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Report from the Workshop: 05/29/2022

This week’s reading:

  • Ada Palmer’s Too Like the Lightning (finished)
  • Philip K. Dick’s Time Out of Joint (finished)
  • Frances Yates’ Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition (in progress)
  • Philip K. Dick’s The Man Who Japed (in progress)

Reading up next:

  • Jennifer Price’s Flight Maps: Adventures with Nature in Modern America
  • ???? (Possibly something by Samuel R. Delaney)

For a while now I’ve been working on a post (I’m thinking of it as an “exhibit”) about my index card files and how I use them in my writing. I was talking with M about it last night, and she gave me some good ideas to make the system not only more useful, but also more interesting for others to look at and use. (She always gives me good ideas!)

I’ll save the bulk of my thoughts on index cards for the essay series after I’ve gotten it going. For now, suffice to say that I have a pretty elaborate (but really not all that complicated) note-taking and filing system. 2022 is also year six of keeping track of (almost) all my reading on index cards in a file box. It might seem odd to read this on a blog, but I find that I do the bulk of my better work with paper and pen/cil. These Reports are some of the only things I plan, compose, edit, and publish entirely digitally.

Without going into too much detail, I was explaining to M how the system works and my recent attempt at overhauling it. It started life as note cards for my first master’s thesis, but I’ve since worked on expanding it. Anyway, some of the cards were labeled with topics that didn’t really work with the system as an open and expandable project. They were too project-specific. So I used white-out tape to cover the old topics, then write new ones and refiled those cards. M suggested that I keep the “metadata” of the change on the back of the card, which I hadn’t thought of and now think is a great idea! (I’m also considering including more meta-data like date filed, etc. but that might make adding to the system too unwieldy.)

During our discussion I mentioned how the system has holes and ambiguities. I’ve had people tell me that Evernote, for example, does all the things I want my card catalogue to do, digitally, without the need to write stuff out by hand or take up space. I could have the entire catalogue I have a variety of reasons for preferring the analog method (which I’ll go into in the essays). For now, I just want to make some observations:

1. No filing system or note-taking system is perfect. Things will inevitably go missing, get misfiled, destroyed, or something else. That’s the world, baby. And failing to realize this makes actually putting together a filing system much, much easier. (I work in a university archive and can confirm this. Stuff gets misfiled once, not called for again potentially for decades, then no one can find the thing until someone happens upon it looking for something else. Either that or one part of a collection is filed in a different place from the rest of the collection, but the finding guide doesn’t say that. You know, that sort of stuff.) If you know this will happen regardless of how hard you work, it takes the pressure off to get everything perfectly correct every time. Good enough is, as is often the case, good enough.

2. The less work it takes to keep a note-taking system organized and running, a. the less likely it is to be useful, while b. the more bloated it will become.

To point 1: While I try to keep a central repository for quotations and another for ideas, sketches, and snippets, I know I don’t have a complete record. I can’t have a complete record. The napkin I wrote something down on got washed. I wrote the quotation down right, but forgot to write down the page number of the book. It was, obviously, a library book, and that book is now, equally obviously, not available. Guess I’ll need to file that in the “problem” section and find another quotation to support my argument. If I had it in my head that I needed to keep track of every single idea or every single quotation I marked, I’d not only never get them all organized, but never have the time to use them. While accuracy and thoroughness are necessary to make the system work, keeping in mind that I shouldn’t even try to make the system exhaustive or “complete” means that I actually end up using it. It also has the benefit of spurring continued work on the system, which brings me to point 2.

To point 2: I write out ideas, lines of description, and quotations on lines 3×5 inch notecards. I do this all by hand, typically using a ballpoint pen. (I mark passages in library books in pencil, obviously.) Then, I label them, alphabetize them, and file them. All manually. Typing might take less time, but the time (and effort) is part of the point. When I flip back through the book looking for my marks around useful passages, I have to keep in mind that I’m going to have to write out whatever I end up keeping by hand. Since I want to be able to use the notes later, they have to be neat, which requires care and time. I can only go so long before my hand gets tired and my handwriting starts suffering. Each card, then, already represents a decision: it costs time and effort (and a card and some ink) to make each card, and that means that I don’t copy down everything I mark. Just particularly useful or well-put lines that will fit on one side (sometimes a bit on the back) of one index card.

This doesn’t include the labeling, keeping track of topics on the backs of bibliography cards, filing, and refilling after using the cards. I’ve put physical effort into the system and it takes up physical space as a collection of discrete objects, meaning that using it feels much more “real” than reading highlighted text from a pdf. It also makes the cards easier to manipulate, and since the quotations are already the result of some level of discernment (whether they are worth the effort or not), I feel confident that I won’t be wading through repetition or stuff that doesn’t really matter. Plus rearranging index cards makes much more tactile sense to me. Plus, they never need to be charged.

That’s all for now. I’m working on getting into a regular posting schedule, at least over the semester. I’m anticipating the index card series to take me a fair bit to plan, draft, and prepare (including pictures!), but I’ll shoot for having part 1 up later this coming week.