Notes from Distracted Ground

I’m currently slogging my way through Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground. I could tell immediately that I picked this up too quickly after reading Joyce’s Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man. Reading classics where most of the action occurs in the narrator’s head can be exhausting. I took a break and started reading Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See. The writing is breathtaking, enviable in its sparse economy of words, while rich in detail. I’ve been thinking a lot about details.

canstockphoto13168215There are writers I know who are working on memoirs. They dig out boxes of old letters and journals, bits and pieces of their pasts, collected, magpie-like or haphazardly jumbled in boxes. I was listening to a David Sedaris audiobook, a collection of live readings. His storytelling is quick-witted and contains a wealth of detail – place names, offbeat brief exchanges, observations from years ago. He talked about taking notes, a habit of a lifetime.

I’ve read how other writers have reams of notes, little notebooks they’ve ferried everywhere – dreams recorded in the immediate aftermath, interesting snippets of dialogue captured for future use. I wrote journals up until my mid-twenties. They were solipsistic rambles. Shortly after moving to Minnesota, I shredded every last one of them. Here’s another one of those I-might-not-be-a-writer confessions. I don’t like keeping a journal anymore and a recent attempt at taking notes only revealed that I have misanthropic leanings fed by sensory irritation.

But I’m trying anything to up my writer quotient, so I started carrying a little notebook and pen with me yesterday. I took my mother-in-law to the dentist, and while waiting for her appointment to finish, I pulled the notebook out and prepared to write. I’ve sat in this waiting area many times, talking to the receptionists or silently lost in my own thoughts. What wasted time! I’m a writer, dammit. What follows is the great use I made of that time, furiously jotting notes:

Hygienist in conversation with receptionist, while flipping through glossy magazine.

“That movie Black or White is SO good. I just had to watch it again.”

Why the emphasis on SO? Why do people seem desperate to convert others to liking movies and books? Don’t they know how subjective art is?

“I would never be on The Bachelor. I just wouldn’t put myself out there like that.”

Was this ever a serious issue in your life? Have you been contacted by the producers? Why does anyone need to know that about you?

Oh for god’s sake, stop clicking your fingernails. Why does a dental hygienist have long fingernails? Do you know how many germs collect under fingernails?

Health magazine on the counter has a huge headline “Lose Every Bulge”. That’s weird. And not particularly healthy. Except if the bulge is like a tumor, some cancerous growth. Sure. Lose that.

Ah, hell, now she’s talking about the Kardashians. What is that smell? When did vanilla become the catchall fragrance for everything?

“I don’t do raisins.”

What?

Now they’re discussing about how she and the dentist split a muffin because the dentist thought it was raisin, but it was chocolate chip.

Just kill me now. I think I hate lady talk.

To clarify, I really am not fond of small talk, lady or otherwise. I would prefer the world be stoned, so we could go around having deep, philosophical conversations just in passing.

canstockphoto13853007What I imagine that could be like:

Man waiting to cross at corner light: If Rousseau is right and man’s natural state of goodness is the same as the natural goodness of animals, which is considered neither good nor bad, what animal would you be?

Me: Does it matter? If animals are neither good nor bad, than I would be picking an animal based on personal preference and not any question of philosophy. But I’d be a koala – they’re cute and vicious.canstockphoto18295591

What would really happen:

Man waiting to cross at corner light: Did it turn green yet? Did it turn green yet?

Me: Yes…uh, no. YES! Er…no. Do you hate me?

 

I joke about being misanthropic, but really it’s a combination of introversion and sensory overload. Sitting in that small waiting room, I could hear two conversations in the background, four smells – a combination of toothpaste, vanilla alcohol-based perfume, a carpet recently shampooed and a petroleum smell likely coming off two newly added chairs. I hear music being played in the chiropractic office next door. I hear the drip of the water cooler, its thermostat clicking on and off. I smell the dental polish and hear the whirring of the polisher. I notice that a potted plant is still languishing from the last time I was there. To add inane human conversation on top of all those layers, seems willful and my irritation rises to the surface quickly.

Living with me is occasionally difficult, as I often enter a room with “What’s that smell?” I’ve smelled electrical shorts and once, a natural gas leak out on the street (they came and replaced the line). I sometimes leave the house, just so the two other people I live with can make noise without me yelling “Can you knock that off?” I don’t think I have super spidey senses, but my brain has just decided to notice everything all at once. And I can thrill people by being able to identify every bird sound I hear. I don’t get invited to many outdoor barbeques.

I know that any skill can be learned and that it takes time to hit one’s stride, so I will continue to carry that little notebook until it becomes clear this is an entirely useless thing for me to do, or I learn to write more interesting things down.

 Do you keep journals or take notes? And what’s that smell?

32 Comments on “Notes from Distracted Ground

  1. I love David Sedaris. Saw him ‘live’ here a fee years back and he was fabulous. I’ve dabbled in keeping a journal, unsuccessfully I might add. The only time I carry a notebook around — and use it — is when I go to client meetings. Otherwise they just sit in my purse adding to its weight. What can I say??? Maybe I’ll try again …

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    • Sedaris is a wonderful storyteller – I heard him at a reading in Minneapolis. When I hear him tell coherent stories with clear details, I envy him the note-taking. I’m going to try it over the next month and see if I can occasionally catch a phrase or scene that might be useful. I think that’s the real trick – finding those nuggets of truth.

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  2. I would prefer the world be stoned, so we could go around having deep, philosophical conversations just in passing.

    The joy of the stoner is attaching cosmic importance to trivial things. In that sense, they provide an interesting insight into the readership of People Magazine, who, like you know, are born stoned.

    As for keeping a journal or writing in a notebook, it is good exercise to record your observations but if it gets too tedious, try taking the stoner’s way and frolic off on the path of fantasy by finding story in the detail. Every detail has story, some even of cosmic importance.

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    • With all the sensory things I notice, I wonder if I’m just better staying in the moment, taking everything in and then writing about it at the end of the day. It’s sort of like photography – if you’re constantly taking pictures, are you experiencing anything at the time?
      I’ll play around with taking notes and see if some slight adjustments will make it more meaningful. And your point about every detail has a story reminded me that some of what I do when I’m in lines or waiting rooms, is write a story in my head from some inane detail, so I believe that wholeheartedly.

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  3. According to a friend of mine who lives in Australia, Koalas smell terrible. So maybe not a good choice for you.

    I’ve always felt like a big flop as a writer because I DETEST journaling! I’ll write letters (although rarely) and blog posts (when I feel like it) and occasionally essays, snippets, poems written in the moment … but the discipline of keeping a journal has always eluded me. However, I carry a small notebook because when I’m working on a story or a book, my mind tends to keep ticking over all the time. It’s hugely valuable to be able to stop in the middle of a conversation, or pull over to the side of the freeway, or whatever, and scribble down the latest Burst Of Inspiration. (I’ve tried remembering them and it can’t be done.)

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    • Well, if I stunk, you wouldn’t feel compelled to talk to me about the Kardashians. Not that you, in particular would, but I do see an upside to being odiferously repulsive.

      I’m compulsive about trying new things, new approaches, so I think I’ll continue to experiment with the little notepad. I’ll let it go at some point, if nothing productive emerges.

      When it comes to working out little problems in my novel, I’ve forgotten more “Eureka” moments than I’ve remembered to write, but there is something about that I like. Not sure what. Seeing the endless possibilities maybe, so that no one idea becomes a grail of sorts.

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  4. I gave up keeping a journal because I bored the shit out of myself. They work for some people, they don’t work for others. One bit of writing advice I can give without feeling like a phony: Don’t think you have to follow some other writer’s pattern or turn yourself into someone you’re not in order to be a writer. The trick is to find out who you are and how you work best, then do that. Don’t like journals? Don’t keep one. You’ll use the time better doing something else.

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    • That’s the reason I got rid of those first twenty years – I was completely uninteresting in my scribblings.

      I am getting better about not seeing some other writer’s process as sacrosanct, but I do like hearing about it and maybe trying a few things here and there to see if they resonate. Plus I get to write blog posts about whatever latest quackery I try.

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      • I just finished scrapping thirty year’s scheduling diaries. I’m tackling the scribblings now. You are so right: how very uninteresting! when I’ll want to go into memory mode, the boxes of pics and albums should be more than enough to bring back madeleine-like whiffs of the past

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      • I love the idea of using the latest quackery as blog-post fodder. Every writing guru seems to think they have The Answer–and that it should work for every-damn-body.

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  5. Yes, I am that guy (of many guys, gals) who does the little notepad thing and ferrets it away in my closet, in a shoebox. I’ve done it for +20 years and don’t plan to stop, it works for me. I’m kind of losing my mind from an 850 page book I’m almost done with, called The German Genius. There’s a lot of ground to cover, a lot of which gets obscured by Hitler, that’s part-inspirational and part tiring…but that’s life innit? It should leave you tired at the end.

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    • You are part of a long tradition of writer/ note keepers and one of the people that made me think about it. The tales you tell in your blog have details that weave rich stories. I admire and occasionally envy that. I’m feeling very much the exploratory writer at this point, never comfortable to stay at rest, but that’s a pleasure to me – to try different things and see what works.
      Sometimes I like a more relaxing read, in between all the challenges.

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  6. Tried a journal but am not very organized. I do try and write down ideas when they come to me, or I will forget. Problem is too often no paper/pen available when the great idea hits…Koalas sleep most of the day, so after eating those eucalyptus leaves, does not leave much time time for anything before nap time again!

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    • I find my best ideas come right before I fall asleep or when I’m just waking up. And poof! They’re gone. Maybe that makes me less determined to keep notes – I lose good ideas on a regular basis.
      Some days, sleeping the majority of the time sounds lovely. Never happens, but I can dream!

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  7. You so succinctly described my brain. It keeps track of everything and focuses on very little. It takes Olympic strength for me to focus on ONE thing because all the little details of life bleed through without my notice – and before long my mind is on something else entirely.
    I was prescribed Wellbutrin several years ago during a bad time in my life and after taking it for two weeks I noticed a decided lack of “noise” in my head. It was unsettling. I was actually writing in my journal and noticed that whatever I was thinking about was the ONLY thing I was thinking about at that moment. I actually got up and went to my husband and said, “The voices in my head are so quiet right now!” 😀 Several months later I went off the antidepressant and within two weeks all the noise returned.

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    • I can force myself to focus at times, but usually not in public spaces or when my family is home. It makes me feel like a bit of a dilettante writer, but perhaps, too, all those sensory observations help my writing. Who knows?
      This is the double-edged sword of psychotropic drugs. A lot of people complain about the dullness as a side effect, but if your brain experiences constant and overwhelming sensory overload, when would it ever rest? I imagine, in this world full of distractions, that there are times when we could all do for a rest.

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  8. I put notes and ideas occasionally on my phone that grow up to be blogs. Good luck with the experiment.

    I wish I could dull my annoying sensory perception and repurpose it back into better hearing when someone is mumbling.

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    • I suspect that if I learned to take a few notes here and there, I might come up with better ideas than I do, but I loathe typing on my phone. For whatever reason, I was born with non-text capable thumbs.

      When it comes to sensory perception, there are times when I’m excessively grateful. While at soccer practice last night, I spotted a bald eagle, a Northern Harrier and a mallard with 8 little ducklings, simply because I heard them – those are the times when it seems a bit of a gift.

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  9. I kept a notebook until a redhead I fancied said ‘look at you and your weird little pad … “. I was fifteen. I have since relied upon misanthropic leanings and sensory overloads. Although I have been known to whisper a list of vitriolic self-criticisms while picking my spots in the mirror. I suppose that is a form journalistic remembering.

    Look. Are you a reporter covering yourself? Or is what you do something more spontaneous and connected to the NOW. I suspect the latter. It’s why we get on. Use the notebook to balance jittery tables in pubs. x

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    • “Are you a reporter covering yourself?” That’s a great question, apropos of the times we live in with all the selfies and blogging, etc. I suppose, too, it depends on what kind of writing you want to do. While I write personal essays here, I’m not particularly interested in memoir as a genre.

      I tend to be a bit of a bridge burner when it comes to the past. Learned my lesson and I’d rather not look back and cringe, while reading boozy proclamations in a journal about how I’ll never do that again. Only to be reminded 10 pages later that I did. Perhaps it is a way of not giving more fuel to the self-criticism I already wield with alacrity.

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  10. Gawd! That notebook is priceless! I loved every inane tidbit and your snarky (i.e. accurate) reaction. Several “barking out loud” moments were enjoyed by my cats here.

    I journal almost every day. Dross, whines, brain-algae. Sometimes a choice morsel surfaces. That’s why I do it (that and to lasso some sanity). I also keep one of those little spiral-topped notepads in my purse, mostly for when I’m waiting at a theater for the movie to start. My best ideas come then, weirdly enough, so I’ve learned to be prepared.

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    • For whatever reason, Sandy, I missed this comment on the first go-around. Sorry! I haven’t yet pinned down when my best ideas come or maybe all my ideas are mediocre. Either way, I have not, in the last couple of weeks, successfully taken notes. It seems that I need to be working on something in order to access any information. And I worry that as I age, that method will fail more and more, but I’m feeling a tad morose. Still – just one more approach to check off my list…

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      • It’s all an experiment.
        As a mixed-media artist I kept hearing/reading/seeing all the glories to be found in the art journal. I tried it for a bit, but never enjoyed it. I kept thinking I was missing out on something *important*. Nah. We all have our ways IN.

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  11. I carry a notebook around in my handbag all the time but only jot notes down when, like you, I am in a public place waiting for someone to arrive. (I am a habitual early arrival type of person). I find listening in on other people’s conversations fascinating. I confess to having used some good one-liners in more than one of my novels:)

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    • I likely need to hear more conversations that don’t involve pop culture before giving up on this!
      I arrive early everywhere as well, so I’ll keep my notebook along to see if I can get better at catching something useful.

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  12. Your hypersensitivity is like Asperger’s on speed. Amazing you can manage children, and very impressive. I have great trouble with multi-input environments, and I’m way up the spectrum and nowhere near as sensitive or aware as you to all that’s happening around me.

    I…want to resent that you used a sexist phrase like “lady talk”, but…I hate lady talk, too. It’s why I don’t have lady friends. The very few women friends I have rarely talk lady talk, thank goodness.

    I hate guy talk, too. The very few man friends I have rarely talk guy talk: No pointless sports stats, no talk about toys (cars, guns, boats, whatever).

    I like talk that’s about something. It doesn’t have to be a deep something. But it’s nice when it leads to something else, and then another something else, and ideas form, isn’t it?

    Regarding your little book, try coloring its cover red. You may find you are inspired to conform in your thinking.
    😉

    (I’m reading posts backward, so I know your little red book, or book of any color, is on hiatus right now.)
    😉

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    • If I can sit back and just be a sponge, I can usually control my urge to run away and hide. If I expect anything more of my brain under an onslaught of senses, I do tend to get a bit edgy.

      Our household is a relatively calm one, so parenting one child seems manageable. When I’ve volunteered in a classroom, I feel like I need to nap for the rest of the day.

      I knew right away that “lady talk” was sexist, but it does engender (ha) a specific kind of conversation involving celebrities, shoes and/or any discussions of weight. I lose patience with small talk, as well as people who like the sound of their own voice, regardless of gender. Plus, it’s possible I am a complete jerk. That really should bother me more than it does.

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  13. I enjoyed this article very much, and the comments attached to it. I’ve not been a note-taker during most of my life, but I suspect I’d have a clearer picture of things if I were.

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    • I wonder if I would, too. I just got back from vacation, where I did manage to take a few notes. Now they are completely indecipherable to me. Ah, well. Thanks for taking the time to read and comment!

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  14. I really enjoyed this blog post. I completely get your aversion to lady-talk and had a good laugh at the notes you made in the waiting room! I’ve also tried keeping journals, and have managed to do so consistently and irregularly… if that makes sense! I wonder if you’ve heard of research done by Elaine Aron on HSPs? It sounds like you could be one: http://hsperson.com/test/highly-sensitive-test/

    Of course, you don’t need a scientist to tell you you’re highly sensitive, but there is some interesting research done here that could be worth reading!

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    • I’ve read a couple of books by Elaine Aron and came away with some perspective. One of the things I’ve realized over the years is that I often compensate for my sensitivity by being more brusque or introverted. It was something to think about when interacting with others, realizing that they, too, may not be as they appear.

      I’ve finally given up on notes. I’m too inconsistent for it to be worth the effort. It ends up feeling like another “to do” on the list. I know for a lot of people it is useful.

      Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment!

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