The Idea Soup of My Journal

Megan Norris Jones

When I sit down to work on my novel, or even this blog post, I want a keyboard (or at least a touchpad) and a screen. I’ve waxed eloquent elsewhere about the Scrivener writing app and its more portable versions for the iPad and iPhone. You know that I love me some digital words. I set my schedule on iCal, my to-dos on Wunderlist, and reach out to the world on Twitter (@mnj23). But I still can’t let go of my paper journal, and my writing benefits as a result.
There’s something irresistible about a good pen and a fresh notebook. I’ve just bought a new journal, and it has everything I want: unlined pages, a ribbon bookmark, an elastic strap to keep it closed, and another to hold my pen (a uni-ball gel 0.7 mm, though the Pilot G-2 10 mm is a close second). I’m trying a modified bullet journal technique to impose some kind of order, but the messiness of handwriting and unrelated notes on consecutive pages is actually one of the strengths of a physical journal.

The bullet journal is just the most recent version of the commonplace books of earlier eras where scholars copied out passages from influential texts alongside their own notes. The value of these techniques come from the way they jumble material from all parts of our lives into a single book. I might have notes from a sermon on one page facing an entry on my experience watching the eclipse, with notes for fixing a particularly pesky plot problem on the next page. Keeping all this information in a single volume allows my ideas to cross pollinate and produce new combinations and iterations that might never have existed, had my ideas been separated in different files. Steven Johnson refers to this mashup of ideas as “liquid networks” in his book, Where Good Ideas Come From and credits such intermingling as a source of those titular good ideas.

When it comes to physical notes versus digital, each have their advantages, and I use both, but research suggests that taking notes by hand instead of typing them on a laptop forces students to synthesize and condense ideas, thereby helping them retain more information. I might not even refer to my journal notes again, but the simple act of writing them more fully implants them in my mind, allowing new ideas to germinate and sprout.

So, when I open my lovely new journal and begin to write, a world of possibilities emerges on the page, one inky letter at a time, and each letter I write, each idea I seek out, each fact I note, will build a richer world for my characters to inhabit.

Do you use a physical journal for note taking, recording your thoughts, or working on your manuscript? What techniques are most useful for you?

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