The Jotting Imperative (or The Zen of Notes)

by Matthew A Bennett

And then, one Thursday, nearly two thousand years after one man had been nailed to a tree for saying how great it would be to be nice to people for a change, a girl sitting on her own in a small café in Rickmansworth suddenly realized what it was that had been going wrong all this time, and she finally knew how the world could be made a good and happy place. This time it was right, it would work, and no one would have to get nailed to anything. Sadly, however, before she could get to a phone to tell anyone about it, a terrible, stupid catastrophe occurred, and the idea was lost for ever.

This is not her story.

-The introduction to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams


If you have ever had an amazing thought and said to yourself, “Wow, that should be my next Facebook or Twitter status,” you should have a handy way ready to jot that down. Immediately. I believe that every human walking this earth has insights, probably daily, that are profound and should be somehow shared with the world. I also believe that so many of these thoughts are lost in the shuffle of life. Don’t live under the mistaken impression that because it was profound, or important, or even just really cool or interesting, that you are going to remember.

Insightful Thinking

I have a hypothesis that  just the opposite is true. The thought patterns that it takes to reach a profound insight or conclusion usually come in a string, or a series of thought. There is calculation involved, so recording a theory just as you grasp it is very important. The uncomplicated thoughts like “we are out of milk” can come and go, but if you forget these thoughts there is generally only a small consequence. But complicated theories such as “if I do A, then B happens, which makes me want to C, and then I feel like D. So I have to avoid A at all costs so that I never feel like D” will come and go so quickly that you may not even remember you had an insight into the problem at all. As soon as real life hits you, they are gone.

These are the things that I want to know about you. These are the things that need to be put into the stratosphere of information that others can have access to. And even if you keep these things private, you should keep them for you. But these are also the things that run in door, say hello, grab a beer, and leave forever if you don’t invite them to stay for a while. Inviting them to stay, in this case, means writing them down.

The good news about writing down your thoughts is that you don’t really need too much of a mental boost in order to remember your thought, which means, a tiny little bit of writing will go a long way. For instance, in my A through D example above, you might just write down “A —->B —->C——->D, so don’t A.” This is all it will take for you to remember. If you are a writer, you may want to elaborate more on it later. If you just want to remind yourself not to do A anymore, then you are set, with that one little note.

Some more good news is that all of this works with memories, too.


The practice of writing down your thoughts comes in handy in so many ways. It doesn’t just work for complex thought. It is a great way to record your memories, and all it takes once again is a few words to recall the mental pictures, sounds, smells, emotions, and events surrounding the memory.

I have a note from a couple of years ago, while I was visiting my parents. My father is a mechanic, and he was in the garage fixing a customer’s lawn mower. He came inside the house with his finger cut almost halfway through. He has been a mechanic for nearly fifty years, so cut fingers are nothing new to him. However, when your finger is half off and blood is pouring forth, you would tend to think of yourself as currently “not OK”, and so it was with my father. I was standing at the kitchen table, and my mother was on the phone at the time. She has been a nurse for most of her life, not to mention the wife of a mechanic for most of her life, so this is, to her, just another little incident. She remained on the phone, while my father paced back in forth in a worried way at first, and then a panicked way. They were getting more annoyed with each other every second this went on, my mom because her phone call was being interrupted, and my dad because she was ignoring what was obviously his imminent death.

As I stood there surveying the scene, I thought to myself that this was really funny stuff that I could use in some future blog post, or some future comedy act, or whatever. I felt as if this needed recording. So I pulled out pen and paper, and wrote three words. “My father’s finger.” Those three words are all I need to recall this entire scene. I may lose some of the finer details, but the important stuff is all there in my head when I read this note.

Larger Works

Janelle is working on her doctorate, and as she reads all of her books she has some pretty profound thoughts. I try to encourage her to write about each thought as they come to her. Luckily for her (maybe?) she has me, and I can’t stand to let a thought a good thought get old before it’s written down. SInce you don’t have me, you may have to write this stuff down yourself.

If you are working on a large project, or want to write a book in the future, it is much easier if you start logging your thoughts now. It becomes an arduous task to try to write a book if every bit of your research is taking place during your writing. It is difficult to become inspired, and it is difficult to get things done if you are just plinking along a little bit at time. However, if you have a plan to write a book, or a dissertation, or anything in kind in the future, and you start compiling a database of this information now, you will be able to search through your thoughts. Sure, some won’t work out, but they may fit into a second or third book, so it was worth jotting it down.

If you write down every thought that you have that even remotely relates to a project, you can then store it and forget about it. Remember, your writing at this point doesn’t  have to be wonderful or beautiful, or even good, as long as the thought is projected in a way that you will remember. All of this can be worked out later, compiled in the future where you can take the time to turn it into something beautiful. For now, the important thing is the sloppy, disorganized act of getting the thoughts down. As in all of life, things go from sloppy to refined. I learned this from my piano teacher when I was eighteen years old, and it worked, and it has worked in every non-musical situation that I have applied it to in the past twenty-two years. You start out with a bunch of slop, and you begin to turn it into something exquisite. I’ve never really been a proponent of procrastination, but when it is used like this, I think it is one of the smarter things that you can do.

Your Personal Database

What we are seeking here is a huge personal database of memories and thoughts that you can use for writing ideas. They can relate to one work, or many works, they can relate any way that you want, but what you will have is a wealth of ideas that are mostly your own, and definitely ideas with your own perspective. This database is invaluable when you want to write something but you have nothing to write about, or if you are really stuck somewhere within your own work, or when you are ready to put together that amazing dissertation.

How the Heck Do I Do It?

Your guess is as good as mine. I use the Evernote application that syncs to my phone and my computer, and an online app so I can access it from anyone’s computer. But don’t do that just because I do. Everyone’s needs are different. I also have a little notebook that I carry with me because there are times that it takes longer to type into my phone than it does to just jot it down. There’s also something a little more satisfying about filling up a notebook. I have used notebook, loose leaf paper, business cards, calling my phone and leaving myself messages. It was a process I went through and that I am probably not done going through. Anne Lamott, in her book Bird by Bird, suggests index cards. It worked twenty years ago, and it is probably just as efficient today. Following the spirit of sloppiness, as long as you are doing it in some way, then you are doing it right.


All of this is to simply say: don’t let your good ideas get lost forever just because of some terrible, stupid (regular life) catastrophe. Write it down.

2 thoughts on “The Jotting Imperative (or The Zen of Notes)

  1. I love this. I have kept a notebook on me for as long as I can remember and I am almost anxious during the rare times I don’t have one with me (like if I need a new one or I left it in my other bag by accident and have already left the house…).

    1. I was the same way for a long, long time. I have finally figured out my system in the last couple of months though! I just send a text to my email address. So far, this has been the best idea for me. Thanks for reading. I look forward to exploring your blog sometime soon!

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