Shifting Mediums

Of all the artists, we writers are uniquely beset with the chore of dealing with the piles of stuff we produce, and making sure it doesn’t get lost in some tornadoing swirl of trash papers, dog eared towers, or misnamed folders, never to be seen again.

This is not to disparage my friends who are visual artists, they too have vast quantities of stuff, paints, easels, those funny little wooden figures with articulated joints, but their problems are different. A thirteen foot canvas is not likely to just up and disappear overnight, while a 10,000 word story can fall into some crevasse of a hard drive and go missing for years.

I’m also not speaking ill of my friends the performing artists, who’s work is basically geographical. Their biggest organizational issue is making sure they show up at the right place, at the right time, on the right day, hopefully without forgetting their Strad, or Gibson in the cab on the way to the hall.

But we writers, our burden is the crap load of words we have to wrangle. Even if you only do the Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird 300 words a day minimum quota (or the 3,500 I seem to average) a writer can easily develop a whole attic of text, mounds of little stories, herds of ideas, notes, quips and quotes from observation or reading, and it’s easy for stuff to slip off on the wind, which is a shame because that cloud of pages heading over the hill has good stuff in it.

Ah, the trade offs of the different vocations…

When I flip through the files in my writing folders I invariably trip over a little gem, something I forgot, something valualble. The other day I found a wonderful description of a feeble old man stumbling off down a hall, he was fragile and vulnerable like he was made of spun candy, along the way he had to stop and remember where he was going. He was a perfect model for a director in my book.

The natural question is how to keep something like that from being lost, or never recorded, or worse, becoming forgotten altogether, because I, like the little old man on the way to his board meeting, sometimes need help remembering what I was just doing. It depends on what medium you are using, paper or PC.

For the longest time I took most of my notes by hand. I wrote in journals and then on 3×5 cards. I was scribbling a lot, and everywhere. During school I wrote non-class ideas on the back pages of notebooks. What I ended up with was a lot of static hand written notes, completely unusable for constructing a text of any heft without lots and lots of transcribing.

Over time, some of these notes were lost, some became unreadable. In the end all them had to be transcribed into an electronic medium because I wanted to use them in my work and I had decided that electronic was the way to go. I’d have no more of that paper and pen stuff that Tolstoy, Joyce or Twain used. I was a modern man, we use PCs, me and Umberto Eco, who once had to defend himself from hysterical charges that his computer did his writing for him. With electronic notes I could sort, find, combine, synthesize, and hopefully never loose my writings as they accumulated to some grand work.

This raised its own problems, of course – all solutions invariably raise their own problems – mainly of data entry. This was not an issue for the old notes – they succumbed to the brute force of a scheduled work period applied against a fixed reserve of inventory; a couple of pages a day and they dissolved into bits and bytes over a summer and a fall. The problem was with contemporary ones, the new stuff that gets generate everyday.

Getting info into an electronic system is, still, not easy, not if you have any social sensibility about you at all. Keyboards and laptops are noisy and imposing and opening one is not unlike setting up an imperial stormtrooper supply station in the middle of your friend’s rebel base; all that white plastic and light, the occasional whirring and a beep or two, it gets people nervous.

I wasn’t a bit surprised to learn that TED doesn’t allow laptops at their lectures (“Al Gore! Put that Macbook away. That’s a good boy…”) I understand the intrusiveness of the current state of our hardware. Even if you use your blackberry or iPhone to type notes, everyone thinks you’re texting some other person you’d rather be with right now. The rudeness is implied, even if unjustified. We just don’t grock the technology yet.

And at the end of the day computer notes on the fly are very restrictive. The best you get is linear text. In an electronic system drawing, connections with squiggly lines, doodles or screwy letters for emphasis and nuance, like over writing a ‘W’ twenty time to signify the importance of ‘W’ riting, in other words lots of ways for creative expression, is lost.

What to do? It seems it’s either paper of PC, there really isn’t a third system. Yea, some wackos use voice recordings but that’s just a combination of the worst aspects of both paper and PC with expediency as its only virtue, and narcissism its main vice.

Another alternative was proposed by one of my writing buddies who works days (or nights as it is) on Broadway and did two shows with Mel Brooks. “Fascinating guy,” he said. “He writes nothing down. He finds you and tells you things and expects you to remember.” I reminded him that we all aspire to the time when we are important enough to have people walk around behind us to pick up our every word, like personal thought valets. So like recordings, I rejected this alternative as impractical at least for a while.

The answer I’ve come up with is to split the difference. I use a notebook to catch ideas when I’m out and about, and sometimes when I just want to draw a squiggly line, but I assiduously transcribe these notes into an electronic system every day, and that’s where they live out their eternity.

It actually works very well. I have a nonintrusive tool that doesn’t scare people into mumbling silence when I activate it, and that weighs a lot less than a dumbbell, so I’m not nursing spinal disk displacements when I get home. I can do little drawings if I want, and since I promise myself transcription and expansion when I get to my desk, I don’t think of the notebook as a permanent record. All my information is trapped in a highly redundant back up system, that (yes I am a geek) includes offsite and cloud storage systems. It will certainly outlast me.

This is a long way of introducing a set of articles I’ll be posting about how I make the electric portion of this system work, now that I’ve described how I got here. After a few (okay, many) failures I think I have a system that is as future proof and functional as current technology will allow. That’s because it doesn’t uses any of the popular applications available for managing structureless data.

There’s been quite a debate brewing out there in cyberspace about the use of everything buckets for managing notes, documents and archives like this. Evernote, DEVONThink, OneNote, EagleFiler, MacJournal, Circus Ponies, Journler and their ilk are all applications trying to get you to put all your stuff in them, and since they are as seductive as a little black dress, I’ve tried them all. None of them are long haul tools, and writers, either academics or artists, need long haul tools.

While the electronic part of the system that replaces these applications is a bit complicated, the paper part is remarkably simple. Now that I rely on the electronic part for sorting, chronology, and topical searching the only thing that needs to be done on the paper end is, well, think. That, and add an open box [ ] next to each item that gets check off when it’s dumped into the electronic system.

That’s all, no fancy indexes, or cross references, no solutions to the intractable problems of liner chronology vs topical relationship that has vexed every intellectual since bound notebooks were widely available in the eighteenth-century. Just a check box.

Next, I’ll be back with how I manage what gets checked off and put in my info base.


More on file systems, archiving and note taking from Dougist…

Dating DEVONThink

Writing Tools – Journler

The Low Fi Manifesto – Data Architecture, and Journler


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One Comment

  1. Super Skinner
    Posted June 7, 09 at 7:49 am | Permalink

    Innneresting…..Looking forward to the next installments, Dougie. I do have a question about how your organize “snippets” “ideas” etc. that you want to capture digitally, but may not fit in the context of a longer piece, a “project”. Whatsa your system, eh? I suspect there is a lot to be revealed ahead…. Signed, yer fan SS

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