- Jan 2023
Among other things, I have traditionally used my Journal to think out loud to myself about my work in hand: the progress I’m making, the problems I’m encountering, and so on. Many of my best ideas have arisen by writing to myself like this.
Richard Carter uses his writing journal practice to "think out loud" to himself. Often, laying out extended arguments helps people to refine and reshape their thinking as they're better able to see potential holes or missing pieces of arguments. It's the same sort of mechanism which is at work in rubber duck debugging of computer code: by explaining a process one is more easily able to see the missing pieces, errors, or problems with the process at hand.
Carter's separate note taking and writing journal practice being used as a thought space or writing workshop of sorts is very similar to the process seen in my preliminary studies of Henry David Thoreau's work in which he kept commonplace books and separate (writing) journals which show evidence of his trying ideas on for size and working them before committing them to his published works.
A lovely quote I ran into this morning, perhaps for a future 3 pack, potentially featuring Thoreau, Thoreau and writing, Thoreau and nature, the Concord writing group, etc., etc.:
"Might not my Journal be called 'Field Notes?'" —Henry David Thoreau, March 21, 1853 via The Journal of Henry David Thoreau, 1837-1861. Edited by Damion Searls. Original edition. New York: NYRB Classics, 2009. https://www.amazon.com/Journal-Thoreau-1837-1861-Review-Classics/dp/159017321X/
There's also another writerly tie-in here as when he returned to Concord, Thoreau worked in his family's pencil factory(!!), which he would continue to do alongside his writing and other work for most of his adult life. Replica Thoreau factory pencils anyone?!
Given the fact that he was an inveterate journaler as well as someone who who kept multiple commonplace books, perhaps a tie-in to a larger journal or commonplace book format product? (I'm reminded that the famous printer, publisher and typeface designer John Bell published blank commonplace books along with instructions from John Locke on how to keep and index them. See an example: https://www.google.com/books/edition/Bell_s_Common_Place_Book/3XCFtwAACAAJ?hl=en )
At a minimum I'm pretty sure we all want this Thoreau quote on a Field Notes brand t-shirt...
Thanks for all the years of solid design and great paper!
Warmest regards, Chris Aldrich
Might not my Journal be called “Field Notes?”
—Henry David Thoreau, March 21, 1853
to heaven. I see that if my facts were sufficiently vital and significant,—perhaps transmuted more into the substance of the human mind,—Ishould need but one book of poetry to contain them all.
I have a commonplace-book for facts and another for poetry, but I find it difficult always to preserve the vague distinction which I had in my mind, for the most interesting and beautiful facts are so much the more poetry and that is their success. They are translated from earth
—Henry David Thoreau February 18, 1852
Rather than have two commonplaces, one for facts and one for poetry, if one can more carefully and successfully translate one's words and thoughts, they they might all be kept in the commonplace book of poetry.
The definitive scholarly edition of the Journal is being published insixteen volumes by Princeton University Press in their series TheWritings of Henry D. Thoreau. To date, seven volumes are in print,each costing around $100; the material not yet in book form isavailable online atwww.library.ucsb.edu/thoreau/writings_journals.html.
he Journal of Henry David Thoreau, 14 vols., edited by BradfordTorrey and Francis H. Allen, was first published in 1906 and iscurrently in print in a two-volume edition from Dover Books,photoreduced but easily readable; it was also reprinted by PeregrineSmith Books in 1984 with volume introductions by Walter Harding andincluding a lost volume first published by Perry Miller asConsciousness in Concord in 1958. Any of these editions is highlyrecommended for the reader who wants 6,000 more great pageswhere this book came from.
Unabridged versions of Thoreau's journals, though note editing of some.
Finally, I should say that this abridgment does not claim to beobjective. I chose passages for inclusion not necessarily because oftheir importance to Thoreau’s biography, or to cultural or naturalhistory, but because I liked them: the book is shaped by my personalproclivities as much as by anything else—a preference for berryingover fishing, owls over muskrats, ice over sunsets, to name a few atrandom.
Fascinating to think that Damion Searls edited this edition of Thoreau's journals almost as if they were his (Searls') own commonplace book of Thoreau's journals themselves.
Like any journal, Thoreau’s is repetitive, which suggests naturalplaces to shorten the text but these are precisely what need to be keptin order to preserve the feel of a journal, Thoreau’s in particular. Itrimmed many of Thoreau’s repetitions but kept them wheneverpossible, because they are important to Thoreau and because theyare beautiful. Sometimes he repeats himself because he is drafting,revising, constructing sentences solid enough to outlast the centuries.
Henry David Thoreau repeated himself frequently in his journals. Damion Searls who edited an edition of his journals suggested that some of this repetition was for the beauty and pleasure of the act, but that in many examples his repetition was an act of drafting, revising, and constructing.
Scott Scheper has recommended finding the place in one's zettelkasten where one wants to install a card before writing it out. I believe (check this) that he does this in part to prevent one from repeating themselves, but one could use the opportunity and the new context that brings them to an idea again to rewrite or rework and expand on their ideas while they're so inspired.
Thoreau's repetition may have also served the idea of spaced repetition: reminding him of his thoughts as he also revised them. We'll need examples of this through his writing to support such a claim. As the editor of this volume indicates that he removed some of the repetition, it may be better to go back to original sources than to look for these examples here.
(This last paragraph on repetition was inspired by attempting to type a tag for repetition and seeing "spaced repetition" pop up. This is an example in my own writing practice where the serendipity of a previously tagged word auto-populating/auto-completing in my interface helps to trigger new thoughts and ideas from a combinatorial creativity perspective.)
Sometimes, Isuspect, he copied his own words because he liked to copy: no one’scommonplace books could run to a million words—those are just theones that survive, in addition to a two-million-word Journal, andenormous quantities of other writing—without a sheer love of sittingwith pen in hand, a printed book and a blank page both open before
Jan. 22. To set down such choice experiences that my own writingsmay inspire me and at last I may make wholes of parts. Certainly it isa distinct profession to rescue from oblivion and to fix the sentimentsand thoughts which visit all men more or less generally, that thecontemplation of the unfinished picture may suggest its harmoniouscompletion. Associate reverently and as much as you can with yourloftiest thoughts. Each thought that is welcomed and recorded is anest egg, by the side of which more will be laid. Thoughts accidentallythrown together become a frame in which more may be developedand exhibited. Perhaps this is the main value of a habit of writing, ofkeeping a journal,—that so we remember our best hours and stimulateourselves. My thoughts are my company. They have a certainindividuality and separate existence, aye, personality. Having bychance recorded a few disconnected thoughts and then brought theminto juxtaposition, they suggest a whole new field in which it waspossible to labor and to think. Thought begat thought.
Henry David Thoreau from 1852
Thoreau, Henry David. The Journal: 1837-1861. Edited by Damion Searls. Original edition. New York: NYRB Classics, 2009.
- combinatorial creativity
- only one commonplace
- Princeton University Press
- writing process
- writing for understanding
- commonplace books
- Damion Searls
- lost in translation
- love of writing
- Henry David Thoreau
- note taking as aide-mémoire
- repetition in writing
- idea links
- note taking affordances
- spaced repetition
- note taking
- field notes
- associative trails
- idea crystallization
- scholarly editions
- writing advice
- Field Notes
- associative thinking
- Feb 2022
Local file Local file
We need to getour thoughts on paper first and improve them there, where we canlook at them. Especially complex ideas are difficult to turn into alinear text in the head alone. If we try to please the critical readerinstantly, our workflow would come to a standstill. We tend to callextremely slow writers, who always try to write as if for print,perfectionists. Even though it sounds like praise for extremeprofessionalism, it is not: A real professional would wait until it wastime for proofreading, so he or she can focus on one thing at a time.While proofreading requires more focused attention, finding the rightwords during writing requires much more floating attention.
Proofreading while rewriting, structuring, or doing the thinking or creative parts of writing is a form of bikeshedding. It is easy to focus on the small and picayune fixes when writing, but this distracts from the more important parts of the work which really need one's attention to be successful.
Get your ideas down on paper and only afterwards work on proofreading at the end. Switching contexts from thinking and creativity to spelling, small bits of grammar, and typography can be taxing from the perspective of trying to multi-task.
Link: Draft #4 and using Webster's 1913 dictionary for choosing better words/verbiage as a discrete step within the rewrite.
Linked to above: Are there other dictionaries, thesauruses, books of quotations, or individual commonplace books, waste books that can serve as resources for finding better words, phrases, or phrasing when writing? Imagine searching through Thoreau's commonplace book for finding interesting turns of phrase. Naturally searching through one's own commonplace book is a great place to start, if you're saving those sorts of things, especially from fiction.
Link this to Robin Sloan's AI talk and using artificial intelligence and corpuses of literature to generate writing.
- Aug 2021
Henry David Thoreau's commonplace book digitized in the New York Public Library Digital Collections
- Jul 2021
Ralph Waldo Emerson, the man who encouraged his friend Thoreau to start a journal and the man who had the most success with the journal > lecture > essay > book method, kept elaborate notebooks just for indexing his other notebooks.
- Apr 2017
How inexplicable are these facts on the ordinary view of creation! Why should the brain be enclosed in a box composed of such numerous and such extraordinarily shaped pieces of bone? As Owen has remarked, the benefit derived from the yielding of the separate pieces in the act of parturition of mammals, will by no means explain the same construction in the skulls of birds. Why should similar bones have been created in the formation of the wing and leg of a bat, used as they are for such totally different purposes? Why should one crustacean, which has an extremely complex mouth formed of many parts, consequently always have fewer legs; or conversely, those with many legs have simpler mouths? Why should the sepals, petals, stamens, and pistils in any individual flower, though fitted for such widely different purposes, be all constructed on the same pattern ?
Reminds me of Thoreau:
We might try our lives by a thousand simple tests; as, for instance, that the same sun which ripens my beans illumines at once a system of earths like ours. If I had remembered this it would have prevented some mistakes. This was not the light in which I hoed them. The stars are the apexes of what wonderful triangles! What distant and different beings in the various mansions of the universe are contemplating the same one at the same moment! Nature and human life are as various as our several constitutions. Who shall say what prospect life offers to another? Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other's eyes for an instant? We should live in all the ages of the world in an hour; ay, in all the worlds of the ages. History, Poetry, Mythology!—I know of no reading of another's experience so startling and informing as this would be. The greater part of what my neighbors call good I believe in my soul to be bad, and if I repent of anything, it is very likely to be my good behavior. What demon possessed me that I behaved so well? You may say the wisest thing you can, old man—you who have lived seventy years, not without honor of a kind—I hear an irresistible voice which invites me away from all that. One generation abandons the enterprises of another like stranded vessels.
Reminds me of Darwin: