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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Writer’s Block

I’ve always been quite an enthusiastic writer. From a very young age, I kept journals that I sometimes updated multiple times in a day. I wrote about everything: things I learned in school, classmates I liked and disliked, life in after-school daycare, friends’ deep dark secrets I promised never to reveal, and of course my own deep dark secrets–usually involving a crush on a boy.

My motivation to write back then was a desire to resolve issues in my mind. Once things had been written down in a semi-coherent manner, I felt I knew where I stood and could move past whatever lingering anger, sadness or confusion I felt. There were times when I felt extraordinary euphoria and found immense satisfaction in successfully translating the feeling into words.

Beyond childhood, there were ever more motivations to keep writing well–to get good grades, to get admitted into high-quality colleges, to win debates, to stand out in the job applicant pool. Even though I still found emotional clarity after writing down my personal thoughts, I wrote increasingly less for purposes of personal growth as I wrote increasingly more in the name of professional growth.

As a result, I started experiencing something I once thought I was immune to: writer’s block. In college, I spent hours staring at a blank Word document struggling to find the words to start my term papers, even after I’d done extensive research and found a good thesis. Writing each sentence was as difficult as pulling frozen taffy.

It didn’t help that Gmail, Facebook and myriad news sites were just a click away, and so I assumed the presence of campus-wide Wi-fi was to blame for the writer’s block. I found I was slightly more productive when I moved from the library to a cafe, where I found a pleasant buzzing of white noise rather than crushing silence; when I took short breaks about once an hour for coffee or a New York Times article; or when I was running on an extra-tight deadline and had no choice but to work without stopping.

Still, I’ve wondered for years why I, the person to whom others turn for help with writing and editing, experience these extensive mental blackouts when in childhood I could write unceasingly for hours.

Today, I realized the answer could be as simple as this: In childhood I wrote on paper; now, I write on a keyboard.

It sounds like an oversimplification, I know…but something crazy happened to me today at lunch. Before I left, I opened up a document full of scripts I’ve been writing for KING FM’s next on-air fund drive. I got out my yellow legal pad to consult the informal list of script ideas I’d made for myself, found where I’d left off, and started typing. No more than two sentences came out…in a half hour.

So I tried something else: when I left to grab a quick lunch, I took the legal pad and a pen with me, thinking a little lunchtime brainstorming couldn’t hurt. I ended up scribbling furiously with my pen as I scarfed a sandwich. Thoughts came to me two at a time and my hand nearly cramped up as it tried to get everything down. In about 20 minutes, I had written three full pages of scripts.

legalpad

For no good reason, I find it less inhibiting to write on paper than to write on a computer screen. It makes no sense, because when I write something down in pen, it’s there forever, and editing is messy. On a keyboard, the backspace bar is a no-fuss editor. So it must have something to do with the fact that I associate personal writing, which no one but me can judge, with paper and pen, while I associate professional writing, which many highly influential people have judged over the years, with computers and typing. The content is irrelevant; the medium is what alters my productivity. For all I know, I could have started my first-grade diary in Word and never gotten past Page One; similarly, I could have started writing my thesis in a spiral notebook and finished within a week.

This revelation has motivated me to try using good old pen and paper whenever I get into a staring contest with my computer monitor at work. It has also illustrated the importance personal writing once had on my personal well-being, and has offered a completely free and relatively easy stress-relieving method I’ve dismissed for years. I know I always say I want to write more, but this time I really mean write–not type.