Turning eleven years of notebooks into a second brain

“A good idea is not of any use if you can’t find it.” – Logan Heftel, (via Austin Kleon)

That’s such a good quote. I’ve taken a leaf out of Austin Kleon’s book (recommended), and stolen it to head this post about finding ideas you’ve already had.

It’s the same quote that Kleon uses to lead his post on ‘Indexing, filing systems, and the art of finding what you have‘ It seems we’ve both got a similar problem; I have a box of notebooks on top of my wardrobe. Eleven years of scribbling and journaling and note taking. Austin Kleon’s got a similar crate, but with about twice as many notebooks for a much shorter period. I’d say ‘poor guy’, but honestly, I can’t imagine he’s that cut up about having such a gold claim, even if he does have to sift it all for nuggets.

Kleon goes on to write about the systems that others have used to corral their unruly ideas, with several great examples from comedians.

Earlier in May, Cory Doctorow wrote an article dealing with the same ideas, from a different perspective. Doctorow has been blogging daily, as well as keeping his notes digitally since before I was born, and it’s created a second brain, generating new ideas through connections. The second brain idea is having a bit of a moment, with the advent of software like Obsidian and Roam Research, and the popularisation of the Zettlekasten method and books like Sonke Ahren’s How to Take Smart Notes, but Doctorow provides some great examples of digital second brains that have been around for years in the form of blogs. Nothing new under the sun etc etc.

What struck me about these two posts was their similarities, even though they were approaching from totally different directions. Kleon’s got a stack of stuff that needs to be in a more accessible format ASAP, as well as his own blog, another mine of material. Doctorow’s ‘outboard brain’/Memex has been digital and searchable for years.

Both note that their material leads to the creation of new work easily, allowing them to produce talks, articles and books from material that seems to appear spontaneously.

Both also suggest the need to go back and the need for a system to back and find what you’ve got. This, is where I got the idea to get eleven years of notebooks into digital form, with hopefully, a minimum amount of fuss.

“For more than a decade,” writes Doctorow, “I’ve revisited “this day in history” from my own blogging archive, looking back one year, five years, ten years (and then, eventually, 15 years and 20 years). Every day, I roll back my blog archives to this day in years gone past, pull out the most interesting headlines and publish a quick blog post linking back to them. This structured, daily work of looking back on where I’ve been is more valuable to helping me think about where I’m going than I can say.”

This intrigued me, and seemed like a plausible way to both a) review the ideas that I’ve already had to see whether they’re worth anything, and b) digitise the stuff that really mattered and make it searchable, and linkable to other ideas.

I decided that going through it, one day at a time, would do the trick. It might not be the quickest way of doing it, or efficient, but it’s fun. Little and often. Plus I’m certain there’s nothing in those notebooks that I need to return to urgently. For the most part, my memory is so craptastic that I can’t actually remember what’s in most of them.

Step one was to make an index of dates – ’12 Mar 20 to 31 Dec 20′ is in Vol 12, that sort of thing. A simple step (I thought) that would allow me to simply look up the dates that I wanted. I could check which volume had ’14 June’ for the relevant years, then simply grab that journal and flip through it to the right date.

This worked for great but hit a snag in the early years of my diary keeping. Between ’09 and ’17 multiple periods are covered by multiple notebooks. Why is it like this? I wish I could tell you. I’d like to say ‘it probably made sense at the time’, but I can’t even guarantee that. All I can say is, that the worst of this occurs very early on, and for the most part, the writing in there is either particularly juvenile or just not relevant. That, and I wasn’t a particularly diligent diarist until the last few years; lots of the dates just don’t have anything written for them. I take solace in the fact that Doctorow says “My private notebooks are unreadable, disorganized messes, written with such appalling penmanship that it’s sometimes hard to be sure that they’re even written in English.” So, it’s not just me then?

Step 2 was to create an Obsidian page for a specific day i.e. 14 June, and then list in it, all the years that were covered by the notebooks. For each year, it was just a case of using the index to find the notebook that held 14 June 2020… 2019… 2018, etc, and seeing what was in there. I’ve been dividing what I’ve found as follows:

  1. Logs or to do lists. What was I doing that day. These are purely sentimental reminders of what I was up to, like a calendar.
  2. Thoughts on books I was reading or particularly interesting musings. On 14 June 2017, I made some notes about reading The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, for instance. I typed this into Obsidian, because the notes were interesting and related to current thoughts I’ve been having about writing. I linked those notes to the 14 June page.
  3. A short little note about any other writing I did that day. For instance, also on 14 June ’17, I did some free writing. Not at all relevant or interesting now, but possibly useful in the future. I made a little note of that on the 14 June page; roughly what was in it, tagged it, and wrote down which book it was in and the page numbers. That way, I can find it using the tags if I need to in future, and can find it in the notebooks if it’s relevant to explore it again. I did the same for 14 June ’16 – I made some notes on Welsh learning. They aren’t relevant to my life now, but I would dearly love to have another crack at learning Welsh, and it’ll be so much easier to find them now.

It’s quite a big project – in theory it’ll take me exactly a year, if I do it every single day. I’m not great at making massive commitments, like that, if I’m honest, but we’ll see how it goes, and I’ll honestly report back if I fuck it up entirely. Wish me luck.

As for the rest of the articles, they really are both worth a read, especially if you’re a fan of either. What Doctorow says about finding people with similar interests by publishing your own chimes well with the bits in Show Your Work about finding a Scenius, and making a good domain name for yourself.

Much love from this day five years ago.

P.s. The blog had its ninth anniversary a couple of days ago. Posting has been sporadic over the years, but Happy Blogiversary to me!

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