There is an art of taking notes. Simply Write Everything Down.
It is not the best secret, but it is mine. How will I know what I want to remember later? And so I have been known to scribble down entire lectures by favorite professors, quotes from Oprah, and intros to music on public radio. (I had forgotten all about Santana, hadn’t you?) I am your go-to person if you want to know what Professor X said in 1980 about eye disease in Aristophanes’ comedies. (He was making a joke about the prevalence of eye infections and myopia in Greek comedy, but then decided it would make a good article. Did he ever write it?) Kelsey Grammer told Oprah how much he loved Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath during one of her book club sessions. Alas, I fear I’ve thrown out the notes about the reunion of Oprah and Jonathan Franzen.
When I worked as a freelance writer, I interviewed chefs, fly fishermen, and dancers. If you’re an outline person and you’re interviewing someone fascinating, you won’t go far. Try writing A, a1, a2, B, b1 when you’re trying to understand the mad art of fly tying. I had to explain I couldn’t thread a needle or I’d still be sitting on that stool trying to figure out how to use a bobbin.
You’ll want to catch every word when the poet James Dickey is bored on a book tour. He’s trying to draw you out because he’s already given this interview to ten other reporters, and you’re trying to talk about his 683-page experimental novel, Alnilam, which you have not finished because the editor gave it to you yesterday. (You can read my interview with Dickey here.) When he focuses on the book, you want to record every word. I wouldn’t have wanted to miss the following gems:
One of the things I wanted most to do with this book is to restore the true sense of flight. I just came up here on an airline, but being on an airline is like being in a hotel at 35,000 feet. Man has been capable of true flight for less than 100 years, and these frail little trainers (planes) that these boys are in give the body the true sense of being caged in the air.
Do I take notes now? Yes, eclectically. It’s a pity I don’t take notes on my reading, because it would make blogging easier. But blogging is fun! That is my motto. I’m not going to take notes for fun.
Still, I do take notes eclectically in my many notebooks. See this adorable leather and silk diary I bought at Things and Things and Things in Iowa City when I was 20? I scribbled down quotes from Anna Karenina. I felt a great affection for Levin, a landowner who is devastated when Kitty rejects his proposal.
“Yes, there is certainly something objectionable and repellant about me,” thought Levin after leaving the Shcherbatskys, as he walked toward his brother’s lodgings. “I do not get on with other people. They say it is pride! If I had any pride, I should not have put myself into this position.”
I put aside a Brazilian modernist novel, Jorge Amado’s Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon, when I flew to London last fall. When I returned, I had to make a long list of characters because I couldn’t keep their names straight. Why is everybody called Colonel, I wondered.. (It’s a courtesy title: corrupt landowners, politicians, and other rich thugs are neither military nor quite respectable. A stunning novel, but hard to write about it when you’re on the four-months-between-start-and-finish plan.
When I traveled to London last fall, I took two notebooks: one for lists and one for a diary. Loved the trip, but there were some hitches coming back. Naturally I wrote it up at the Chicago airport (in colored pens from Paperchase).
A horrid trip back. It went smoothly, but in Chicago I was patted down because I moved during the complete body scan.
Such humiliation. Shoes already off. Coat and bag in bin. It was too much after all the standing in line, nothing clearly marked, no ropes to mark off lanes… I have to say they’re more organized in London.
And so there they are! Notes and notebooks, for all the good they’ll do me. But they give me a sense of accomplishment.
Do you have a note-taking system? Hundreds of notebooks? Special lucky pens? Comments are open for this post!