Lots of people keep notes, make lists, and otherwise track things they need to remember, whether they’re writers or not. But I’m most interested in how writers keep track of and organize their thoughts, because in addition to all those other things they need to recall — doctors’ appointments, play dates for the kids, due dates for work projects, dinner parties, shopping lists, birthdays, the annual flu shot, getting the gutters cleaned — writers have to keep track of their ideas.
There’s a myth that all writers keep a pen and paper on them wherever they go, be it a nice notebook and a pretty fountain pen or just some scrap paper and a stubby pencil, so when the muse strikes, they can jot down a few words or sentences to avoid forgetting what might be the germ of a poem or article or story. In reality, I know a lot of writers who do no such thing. You’d be amazed how often I attend a writers conference only to have someone borrow my penduring a pitch session so they can make a note of what I’ve asked them to send me.
But many writers do have a system, generally some sort of small, portable notebook where they can accumulate bits and pieces over the course of their day, ideas or things they’ve seen or smidgens of dialogue that felt inspirational in the moment. I’ve heard of writers with notebooks for different purposes; one for actual writing of drafts, another for jotting ideas and notes, and separate notebooks to serve as story bibles for individual projects where all the details of the world are kept in one place.
In this electronic age, however, I see more and more writers who have gone digital. Notes are kept on tablets or laptops or even in smart phones. I acknowledge the convenience, but I can’t help but feel something is getting lost in the process this way. I like the idea of notes that include sketches or scribbled out bits, or of notebooks that have things slipped between their pages — maps or postcards or flyers from tourist spots. Yes, you can snap photos on your smart phone to serve as visual reminders of a particular landscape or site, but it’s not quite the same.
Charles Simic writes about his own adherence to the old fashioned way of tracking his day and his ideas for the New York Review of Books Blog. I love how for him the act of writing down his thoughts is partly about creating a lasting work, almost an art form in itself, that is in no danger of getting deleted or recycled when he upgrades his electronics. Of course, notebooks are not permanent in the sense that they can be damaged or lost, but these seem less of a danger.
How about you? Do you keep a notebook or journal of sorts, whether as a writer or just as an individual interested in keeping record of your life? What form do your ramblings and memories take? And do you ever go back through old writing to visit your past self?