On Keeping a Notebook

Personal Epistemology Assignment in #Philosophy12

Kuhn & Paradigms

I’ve written here before about being a ‘notebook guy,’ someone who cut my creative teeth with pen and paper and has yet to find the same intimacy in digital space that I have had with notebooks and journals going back to my teen years. This isn’t to say that I don’t do some creative thinking on my computer, or my phone – recording brief demos of songs, or typing up lyrics in a Google Doc instead of writing them by hand, for instance – but much of my thinking begins in these books that I still keep with me at (nearly) all times, even if I have never truly put my finger on just what it is this brand of note-taking is facilitating.

Luckily, GNA Garcia came upon this Lifehacker article that pulls from a few different sources to put some of the necessity of notebooks into better context than I’ve been able to. The first of these sources is author Stephen Johnson, whose book Where Good Ideas Come From has been showing up consistently in my Twitter feed, Pro-D sessions and casual discussions for a few years now.

Johnson’s The Spark File talks about how he uses his notebooks to ‘catch’ the hunches and inklings that may (or may not) become one of those Good Ideas:

…most good ideas (whether they’re ideas for narrative structure, a particular twist in the argument, or a broader topic) come into our minds as hunches: small fragments of a larger idea, hints and intimations. Many of these ideas sit around for months or years before they coalesce into something useful, often by colliding with another hunch.

The problem with hunches is that it’s incredibly easy to forget them, precisely because they’re not fully-baked ideas. You’re reading an article, and a little spark of an idea pops into your head, but by the time you’ve finished the article, you’re checking your email, or responding to some urgent request from your colleague, and the next thing you know, you’ve forgotten the hunch for good. And even the ones that you do manage to retain often don’t turn out to be useful to you for months or years, which gives you countless opportunities to lose track of them.

This is why for the past eight years or so I’ve been maintaining a single document where I keep all my hunches: ideas for articles, speeches, software features, startups, ways of framing a chapter I know I’m going to write, even whole books. I now keep it as a Google document so I can update it from wherever I happen to be. There’s no organizing principle to it, no taxonomy — just a chronological list of semi-random ideas that I’ve managed to capture before I forgot them. I call it the spark file.

The Lifehacker author, Elizabeth Spiers, writes in On Keeping a Notebook in the Digital Age about how her:

… note-taking works primarily because I have learned to separate my putative spark file from my task list. If I feel the impulse to make a note to myself about something that needs to be done, I put it somewhere else — my actual to-do list or a list of potential projects.

In Scott Belsky’s book, Making Ideas Happen (also recommended, especially if you manage people in a creative industry), he distinguishes between ideas and “action steps” — separating your notes, sketches, etc., from things that need to be done.

This may not be true of everyone, but I find that I’m the most creatively fruitful when I approach pure creative work and execution separately. If I start with the execution, I’m much more limited in how I think about what I want to accomplish. I won’t pursue a story idea further because I think it’s going to take more time than I have. I won’t explore an article topic because I don’t have all the research at hand. I don’t want potential action steps to make pursuing a new idea seem too intimidating or insurmountable. So I keep separate files for those — mostly task lists associated with specific projects and a master list for overall prioritization.

I’ve kept each of these sorts of books over the years – ideas books, and task-oriented books – but of late have been much freer in veering between the two purposes. The book I’ve been working with this school year is a mix of all of the following: calendars, lists, concept maps, essay and blog post drafts, ideas, songs, sketches and other brainstorms. All of them are necessary parts of my creative workflow, catching, sorting, and implementing the various hunches, inklings and schemes that make up anything I’ve ever thought of as a ‘good’ idea.

What about you? Where do your good ideas come from?

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