Now I’m a Notebook Thief: What I’m stealing from Joan Didion

I have been reflecting a lot on the process of a keeping a notebook. I wrote about my unusually extensive system and the type of notebooks I use, and I reflected on how my notebook system fits into my daily routine.

Notebooks are my primary artistic output. I have few creative products. Most of what I do is thinking, and the best I have to show of my thinking is the notes I take on my on my thoughts, the notes I take on the things I read or hear or, more personally, the stream of conscious output of my mind.

I am becoming obsessed with my notebooks, and I am starting to study other famous notebook keepers.

I just received a “complete” copy of Leonardo da Vinci’s drawings, and I think I may add a couple other “complete” volumes of aspects of da Vinci’s notebook system to my library.

It is every thinker’s dream to have the breadth of accomplishment that da Vinci had. Just imagine how history might have changed had he shared the content of his notebooks during the course of his life!

I keep seeing references to Joan Didion’s essay On Keeping a Notebook, so I decided that I should take some time to sift through her revered thoughts.

I saved a few snippets from her essay and pasted them in one of my notebooks.

Didion records observations or snippets of dialogue.

Basically, Didion seems to record relics or observations from her experiences out in the world. She differentiates her type of notebook from a diary.

In contrast to Didion’s notes, my notes tend to come in a couple forms: (1) factual notes from things I read or hear with creative leaps of thought scribbled in the margins, or (2) stream-of conscious reflections on my thoughts and activities.

I do not record relics of the outside world like Didion does for her notebooks.

Didion’s purpose for keeping a notebook is personal. She aims to remember how she felt in simple moments of her life. Her records are meant to keep her in touch with herself.

I am adding a credit card sized pocket notebook for observations to my system.

I do not spend a lot of time out in the world. I don’t know if I really have a lot of opportunity to record relics of my experience as Didion seems to do, but I will try.

I have secured a tiny, credit card sized notebook and a pen that fits in my pocket that I can keep with me wherever I go. Going forward I will make an effort to record simple observations from my experience, and I will see where this new habit takes me.

A key will be to see if I can get the same value out of my observations as Didion seems to get.

My wish is that by studying the note and diary making habits of others, I can build a more effective, more memorable, and more impactful notebook system for myself.

In Summary

Theft from Joan Didion: habit of making brief notes of surroundings and events and keeping snippets of dialogue. To accomplish this I will start carrying a pocket notebook.

Scheduling for Writers, Artists, and Creatives: Paper and Digital Notebooks Calendars, Trackers, and More

Now that I am in my retired years, my entire focus is on my creative projects. I worked as a researcher and professor in the biomedical sciences for twenty years. When I was working I was always hard on myself about sticking to a schedule, and I was rarely successful. Now that I am retired, I am more lenient with myself in terms of schedule, and I think that maybe it is better.

The Saints and Feasts of the Church Calendar, Unknown Painter (circa 1500-1550)

Studies show that our brains are constantly re-wiring to make new connections. I also believe the research shows that various stages of sleep work together to make both new connections and to make useful connections stronger. This must be an essential process for the creative brain, so it is probably best to give the brain downtime and let the creative connections happen if your goal is to make something unique. I haven’t seen or looked for research about day-dreaming and making neural connections, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the process is also similar to actual sleep.

Now that my entire focus is to be a creative, I think it is best to be gentle on myself in terms of schedule so that my brain has plenty of time to make those new connections. Still, I have a very ambitious creative project, so I need some sort of process to keep myself on task. I have found a few tools that work for me.

I believe strongly in habits and routines. I believe that how we spend our time shows who we are. I spend most of time thinking, so I must be a thinker. And I am a frustrated thinker because I spend so much time thinking that I have trouble realizing the aims of my thoughts.

I have recently started using an application by Apalon Apps called Productive. It allows me to enter a set habits by day and keep track. Since I have an ambitious project, I have MANY things that I intend to do on a regular basis and keeping track is essential. Rather than trying to schedule an exact hour for each task, I plan on a day of the week and a rough time of day (morning, noon, or night) to do a task. This seems to be working for me to stay relatively well on task, but I am gentle with myself. The list of habits is merely a guide. If I get sidetracked, fine. If I’d rather do something else, fine. But the guide is there, and when I need to jump start my brain, I look at my habit list and ask “okay, what I am supposed to be doing today at this time of day?”, and I start with one of those tasks.

I am gentle with myself about what I am actually working on at any given time, but I still want to keep track of how I actually spend my hours. I want to be able to look back and see what I actually did and for how long so that I can evaluate my behaviors and goals. I actually log my hours spent on each task in a different application by WonderApps called ATracker. It is an excellent application and it synchronizes well across devices with a subscription. I have the general tasks listed in ATracker. I just click on them to start the timer, and I am able to take notes about the specifics I do for each task after the timing is completed. I let the application record my activity to my digital calendar so that I have a log of what I actually did each day, and the application itself has some excellent graphing and analysis capabilities.

I still use my digital calendar even though I am easy on myself about my schedule. When I have a fixed appointment (usually a doctor’s appointment these days), I add it to my digital calendar with alerts. This record, combined with the log from ATracker, makes and excellent log of how I actually spend my time. I try to look back at the log on a regular basis, and I try to evaluate whether or not I need to do something to change my behavior or goals based on my current goals and tendencies.

I even still use a paper calendar, but I use this more for planning the details of the general routines. The paper calendar serves as a to-do and check-off list for the specifics of the general routines that I have listed in Productive and ATracker.

I love paper. I believe that we make the best connections when we work with our hands. After I have my morning coffee and do the necessary time letting my brain make connections, I jump start the activity part of my day, by doing morning pages. I first learned about morning pages from the source, Julia Camron’s Artist’s Way. The idea of the morning pages practice is to write three pages of stream of consciousness each morning no matter what. I find that this is an excellent process for clearing the head and for jump starting the reflecting mind into output mode.

I keep MANY notebooks. I have so many notebooks, that I even have one notebook that is the index or table of contents of all of my notebooks. It is the one place I can go and see a summary of all of my work in progress.

I think of my notebooks as works of art. I use color pens and washi tape. If I could draw, I would do that too. I’m a little crazy about notebooks. Some types of notes I keep in hard bound notebooks. Other types of notes I sprawl out on large heavy-weight A3 paper like the piece of art that they are, and I file them in a large A3 portfolios when I am done. Whether I take the notes in a notebook or on art paper just depends on the subject and purpose of the note. It’s another part of the creative process for me.

So many great creatives have been excellent notebook keepers. I just ordered a copy of Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks, so soon I’ll probably post a review of the book I found that presents them.

I also use 4X6 cards index cards and an index card holder. My 4X6 index cards are for what I think of as “actionable items”. These are ideas or things that I want to keep actively in mind at the moment. One way that I use 4X6 cards heavily is to plan future writing topics. I write down the topics and add notes as I think about them. When I sit down to write and I need a topic, I can search through my cards to find a subject to churn out. Parts of this article come from notes I made on a 4X6 card a few days ago.

My index notebook even lists my digital notebooks. I do use digital as the final storage place for my work, and I put polished summaries in digital form. Since most of my work is reflective, I like to use the Day One journal application by Bloom Built to record polished reflections. Once I week, I write up a summary of the most salient reflections of the week in my Day One application. Once a month, I add a copy of all of my handwritten notes to Evernote so that I have a digital, searchable backup of everything.

I guess my process is cumbersome, but that is the kind of guy I am. I love processes and routines. The problem is that I am also a daydreamer, and I easily get off track. I am trying to work with my two tendencies.

Most importantly, I think that in order to be a good creative it is key is to give the brain plenty of time to rest and make new connections. That is the neural reality of the creative process. Hopefully, the planning keeps everything moving in a forward direction.

I’d love to hear how other creatives organize their days. I think our routines says so much about who we are as artists. If you haven’t read it already, Daily Rituals: How Famous Artists Work by Mason Currey is a fascinating read. Written as series of short chapters that each focus on the routine of a specific artist, it is an excellent source of inspiration.

You can inspire me in the comments with some of the unique and essential specifics of your routine!

The Vexed Thinker Project Begins to Leave Crumbs on the Internet

Now that the creative effort of the Vexed Thinker Project has been underway for several months, I have begun to expand and clarify my public face on the internet. I am leaving tracks!

Hansel and Gretel, Illustration by Carl Offterdinger, Wikimedia Commons

To the website, I added a new Newsetters/Project Scope tab that details the public writing efforts of the Vexed Thinker Project and links to the additional content newsletters available through Substack.

I clarified the origins and aims of the Vexed Thinker Project on the About tab.

I added social media follow buttons to the sidebar of each page and to the Contact page.

Thank you for your interest in my new and ambitious project!

I look forward to visiting your blog someday soon! To be honest, I’m amazed at how much I am enjoying interacting with other bloggers. Being a natural loner, I didn’t think the social aspect of blogging would appeal to me, but I find myself thirsting for the interaction.

Enjoy my project! I hope it helps you think in a fun, but serious, way about the vexing issues that face us as individuals and members of human society.

Mandalas are Representations of the Light of the Soul: My Daily Mandala Habit

I try to draw a mandala each morning as part of my daily routine.

Mandala drawing is part of my daily routine.

Somewhere throughout the course of my delusional disorder I conceived of the idea that the soul is made up of light. I imagine that some people can see this light come and go into bodies, but I am blind to this light.

Indeed, it is interesting to note that one highly refuted scientist once claimed to have determined that the soul is something separate from the body, and the soul weighs 21 grams. Apparently there was even a movie inspired by this “scientific” work, but I have not yet seen it.

Now each morning, I try to draw a mandala in observance of what I imagine to be the beautiful light of the soul and in reflection of the amazing things that always manage to exist just beyond our vision.

I use spirographs and a compass to draw each mandala with color pens and and color pencils.

Each mandala is given a name. I am currently using The Name Book by Dorothy Astoria to assign names. Although, it was not my intention to mail-purchase a biblical name book, I find the definitions and passages of reflections helpful in inspiring each mandala design. Sometimes I supplement the definitions I find in this book with additional material I find on the internet for design inspiration.

After each day’s mandala is drawn on A5 heavy-weight paper, I write a little something about each soul on the back and file it in a portfolio.

My daily mandala habit acquaints me with the soul light within each of us. I highly recommend the practice.

Claiming the Bliss Station

Last week I wrote about Joseph Campbell’s thoughts on the essential role of the bliss station in a happy, productive life.

The bliss station is a special place where the artist (or any individual) can go to dream and work uninterrupted for a special time each day.

When I first wrote about the idea of a bliss station, I was working on the couch and dining room table of my apartment. After I wrote that article last week, I had a good hard look at my setup and decided that my work space simply was not adequate. I did not have space to sprawl out and leave stuff, and I did not have reliable hours of uninterrupted time.

So, I spent the better of this week claiming a real bliss station in a storage room on the ground floor of my building. I wish it had natural light, but it is fairly large and away from distraction, so I am pleased. The space is now mostly clear, and I spent the better part of the day resuming my activities.

There is still work to do to organize the junk in the storage room so that the whole room is more comfortable and functional, but now I have a couple work tables and few shelves in a fairly large, quiet space. I believe this is more of a true bliss station, and I am already feeling better about my promise for focusing, reflecting, and working. So, I think last week’s article has precipitated a positive change in my work setup.

This is the small work table I set up for writing, drawing, and typing.
I have a couple shelves for storing supplies and reference materials.
I have a dedicated table that I can use for painting, paper-crafts, and sculpting.
I picked up these doors/drawers/shelves at a used furniture store a couple months ago. My portfolios don’t really fit, but the storage is good enough for now to store my portfolios according to day of the week that I use them.
There is still a lot of junk in the room, but once I straighten it up and move most of the junk to the loft that is above this view, this should be a nice, quiet, productive bliss station.

An Easy Way to Draw When You Can’t Draw: My Tracing Projector System for Cataloging and Studying Earth’s Life Forms

I like to think of myself as an a amateur artist, but the truth is that I can’t even draw to save my life. I have no skill for realistically representing things on paper or canvas.

The iPhone sits above the semi-transparent, reflective lens and the viewer traces the reflected lines by looking through the lens from the top.

Still, it is one of my goals to make a thorough study of the external features of Earth’s animal and floral biota through handmade art. My hope is that by studying forms and colors of living organisms, juxtaposing the ideas, reorganizing them, and adding twists of my own, I can design some interesting new creature for the simulators my fantasy calls for designing.

To study the biota closely, I want to draw individual organisms. I believe that by closely studying the forms I can better get to know them. I can internalize their shapes and colors in an intuitive way.

So, since I can’t draw, how do I do this?

I discovered this handy and very cheap tracing projector. I place an image on my iPhone, and lay the phone in the holder on the projector. The image of on the iPhone reflects in the semi-transparent lens, and while looking through the lens from the top, I can use my pencil or pen to trace lines. I then go back and color the images with pencils from my 150 color Prisma pencil set.

After I make an image of each organism, I add scientific notes to the back of the image. Then I file the image in a portfolio. I hope that as begin to make more of these images and review them, I can begin to make interesting juxtapositions and recombination.

I will eventually begin to draw and sculpt new external forms and design new internal physiologies.

Conceptualizing ‘Academic Blueprints’: An Adaptation of Austin Kleon’s ‘Newspaper Blackout’ Designed for World-Building

One of the goals of my artistic project is to design new worlds. Specifically, I aim to design the conceptual foundations for three new simulated worlds.

The concept of an ‘academic blueprint’ for world-building

One way to go about designing new worlds is just let the imagination run wild. The natural imagination will probably take ideas and experiences in mind, juxtapose them, and recombine them in new patterns. I have decided to try a new technique to both restrict and add to the normal imagination process. I am going to call the initial outputs of this process Academic Blueprints.

If you’ve been following me over the past couple of days, it is abundantly clear that I am totally fanboying on Austin Kleon at the moment. He has a form of art that he calls Newspaper Blackout. Basically, he takes a block of newsprint and makes poems by selecting choice words and blacking out the rest. You can see a video describing how he makes newspaper blackout here.

The most productive part of my day was to conceive of Academic Blueprints. This will be an adaptation of newspaper blackouts that I am going to try to use for my purpose of world-building.

To create my Academic Blueprints, I will take print from a popular periodical that covers an academic topic. For example, Scientific American is a layperson’s periodical that covers scientific topics.

Like Kleon, I will begin by selecting a choice word, but I will add the limitation that this word should be related to an academic topic that somehow governs our reality. Also like Kleon, I will then go about selecting additional words to make a poem while blacking out the rest. However, my aim will be to describe some sort of new reality centered around the choice word I have selected. These initial poems can then be juxtaposed, re-combined, and expounded at a later date.

I think that I will call these poems Academic Blueprints and use the color blue, rather than black, to strike the unwanted words.

This, in a nutshell, is the Academic Blueprint artistic process that I conceived today. I will try a few of these over the next several days, and I will share my progress with you. Wish me luck!

What are the differences between rainbows, iridescent clouds, rainbow clouds, fire rainbows, and circumhorizontal arcs?

I’ve been interested in the topic of light scattering in the atmosphere for a few weeks now. I’ve had one of those moments of synchronicity where the subject keeps coming up, but so far I haven’t been careful enough to sort it out. So, today I had to take a few minutes to surf the internet and sort it out. This post is a summary of what I’ve learned so far.

I first heard of the topic of light scattering into colors in the atmosphere discussed in a lecture in one of the Wondrium courses I’ve been watching recently. I just kind of let the subtleties of the topic flow in one ear and out the other. Then a photo of light scattering in a cloud spotted in the Florida beach town where I grew up went viral on social media, and there was some disagreement over whether to call it a “fire cloud” or “iridescent cloud.” It seemed to be settled by experts that it was an iridescent cloud. Still, not having the differences completely sorted out in my mind, I forgot about it.

Then I started getting interested in how birds get their colors and the topic of iridescence came up again and I found I wasn’t sure how to define iridescence. Now I’ve fallen into a big rabbit hole of color and light scattering, and I think I’ll be stuck here a few days. First, I will try to tackle the rainbow/cloud topic.

Scattering of Light in the Atmosphere

Whereas reflection involves a change in direction of light waves when they bounce off a barrier, refraction of light in the atmosphere occurs when light waves change in direction as the pass from the air medium into and out of the water medium. Rainbows occur through refraction. In other words, rainbows occur when sunlight passes through rain droplets in the sky and is split into the colors of the rainbow.

A Rainbow

Cloud iridescence is the more general type of scattering of light that occurs in clouds, but it occurs through diffraction. Diffraction occurs when the light waves pass around an obstacle in their path. So in cloud iridescence, the sun’s light strikes small water droplets or small ice crystals and the light is scattered as it moves around those small objects in the process called diffraction. Cloud iridescence occurs rarely in cirrus clouds and often in altocumulus, cirrocumulus, and lenticular clouds.

An Iridescent Cloud

A “rainbow cloud” or “fire rainbow” is technically known as a circumhorizontal arc. This is a very specific type of an iridescent cloud that occurs only in cirrus clouds. The condition required to form a “fire rainbow” is very precise – the sun has to be at an elevation of 58° or greater, there must be high altitude cirrus clouds with plate-shaped ice crystals, and sunlight has to enter the ice crystals at a specific angle. So, a circumhorizontal arc is a very rare phenomenon.

A Fire Rainbow, Rainbow Cloud or Circumhorizontal Arc

So there you have it: the basic differences among rainbows, iridescent clouds, rainbow clouds, fire rainbows, and circumhorizontal arcs. How did I do, physicists?

All I know is that I love light and color, and I’m really enjoying learning about color as I consider my fantastical project of imagining new life forms.

I’m working on a zine about tricks nature uses to give animals color, and I think I’ll tackle the topic of iridescence a little more directly by looking at the topic of the iridescent paints I hope to use soon in making some art. Stick around and enjoy this rabbit hole of color with me over the next few posts.

How do birds get their color? Fantastical implications for designing new life forms.

One of the fantasies I like to entertain is that it may someday be possible for humans to create a whole new biota of life. I know, I know. I’m a scientist. Life evolves. It is not created. But just imagine how exciting it would be for humans to create their own living offspring. I don’t know how, when, and where, but isn’t it exhilarating to think that maybe we could create offspring of our own design? Our biologists are already attempting to make primitive living structures. Maybe someday we will colonize space. Could our artificial intelligence support our new life forms? A simulator? A novel universe among multi-verses? I think the possibilities are limitless no matter how many eons into the future it may take humankind to achieve such a goal.

Neo Rauch, Self-Portrait, 1987

So, one of my artistic activities is to study Earth’s biota and imagine new organisms. I study, make juxtapositions, and create new forms and biologies.

I have a doctorate in the physiological sciences. So, I have a pretty good understanding of molecular biology and physiology. Right now I am more interested in conceptualizing new structural and external features.

As I consider novel external features, I am obsessed with color. “Color is very important to me,” I recall my grandmother saying once. Color has also become very important to me. Color has played a role in my psychiatric disorder from the beginning. At first, it seemed to me that primary colors were being placed in my environment in purposeful patterns. Then these primary colors seemed cleaner and brighter. Change in color perception is still one of the predominant symptoms I experience when my mental status is altered. So, yes, color is very important to me.

As I imagine new structures for new life forms, one of the first things I think about is color. I’ve already started imagining greenish humanoids, but then I feel unoriginal. Doesn’t everyone imagine green aliens?

What about the possibility of multi-colored humanoids? This has led me to an interest in bird coloring.

It turns out that birds derive their colors from two types of pigments: melanins which produce black, grey, brown and orange colors, and carotenoids, which are used by specialized feather structures to generate the brighter colors.

The melanins are synthesized by melanocytes and the birds’ natural physiology. Natural structural variations in feather follicles give fine control to the pigmentation. The carotenoids, which give the birds the brighter colors, must be obtained from the birds’ food, and the melanins and carotenoids work together to give the birds their intricate, colorful plumage patterns.

So, as I continue my fantasy of designing a novel biota, and when I turn to the subject of a novel organism’s color, I am now given the idea to consider interactions between naturally produced pigments, pigments in the organism’s diet, and structural contributions to pattern and pigment.

Maybe someday I will share images of my creations. Right now, the biologies, forms, and colors exist predominately in my dreams. The project has just begun.

In Modern Political Polarization, Reason is Threatened: An Implication for Mental Health

In his recent book, Why We’re Polarized, Ezra Klein argues that the tendency towards political polarization is a natural offshoot of social evolution. The argument is that, historically, human ancestors who formed strong alliances against competing groups were advantaged to survive competition.

Cain and Abel, Titian (circa 1543)

We could imagine, then, that one side in the conflict eventually dominates and the unsuccessful side withers in the shadow of the victor. Indeed, one could argue that this is what occurred to resolve the Cold War which pitted the eastern communist block against the western democratic block. Eventually, the Soviet Union collapsed in the shadow of the West.

Then, the competition, to simplify, was between the two competing ideals of democracy and authoritarian communism. The tension of the threat was massive. I was but a young boy at the climax of the Cold War, and I can remember going to bed in fear of dying in my sleep in a nuclear attack. But throughout this conflict, the world remained attuned to Reason and common sense.

“There is no monopoly of common sense

On either side of the political fence

We share the same biology

Regardless of ideology

Believe me when I say to you

I hope the Russians love their children too.”

— Russians, Sting (1985)

I worry that a new and much more dangerous type of competition is emerging, and this threat has been developing for quite some time. In this new lens of competition, I see Reason and common sense themselves under threat.

At least in the United States, where the Left seems to be more squarely aligned with Intellectualism, Reason and common sense seem to be threatened by a significant tribe who questions the intellectual establishment. The questioning of the establishment is not, in my view, necessarily problematic. Reason strengthens through healthy consideration. The problem I see is that a growing tribe now argues without the benefit of conventional fact or logic, and the tribe is aligning against traditional Reason. Fact and logic are now in the mind of the beholder. I might argue that even this alone would not necessarily be a final blow to the mind and society, but the tribe seems to align behind changing realities. In one moment, X is reality, and very soon afterwards, Y is reality, and the proposed realities continue to cycle rapidly. To me, this poses a very real threat to individual and societal sanity. It is a threat to our ability to cope. It is a threat to our very existence.

For the first 29 years of my life, the world seemed reasonably structured, and I even succeeded in securing a doctorate in a basic science. Even though I was certainly frequently forced to hold two competing, unresolved ideas in my head, I was always comforted by having methods and a structure to evaluate and accept the conflict. Then in the year 2000, I began experiencing symptoms of a delusional disorder. My perceptions of reality were suddenly challenged and in a rapidly fluctuating manner. I was lucky to have had 29 years of a solid structure of reality under my belt. Without the benefit of being able to repeatedly refer to and rely on that structure with the help of my psychiatric care team, I fear I would have lost my sanity. Indeed with the structure, I was able to continue to work in academia for the better part of another 20 years.

But now I see something happening that I think places humanity at the risk of not having the kind of structure to refer to that has kept me well grounded between psychotic episodes. I worry that the very sanity of our youth is under threat by the methods of thought being championed by this significant tribe, and I worry that if this tribe succeeds, the very fabric of our society will unravel. This time the polarization seems to be existential. Do you see modern polarization as a threat to sanity?