Several days ago, a friend and I went to a local farm to pick blueberries. In the field, it occurred to me that this would make a terrific blog post, because there were similarities between blueberry picking and the writing process. I took some photos, and I even asked my friend to take photos of me picking. As I filled my container, I looked for ways I could link writing and blueberry picking. It was going to be brilliant, the kind of post that would inspire writers for years to come.
Except when I got home, I had to rearrange the contents of the refrigerator in order to find room for the berries. Then I began to check email and social media to ensure nothing had exploded during my half-day off. More things happened—maybe the phone rang, maybe somebody texted, maybe the cats wanted snacks—and then it was bedtime and I hadn’t so much as made a note, which meant that all the brilliant ideas I’d had in the blueberry field had dribbled out of my brain. I’d write that post now, but I can’t remember even one of the insights I had while picking blueberries.
Most of the time, I carry a small blank book and a pen precisely so I don’t forget events, incidents, and observations, especially those I may want to write about. I bought the book at Tanglewood three years ago when I realized to my horror that I had brought no notebook, no pad, nothing to write on. It cost more than a little blank book should, but it was worth the tiny splurge. Having a notebook when I’m alone at a place like Tanglewood gives me a place to record the kind of thoughts I’d tell my companion if I’d brought one. I’m firmly against talking during a concert, but this time, I found myself “talking” to the book, making notes about what I was hearing and the thoughts the music inspired.
Now, I use my Tanglewood book primarily to make notes after I meet a cat I’ll be writing about, because sometimes several days pass before I actually write the bio, and by that time, it can be hard to remember what made a particular cat notable. Of course, it’s also perfect for concert notes and other types of notes, because it’s small enough to fit in my pocket or purse.
Alas, I didn’t take my Tanglewood book when I went blueberry picking, nor did I make notes promptly upon coming home. As a result, all I remember now is that I had some good ideas. I have no clue what they were.
Anne Lamott is famous for her index cards. In her classic book on writing, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, she talks about how she always carries index cards and a pen so that if she sees or hears something that could be useful, she can jot down a few words to remind herself. Even if she doesn’t look at the card again, the act of writing impresses the moment into her memory.
I stick with my little Tanglewood book for the simple reason that I’m likely to lose index cards. I agree with Anne Lamott that writing something increases the likelihood that I’ll remember even without consulting the page, but for me, it’s not a guarantee. I’m lucky if I can remember which notebook I used, which is why I have dozens of partially-filled notebooks scattered around my house. It’s also why I stick with the little Tanglewood book for the cats—because that way, I won’t have to add “remember that you used the little red spiral notebook, not the mid-sized blue one” to the list of things I can’t remember without writing them down.
Some writers claim they don’t need to write things down until it’s time to create The Work. Good for them, I say. If I had that kind of memory, I’d brag about it. I don’t think I had that memory even in my youth, but I don’t remember. What I do know is that I definitely do not have it now, in my non-youth. As I recently told a friend, one reason I’m frequently up until 3:00 a.m. is that I literally forget to go to bed until 2:00 because I’m caught up in something, whether I’m writing or reading or binge-watching the latest incarnation of Queer Eye: More Than a Makeover, which may be the ultimate in feel-good television because these guys are all about empowering the people they’re helping.
Other people claim that if you forget something, it wasn’t worth remembering. If you’re one of those people, you’re entitled to your opinion, but I couldn’t disagree harder. The blueberry concept is just my most recent example of something that would have been worth writing except that I didn’t make notes at the time, and now all I remember is that I once had an idea. Maybe if I went back to that field, I could trigger the memory again, but I still have three pounds of blueberries in my refrigerator and I really don’t need more.
In Saving Our Lives: Essays to Inspire the Writer in YOU, D. Margaret Hoffman recounts her transition from writing down everything to jotting just a few notes as reminders. For her, this revelation came from on a trip to Palermo, when she realized that in her attempt to capture everything, she was missing much more. So she shifted to making skeletal notes, just enough to remind her what she’d observed and experienced so that if she wanted to write about her travels when she got home, she’d remember the details of those experiences. Personally, I think this is a brilliant system: I still remember coming home from my first trip to England and trying to fill in my journal with fading recollections of events from a week earlier. I’d have done much better to make a few notes multiple times a day, maybe in a little blank book I could stick in my pocket while walking through Stratford-on-Avon.
This is not to say that writing is the only way to record a moment. Several months before covid shut down the world, I began taking voice lessons for the first time in decades. My teacher, a courtly gentleman of my parents’ generation, recommended that I record the lessons. For the first and only time in my life, I used the voice memo feature on my phone, which isn’t to suggest that I didn’t also mark up my music, because I always mark up my music. I need all the help I can get. Notations remind me that there’s only a half-step, not a whole step, between two notes, or they’re all even rather than syncopated, or to be sure to cut off on the fourth beat because if I hang over, my note will clash with the next chord.
Now that practically everyone has a camera on a cellphone, recording events is a snap—so long as we remember what we’re taking pictures of. One beautiful sunset at the beach looks pretty much like another. How many of us from a certain era recall getting our printed photos back from the lab, exclaiming over them, and putting them in a drawer without so much of a notation? Then, years later, we’d pull the photos out and puzzle over where they were taken and what we were doing, and who are those people, anyway? We were so certain we’d remember. If we’d made notes on the back (“May, 2004—Mimi and me at the night market in Chiang Mai”), we’d know.
If you’re one of those perfect-memory people, feel free to ignore everything I’ve just said. If, however, you live a life full of distractions and interruptions, you may just find it useful to work out a tiny little system—nothing burdensome or requiring tons of equipment—so that when you’re out in the world and you see or hear something interesting that sparks a response in you, you can jot down a few words to trigger that memory later, when you have time to explore all its possibilities.