).
What strikes me most = paucity of animals besides sheep and insects, and lack of obvious (petric) signs of long human dwelling. While some geography looks like the Burren or Scottish Highlands, no standing stones or dolmens here. History more recent -- so archeology in cities, but landscape betrays only modern human presence.
Makes geological diversity easier to concentrate upon: hiking through various colors of volcanic rock (the green valley of Landmannalaugar).
While Iceland is a reminder that rock / earth is alive (always moving -- earthquakes, sliding stones, volcanism) really emphasized for me that lithic must be thought with the aqueous: glaciers, marshes (lava shoots up through swamps to form pseudo-craters), erosive power of waterfalls, floods, rivers. Rock and water in terraforming partnership.
Stone here is mostly an earth sign, not a human recordation of history. Some stone structures but mostly part of the natural landscape, not art or memorial.
Warmth of the Icelandic people: Heiðrun who rented us apartment, Ómar whose partnership enabled one of the best days we've had together as a family (Landmannalaugar hike).
I expected to find a landscape that yielded human stories (of saga, of heroes, of settlers). Mostly the story was of the earth -- and not an ancient but a contemporary tale. "Prehistory" -- the time of earth's creative forces and movements -- is a period in which we continue to dwell. The earth is still just as animate; has not gone dormant. Iceland makes clear that even our geological histories (Cambrian etc) are a lie that hides the earth's abiding motility as well as its continuity across vast spans of time. In the company of dinosaurs or humans, the volcanoes still erupt, the continents still wander, the sea floor persists in its rising and its falls.
Aug 20 Moody Beach
Thinking about this moment: standing in the sand with Mark, watching K and A build a sand castle while waves crashing. Other family in their various pursuits. Mark asked me about Iceland. I told him that its lesson was the impermanence of stone. I'd begun my petric book because I was seeking something that endures. Iceland -- a landscape ancient (prehistoric) and yet geologically very young -- emphasized for me that stone does not last. It is created, recycled, engulfed, pulverized, enfolded, burnt to ash, birthed via tectonic plate movement, flowing like the glaciers it melts -- no less liquid than water, no less restless. We think it persists because it outlasts us. The fossil record, which we conceive as a full archive, is scanty. Its gaps are enormous, its lacunae inscrutable. It holds futurity but promises only a temporary recordation followed by near-full oblivion. Particles will remain, not plenitude. We will be readable from our atomic traces, not from the stories we tell, not from the architectures we build, not even from those bodies and machines that move us. The music of the spheres is the whirl of these particles, objects at the smallest scale, not the largest. Stone -- that which is boulders, cliffs, mountains, sea floors, continents, plates, planets -- stone's destiny is cosmic dust, the thing it once was, changed a little, carrying new atoms, betraying to some unknown observer's sophisticated instruments the tell-tale signs of organic life that needed stone to burgeon, dwell, thrive -- but particles all the same, the smallest fragments of a story that may persist but will always in the end withdraw.
So what about you? What tools do you use to record your thoughts, organize your ideas, and get writing done?