Confession: I Document Everything

An intellectual (or not) debate at Max's.

An intellectual (or not) debate at Max’s.

Six months into my college career, I came home for spring break and announced to a few of my friends that I was switching my major from music to journalism. I expected reactions of mild surprise, at the very least. Instead, I was met with impatient “duh”s and amused “I always knew it”s.

“That’s not a surprising revelation, is it?” They asked. “You always carry a notebook in your purse. You’re always writing down everything we say. You document everything. It’s actually pretty creepy.”

It was true. I could certainly save a lot of closet space by purging from my belongings a stack of 20 or so notebooks, some completely full, others empty, still others only partially used. I buy them habitually, whenever I head back to my old stomping grounds for a nostalgia tour, whenever I’m away from home and need to chronicle my frustrations somewhere, and of course whenever a notebook is too pretty not to buy.

I’ve never met anyone else who is quite so intent on recording anything and everything, but thanks to the power of the internet, I now know there’s at least one other freak like me: Alice Bolin. I’ve never met her, but her post on thisrecording.com makes me believe we are kindred spirits and were probably separated at birth. From the post:

I have in my pocket at this moment a note I don’t remember writing to myself that I found recently on my floor. It reads, “Landscape quote: O pardon me thou bleeding piece of Earth.” (Googling reveals this is from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.) Also in my pocket is a note card where it says in my graduate thesis advisor’s handwriting, “Question / Is there a historical reason for the great number of rear/alley entrances/exits in Missoula bars?” Also: a stranger’s to-do list I found tucked in a book I ordered online; its only noteworthy item is “Return Cal’s pants!”

Similarly, I hoard written and verbal content constantly. I tore a page from one of my college legal pads that reads, in a list, “bastard food; misplaced football jerseys; acid dropping.” The Notebook feature on my phone offers this quote, squeezed between a flight confirmation code and a grocery list, with no context: “As soon as you’re sitting on a pokey thing, you’re like, damn, I’m sitting on a pokey thing.” And don’t even get me started on those little notebooks I used to carry everywhere from age 15, packed with funny-but-oft-nonsensical quotes from my closest friends, tales of strange adventures with acquaintances I no longer remember, and letters to ex-boyfriends. I once listed nearly 20 quotes from my college choir conductor in a LiveJournal post: “You need to get the L out.” “Make this violent word sound as sexy as possible.” “Sorry, taken over by an alien momentarily.”

The urge to document also manifests in photos.

The urge to document also manifests in photos.

The height of my recording craze was my senior year of college, when my amazing group of friends would essentially recreate a Cheers scene at our favorite local hangout three or more nights a week. We’d while away the hours commiserating about our jobs and classes, watching football games, playing cards and winning prizes in pub trivia. I must have filled four notebooks with inside jokes and stories borne from our nights there.

“I misread your mustache, sir.” (Courtesy of someone who judged my friend’s political views by his facial hair.)
“It crashed and burned, and then a dinosaur stepped on it. And then it killed a puppy.” (A friend describes her day.)
“They’re like the tacos of the feet.” (Your guess is as good as mine.)

Why the constant urge to chronicle every last funny, interesting and semi-brilliant thing? I guess I’m just a nostalgic person. In certain life situations for which a comprehensive record exists–like the trip to Eastern Europe in high school, or the night the power went out during my winter break reunion with youth choir friends–it’s likely I wrote everything down for nostalgia’s sake. Back then, I believed my future self would kick my present self for forgetting the Best Inside Jokes Ever.

I think the particular affinity for quoting my friends in our last days of college may have been a self-preservational instinct, a desperate attempt to log the here and now in some form or other–because I knew that less than a year later, I’d be in a strange new city trying to find a job and a new set of bar buddies.

When I ran out of notebooks...

When I ran out of notebooks…

Why do I still do it? Because my post-college years thus far have been predictably tumultuous and subject to change. My entire world has changed almost annually as I’ve moved to new apartments, started new relationships, said goodbye to old friends and awkwardly courted new ones. As much as I try to live in the moment the way older adults advise, I can’t help but look toward the future to an older me, contentedly flipping through five thousand notebooks of strange memories.

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Entrepreneurship

I’ve been thinking a lot about entrepreneurship recently–its inherent financial risks, the unique “type A” drive required for it, the amount of time and commitment involved. I’ve also been trying to figure out why the heck anyone would be idiotic enough to try his hand at entrepreneurship in these trying economic times.

I just read an article in The New York Times about the increasing number of twentysomethings who decided to create their own jobs rather than endure the grueling process of searching for a job as the country climbs out of the recession. I can’t believe what these young people, some my age or scarcely older, have accomplished. Twenty-six-year-old Lauren Berger founded Intern Queen, an internship database for motivated young people looking for experience–people not unlike herself. Josh Weinstein, 24, got a PayPal founder to back his social-networking site CollegeOnly. Two 22-year-olds started an online magazine for college women called HerCampus. They’re my age–and they’re turning a profit!

These are a few success stories among, as you might guess, many stories of failure. It’s always difficult and risky to start a business, especially when you’re young and broke. But right now, it’s even more difficult. So are these kids crazy…or are they onto something?

I’m a highly logical person and haven’t been known to take huge risks, but I’m starting to believe in recession-era entrepreneurship. It’s not just happening among young people; the number of startups founded in the last couple of years is much larger than the number of startups founded before the recession began–and there’s an explanation for the madness.

Say you’ve been working at a big company in Silicon Valley for a number of years. You’re happy for now, but you have vague thoughts of taking that idea you’ve been mulling in the back of your mind and making it into something on your own in the far-off future. Then, suddenly, your company’s earnings are way down and you’re laid off out of necessity. What now? All the other tech companies are doing the same thing, so finding another job with equal pay and benefits might not be a possibility. Suddenly, that vague idea you’d been mulling is at the forefront of your mind. You’ve got intelligent colleagues, also recently laid off, all around you. You’ve got some money. You don’t need a whole lot of office space, so rent won’t be too high–and neither will the cost of marketing, thanks to social networking and the access you have to big tech companies’ clouds.

Suddenly, you’ve got yourself a startup.

It’s called accidental entrepreneurship, or necessity entrepreneurship–when people take the gigantic step to become their own boss after they’ve exhausted all other options. With lots of spare time to think–you can only spend so many hours scouring CraigslistMonster and CareerBuilder, something I know all too well–the unemployed start to get creative, and big ideas often start to blossom into little companies.

As it turns out, founding startups in recessions isn’t unheard of–in fact it’s common. The Kauffman Foundation found last year that more than half the companies on 2009’s Fortune 500 list were founded during a recession or a downward market trend. Among the recession-born companies: Starbucks, Intuit, PetSmart.

How do we re-energize the economy? Maybe the startups that come from the big ideas people get during unemployment are the answer to that question. Maybe it’s startups that propel us up and out of economic woe.

If that’s the case, could the creative news ventures people are building now be the saving grace we need to get us out of this “newspapers are dying” funk? Interesting, promising things are happening in journalism despite continued financial hardship at traditional news organizations. One of my favorite ideas is Spot.us, where people can bid on investigative story pitches from journalists all over the country and can later read the stories that get enough financial backing. Voice of San Diego, a small news organization of former editors and investigative reporters founded in 2005, resulted from a frustration its founders felt in the San Diego Union-Tribune’s lack of hard-hitting local news coverage. In the last few years, it has been lauded for its excellent investigative reporting and original financial model.

Journalism, like this state’s government, needs to make some drastic changes, financially and logistically, if it wants to stay afloat. Let’s hope these creative new ventures, many started post-layoff, point journalism (and the economy!) in the right direction.