Distillation and Archiving.

I have kept a lot of pocket notebooks over the last few years, since my very first Field Notes notebook. Before that, I largely used Moleskine notebooks, usually the hardbound pocket style. Once full, they were handy to sit down with and peruse at a later date, remembering ideas I had for projects, snippets of poetry, chronicles of adventures both large and small, and philosophical paragraphs that I thought I might not keep to myself. Before I had kids, a small Moleskine would last me at least a few months. (I have filled 3/5 of my current notebook, a lined pocket Moleskine, in 3 weeks; I wrote less back then).

The benefit of softbound pocket notebooks is that they’re very portable, and I fill them up very quickly. But their format and their sheer number make going back through these tiny volumes somewhat difficult. I’ve had my distillation and archiving project in mind for a long time, but I’ve never mustered the energy to start it. I am endeavoring to edit and transfer the contents from nearly a decade of pocket notebooks into large hardcover journals.

These are the pocket notebooks that I filled from 2011 to 2012, with three books from late 2010. During this period, I also kept a five-year diary and a traditional journal. But I did most of my writing in pocket notebooks, everyday. The stack from 2013 to 2014 is a little larger than this, and the stack that includes writings from 2015 and on has exploded and includes a reasonable number of hardcover notebooks itself. I have a few hundred of these notebooks to sort through.

I have no intention to copy the contents of these notebooks wholesale. I’m setting myself up at the start to be very selective regarding what will make it into the hardcover journal, in this case, a Moleskine expanded edition that I wrote about this spring. I’m not sure what the time commitment for this project will be, but I don’t want it to get out of hand and get in the way of actual capital w Writing.

I have heard the legend repeated that Marcus Aurelius ordered his journals to be burned when he died. A disobedient servant preserved them, and because of that, we have the rich philosophical book today that inspires many people. I am definitely no emperor and philosopher like Aurelius, but I have asked that my journals be burned if something happens to me. (However, I’m wondering if these distilled archives will be exempt from my macabre request.) My best friend and I have a pact that whoever dies first will burn the other’s journals — though I suspect that we will burn them all on a camping trip sometime in the next 30 or 40 years together and then play music to the ashes.

I realize this post is a rambling procrastination before I crack open some notes that are almost 10 years old. I imagine how much paper and ink and graphite I may have wasted complaining about a neighbor, taking notes on when a character uses a certain kind of stationary item in a television series, and just testing writing implements out over and over again. Is it a larger waste of time and resources to scour these various semi-disposable notebooks in an effort to gleen nuggets worth remembering and worth archiving? Will the trip down the proverbial Memory Lane make the entire endeavor worth it?

Am I just creating an egotistic and/or narcissistic commonplace book of my own words?

8 thoughts on “Distillation and Archiving.”

  1. Johnny, Love this idea.

    I wonder if this sort of project might not be a perfect use case for one of the digital pen/notebook solutions?

    It would create a physical artifact, while at the same time create a digital archive of semi-searchable notes.

    Have you ever wanted to digitize your idle thoughts?

    Just my quick two cents.

    1. Oddly i went in the opposite direction. For years i kept digital records of ideas and thoughts i wanted to retain. After a few new phones and computers i realized a digital library isnt as secure as you might imagine. I started transcribing my favorites into a journal knowing that its contents will survive any change in technology. In my case however i dont want them burned and on the contrary want them to be a source of inspiration and good memories for my children years after i am gone.

  2. Wow! That鈥檚 a lot of writing. I have a few trunks full of journals myself that I guess I鈥檒l have to deal with 鈥渟omeday.鈥 My mom didn鈥檛 trust anyone to burn her journals for her upon her death 鈥 she did it herself a few years before she died. But before she burned them, she did take the time to look through them and make tables, lists or other records of information that she thought her children might find interesting or useful eventually. Things like the dates of family vacations and where to, birthdays/death days of distant relatives, health records (common colds to hospitalizations) of all of us, etc. I don鈥檛 think I will ever 鈥渦se鈥 this information, but I was deeply moved to see it all after she died and to realize she wanted to make her lifelong journal-keeping habit to be of use. (She had told us that the rest was just complaining that might hurt some people鈥檚 feelings, so it was best destroyed.) My ramblings here are just to say that as long as you are going to take the time to go through all your journals, you might want to record some notes specifically for your kids in a separate notebook. They will love it someday.

  3. Johnny,
    I don’t envy your workload!
    However, I want to offer a simpler suggestion. Make a list of the 5 or 6 topics you want to find. Could be inspiring quotes or information about your kids. Assign each a color and get a few packs of sticky flags. You find something funny your son said, tag it with his color. Find notes on a pencil, tag it with the stationery color. It might be a bit faster than your current set up.

    I have started doing this with just the dozen pocket notebooks I have and it’s proven very useful. However you proceed, good luck and keep us posted!

    1. I also had an additiinal thought here. I once was seated next to keith morrison (a reporter for NBC) and we discussed how he keeps all of his notes from so many years and he said that he has shelves of composition notebooks. They are not indexed in any way beyond the date written. When i asked how he finds anything he simply said that he guesses and even if he doesnt find what he was looking for he does invariably find something interesting that he can use. It was an immensely intersting conversation

  4. I use the inside front cover of my pocket notebook to keep a mini table of contents as I use my pocket notebook. Anything that I might like to refer back to, I note in the table of contents along with the page number. (I number the odd pages of my pocket notebooks before I start using them.)

    When I finish a notebooks, I number it, log it in an Excel spreadsheet, and copy in the entries from its table of contents. That makes it searchable. It really doesn鈥檛 take much time, but I find it a really useful way to keep tabs on past content.

  5. I have been toying with starting a journal of some kind.

    This post — coupled with a coincidental viewing of an episode of Outlander where a deceased character’s literal boxes full of journals becomes a key plot point — is certainly muddying the waters.

    That said, I applaud your desire to review your writings and glean value from them, and wish you good luck with it.

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