“Note taking.” The consonants convey precision, powered by a carefully methodical mind and a professionalism so rigid you could iron a dress shirt on it. Secretaries, administrative assistants, and paralegals are all note takers. Their reputation puts bleach and .925 silver to shame. Each of these fields is, by definition, someone you can depend on – the sort of person who raises a point of order during the Apocalypse, probably holding up the proceedings for the next several centuries. (This is one explanation for the notoriously, and consistently, delayed end times across religions).
In short: a person who takes notes is a person who is unfazed by anything, because they know the correct procedure at all times. They do not experience doubt or anxiety. They are impossible to intimidate. And they don’t forget. They’re like Koschei the Deathless in Russian mythology: untouchable, because their impetus is not in them but in their notes. (Koschei habitually hid his life in an egg, but he’d modernize with an iPhone or Blackberry.)
I fantasize about being a person who takes notes. I am not a note taker. I am a person who writes notes. There’s a difference.
The difference is in the method. Note takers organize information as part of a system. I organize information the same way the Big Bang organized atoms: a lot happening in a very short time, and almost everything is still under construction (don’t get me started on the black holes). You can tell when a note taker has written something, because retrieving information is easy. The same cannot be said of the Big Bang or my notes.
It’s not that I have a bad memory. I am able to remember where a given set of idea-scribbles is across two currently active notebooks, two phone apps, four email accounts (including both sent and draft emails), and three stacks of scratch paper representing the 6 months of work prior to the two current notebooks. Oh, and my pockets. When I’m at work and unable to use my phone, I write ideas on paper and shove them in my pocket for later (or the laundry, whichever comes first). Not nearly often enough, I clean out my pockets and read through all the notes and try to condense them into a typed document, so they’re easier to locate (read: less vulnerable to the washing machine. Hopefully.).
Earlier this year I became aware of how crucial the act of writing things down is to my development of ideas. Since then, I’ve been stealthily observing my own write-it-down behavior. Aside from the whole Schrodinger’s Cat issue (observation may change the outcome, but the cat isn’t happy either way), I want to understand why I write everything down in hopes of structuring my thought processes towards more reliable productivity (read: stacking the odds for the Inspiration Problem, as discussed in a later post).
Here’s a metaphor. You’re assembling a jigsaw puzzle, and you’ll come into contact with all the pieces, but you won’t always know it’s a piece when you find it – and the pieces are spread across your lifetime instead of the coffee table.
Here’s the metaphor, rephrased. I expect myself to create something. Someday, every unusual thought that goes through my head (as judged against both external and internal standards) may be useful, or necessary, for that something. Thus, I write my thoughts down so they won’t escape.
In the process, this creates another fear – that of incoherence. I have a hard time organizing information into sequence, the before-and-after linearity of a temporal system. What if I never make sense of what I once thought? What if I’m never able to filter, refine, and connect them into something that makes sense or is valuable to others?
Some people are very good at automatically imposing external structure on internal thoughts. I’m not. It takes a lot of time and conscious effort and feels initially unwieldy, akin to writing Alice in Wonderland using an Excel spreadsheet (of which, given Lewis Carroll’s mathematical background, I’d be interested to see the results). But I believe it’s necessary, because I (or at least part of my brain) believes the subjective experience of thought/idea/emotion is close to meaningless if it isn’t communicated; communication is the only way to add it to the collective human knowledge pool, and even then it’s a gamble. It may vanish in the next world war or computer server crash or book burning frenzy. It may be read by precisely one other person. The one thing I hope to count on is the one thing (alright, one of many) I can never fully comprehend: the process of subtle reinforcements or perceptual shifts through which humans make memories or add knowledge into pre-existing intellectual frameworks. To restate: the way humans add little bits of knowledge into their heads, forgetting about them until they boil back to the surface and tip the balance on some decision.
There it is again, the theme of forgetting – of losing pieces. Note taking is a precise record of what happened. Writing notes is more about the gaps, the places you piece together what might have happened, what could have happened, and what almost certainly will never happen but should – after the facts have packed up and gone home in despair. It’s an attempt at making a study out of uncertainty. You’ll never catch up; it will always be just out of reach, like your shadow, or breadcrumb trails in a dark forest. That’s the wonder of it. You know where you might have been. You only know Schrodinger’s cat may be alive or… ah, may be napping. I realize the infinite futility: making sense out of chaos, when Entropy is enshrined in the current laws of the current universe. I’ll never see the whole jigsaw puzzle. By the time I know enough to make sense of it, half the pieces have been stolen by my imaginary cat and the roommates have Marie Kondo-ed the rest. But the pieces are still out there, somewhere. They’ve drifted off to visit someone, or something, else.
As a means of storing a life, it’s not bad. In the stories, Koschei usually dies when they find the egg holding his life. He could take notes from me.