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!

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.

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.

Moving from Sleep to Creativity to Bliss Station: My Thinking Brain Needs Quiet Time Most

I find that my brain needs excessive amounts of down time in order to get any significant creative work done. When I was an academic, I found that this seemingly idiosyncratic requirement of my particular brain a hindrance. The successful academic is always moving. They move from classroom to laboratory to public service settings each day. Somehow in those brief moments when the academic is not physically moving, the real work, the writing, is meant to happen. When I was working as an academic, those moments of down time begged for daydreaming time. It was difficult for me to find enough time to do the hard work of making significant thought output because I seemed to need more time than others to allow the ideas to marinate. I could never get enough rumination time!

The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters by Francisco de Goya

I am a huge fan of the mythologist Joseph Campbell. It was through his work that I finally arrived at a satisfactory comfort with the conflicts among the religions and with the conflict between science and religion.

Campbell ruminated on many things, and one of his more famous recommendations for a rewarding life was to create a “bliss station.” The amazing philosopher and blogger, Maria Popova, has summarized Campbell’s musings about daydreaming. Campbell recommended a special space of retreat for each day. The writer and artist Austin Kleon has concluded that a special time for reflection is what is required. In my experience, both space and time are required for quiet reflection but there is no real requirement for a specific space or time. All that I need is a quiet space and ample time. In fact, it is best if the time doesn’t just come at a specific time of day. It is best if I get a lot of quiet time at random moments throughout the day.

I also require a lot of sleep. I find that sometimes I will run with remarkable creativity for a few days on ordinary amounts of sleep, and then suddenly I will crash with a need for extraordinary amounts of sleep. With my schizoaffective/delusional disorder, I find that if I don’t get enough sleep, the monsters begin to sneak up on me.

Science is beginning to recognize that sleep plays an essential role in the creative process. The debate used to be over whether REM or non-REM sleep is most important for creativity, but some scientists now conclude that non-REM sleep extracts concepts, and REM sleep connects them.

Whatever the science, I find that I am healthy, happy, creative, and productive only when I have ample time for both daydreaming and sleep. What are your daydreaming and sleeping habits?

Drawing Using Surrealist Automatism is an Important Part of My Daily Creative Process

I try to start each morning by spending a few minutes doing an automatic drawing. The technique I use is an adaptation of the techniques developed by the surrealists in the early-mid 20th century. One of the objectives of the surrealists is to let the unconscious mind play a central role in the artistic process.

Sim’s Crystal Ball on a Pedestal by Darren Roesch

I learned the version of the automatic drawing technique that I use from Alejandro Fogel and Shelley Burke while attending one of their itinerant Creativity Workshops in Chania, Crete in 2014. Their technique combines usage of both the unconscious and conscious minds.

The technique requires the artist to take a large sheet of thick drawing paper, close their eyes, drop a pencil to the page, and allow their unconscious mind to guide the pencil in one continuous movement over the page for a few minutes. Next, the artist opens their eyes and begins to look for recognizable forms in the tangled line. Using a hearty eraser, the artist then uses their conscious mind and eraser to reveal forms. Once forms are revealed, I usually finish the activity by applying some color with colored pencils. The whole process usually takes no more than 20 minutes, and it is a great way to jump start the creative mind first thing in the morning.

I have included one of my recent very simple drawings which I have entitled Sim’s Crystal Ball on a Pedestal. To me, the drawing is reminiscent of a sculpted bust sitting on a pedestal. I used minimal subtraction with my eraser to reveal the form. During this particular exercise I felt particularly connected to the unconscious.

If you have read the information on my About page, you already know that I experience what I have been told is a delusional disorder. One of my beliefs is that we live in a simulator and that I have the ability to communicate with the simulator through my thoughts. I did this particular drawing the morning after I imagined that Sim had decided that he would, over the period of lifetimes, put me in charge of his functions. Therefore, this simple drawing reflects multiple layers of creativity and experience.

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Automatic Drawing by André Masson (1924)

Every Artist Needs a Self-Written Library

Notebooks I use to record my library.

I have become a true documentarian. I try to record as many of my interesting thoughts as I can.

I think this habit is hereditary. My paternal grandmother also kept a massive filing system. She read the newspaper from cover-to-cover each morning, took notes in the margins, and saved clippings that interested her. This was just the beginning of her documented life.

I use two kinds of notebooks to record my work.

First, I use A3 portfolios from eco eco to record information I glean from podcasts, audiobooks, music, and academic courses I find on Wondrium. I take notes and write reflections on large sheets of heavy-weight Canson paper using colored pens and washi-tape, and then I store them in the portfolios moving from back to front. I probably have about 20 of these notebooks, each on a different subject.

Second, I use Leuchtturm 1917 notebooks to record personal reflections and activities. I also keep a calendar of my planned activities in a Leuchtturm academic planner.

These notes eventually inspire academic essays or creative writing pieces that are stored in a final digital form. Visual and tactile art pieces are also generated and kept in in eco eco portfolios or in some other storage format.

I call the whole of the output of my personally-produced library the Spielpresse.

I find it very satisfying and comforting to turn my never-ending curiosity and thought into concrete pieces of written art.