Friday, September 07, 2012

In praise of nonelectronic notebooks

by J J Cohen

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?


Malte Urban said...

Oh, writing workflow. I won't be able to resist this one.

While I completely agree that there is something very appealing about paper notebooks, my handwriting is seriously awful and I'm also too chaotic to keep on top of all those pages of notes. So, for a few years now, I've been relying almost exclusively on iPhone and iPad for note taking, while doing the heavy lifting on the computer. I use Simplenote (which syncs with Scrivener on my computer) and Quickoffice (for notes in Word Docs for excerpting that then sync via Sugarsync with my computer, where DevonThink Pro then deals with them. Scrivener and DevonThink are great. The former helps break down writing projects into manageable chunks (and can even give you daily goals, based on project length and deadline). DevonThink is fabulous, because its AI engine can search through my archive of notes and articles (managed via Mekentosj Papers) and then tells me which notes and articles share themes and topics.

It takes some time getting used to, but I now know that all I need to do is keep my files reasonably well organised (i.e. keep them where they are supposed to be) and I'll always find that elusive note from a few years ago, as long as I know roughly what it was about.

I envy those who can a) write legibly and b) keep paper notes organised, but my workflow is a decent alternative, I think.


Bavardess said...

My process often starts with physical paper and pencil (which I prefer to pen for this formative stage, for some reason - perhaps because it doesn't represent the same indelible commitment as ink). I tend to do my early conceptual thinking with lots of pictures, arrows amd diagrams, so paper is just easier. I want to add a giant whiteboard to the wll of my study so I can really go to town on this. or even better, paint one entire wall with blackboard paint. I carry my notebook wherever I go, but I do sometimes panic at the thought of losing it, especially if I'm travelling.

Anonymous said...

I've written about this at mine, but, briefly: (1) I make long-hand notes on anything I read that I want to remember, on A4 narrow-ruled paper; (2) I do electronic exegesis of this in Word files (though it should be in something else) or often, now, on the blog, in drafts that may or may not get published, wherein I try to explain my reaction to something to myself; (3) I use text files for ideas that want to be written down, and occasionally when I have one of your `notebook moments' (which is rare for me) more of the trusty A4, scribbled and spider-diagrammed without respect for its ruling, narrow or otherwise; (4) I make real drafts either in TextPad or Word, endlessly tinkered with and not shared enough before submission (because anonymous feedback is easier to be angry with, I think). I've seen lots and lots of software touted to help one organise one's material (Rachel Leow, who wrote at Cliopatria sometimes, has some interesting thoughts on this on her own blog--she is currently arguing for a return to the physical, slightly) and to help one write but I had already found a way, clunky and Luddite though it be, to do the former and rarely if ever have trouble with the latter, so, I resist changing a process that seems to work. Except for the reference storage, but you didn't ask about that.

Jonathan Hsy said...

Jeffrey: For some reason I never posted a response to this earlier, but I like this glimpse into your creative/thinking process. I, too, use paper notebooks -- as much for writing as for doodling and drawing out connections between ideas or clusters of thoughts.

Today the Guardian published some excerpts from Ian Samson's forthcoming book "Paper: An Elegy" - nice reflections on the cultural history of paper its power as a creative medium. Looks interesting: