The Cult of Note Taking: How Gathering Information Can Enhance Your Literary Life
When I read Patricia Hampl’s outstanding memoir The Florist’s Daughter in 2013, these lines spoke loudly and clearly to me: “I’m glad to have this yellow legal pad, notes I’ll use to make something. Are you working? What’s it about? I’m lucky to be a believer in the little cult of note-taking.” I have, you see, been taking notes for my writing (and regular) life for decades. By now this practice is so ingrained I cannot imagine my life without it.
Are you a frequent note taker?
Naturally I realize that not every wordsmith is constantly taking notes. Yet, especially for those who amass information as habitually and eagerly as I do, I have a few suggestions.
For starters, ensure you have ready access to paper, pen, or, for those more technologically-savvy individuals, a Smartphone in which you can record information. I always carry a small legal pad and several pens in my black handbag. These are, in my heavily biased opinion, as invaluable as my cell phone and wallet.
Determine which information-gathering practices work for you. Perhaps you don’t feel comfortable, while waiting line at the post office, to write notes on a piece of paper. If so, find or create a memory game which helps you retain the information until you are able to record it. I’m at ease writing in publish by now; however, I recognize this isn’t always the case.
It also helps to develop an attitude of “no effort is wholly wasted.” I have, for instance, written down noteworthy last names which I end up not using for my characters. I also have notes about future poems, including a whimsical one about paperclips, which thus far haven’t compelled me to write any poetry. Nevertheless, the process of being receptive to ideas, no matter how outlandish or unexpected, keeps my creative juices flowing.
Knowing what subjects you wish to write about will guide your information-gathering practices. Several years ago, for example, I wanted to write a piece about bumper stickers. This inspired me to write down unusual bumper stickers I noticed. It took months of gathering such details before I was ready to write the first draft. Yet, at least for me, gathering the information was part of the fun.
A funny bumper sticker.
One of my well-established techniques is paying attention to the conversations around me. I cannot tell you how many times I have, while at a restaurant or store, overheard bizarre, scandalous, or memorable comments. These, especially if you can record them right away, often provide excellent material for short stories. Such comments can also occur in the conversations you have. Last week I had the pleasure of conversing with a woman who had lived in Hawaii. When she mentioned her friend who cross-country skied in Hawaii, immediately I thought, “Now that sounds like a quirky story idea.”
It’s also essential to determine what kind of information you wish to collect. I amass words and phrases of interest.
Here’s ten of the words I’ve collected:
Do you ever use the word "salutations"?
A few examples of salutations
Here are ten phrases:
- “I said yes to love”
- “again and again”
- “the ghetto of grief”
- “overwhelmed and unsafe and without sunglasses”
- “emotional truthfulness”
- “refuge is fiction”
- “this season cannot bankrupt me”
- “half a memory”
- “into the gloomy abyss”
- “the anatomy of dreams”
I’ve also kept my eyes open for what I call “alliteration sandwiches.” These are phrases were every other word starts with the same word. Here are three examples: “bathed in beauty” and “magic and madness and mayhem” and “bewitched into boredom.”
As I’ve written about elsewhere, I collect quotes. Doing so helps me remember what I like in a piece of writing. Having quotes about dozens of subjects means I can, presuming I can locate the quote I wish, include these quotes in my essays and articles. It’s amazing how many pieces have been prompted by a beloved quote. I, for example, wrote a piece about editing tricks partially because of this quote by Stephen King: “…kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart…”
I won’t claim this is the best or only way to enhance your writing life. What I can share is that it has worked for me. Please disregard the suggestions which don’t make sense to you.
Best of luck with all your future wordsmithing attempts.