Can the smell of a coming rainstorm inspire us? Might a crackling campfire at twilight awaken our sleeping stories? Do photos of loved ones saved to cellphones ground us when we pull the images up, returning us to a calmer, more productive place in our creative mindsets? And is it possible for a thirty year-old MTV video to nudge us into communion with people and events long forgotten?
Of course. These are the simple incidences of stimulus and response that occur all around us, all of the time. Our minds are inexhaustible springs, capable of sustaining us creatively throughout our lives. Moreover, the world is full of visual, aural, mnemonic, and olfactory catalysts for these creative impulses, if only we are mindful of their presence.
But just as there is a precise moment when the beauty of a sunset reaches its zenith, these flashes of inspiration we receive from the outside world are also fleeting, and fickle. We must collect them at their source: the occasion of their arising. The longer we wait between the response to a particular stimulus and the recording of our impression of it, the more diluted the impression becomes.
Remember: There will always be time to edit things later, to touch up the data we’ve collected. And indeed, we should ultimately touch it up.
Just not quite yet. For now, we ought simply to record it. Jot it down, sketch it out, snap the shutter.
In order to collect these impressions properly, it stands to reason that we might wish to have the tools of our métier handy at all times: our notebooks, cameras, sketch pads, or dictation devices. Some of us take this daily step already, and have done it consistently and habitually since the beginning of their creative lives. Others of us might have done it at one time, but have since abandoned the practice.
I am one of the latter people. Somewhere along the line, I’ve abandoned the habit of carrying a notebook with me; and I regret having come to this place of willful neglect, because I now feel that I’ve lost at least some of my ability to spontaneously sense crucial aspects of people, places and things; and, from there, to draw meaning from my observations. Maybe the word “lost” is not quite correct, since it implies that I may have already passed the point of no return. Better to say that my aptitude in this area has slowed because I no longer take the time to jot down my impressions at the point of their arising. I’ve become lazy. I like to think I’m a better writer than I was in younger years, in fact I believe truly that I am; but I also realize that I’m less in tune with my surroundings. This is unfortunate.
The notion occurred to me earlier this week when, for the first time in ages, I actually sat alone on my back patio and observed the stars and planets dotting the late-night sky. I honestly have not done something like this in twenty years. How do I know? Because I can remember precisely when I last made the conscious effort to do so—during summer night walks in Port Washington, Wisconsin, where I lived from 1994 to early 1996. I even made reference to it in my journal.
Back in those days, and for a long time before that too, I always carried a notebook with me. Not only would I jot down snippets of dialogue I’d hear among the tables of the many restaurants I patronized then, but I also recorded general impressions in journal form—often making several entries each day. Many of the impressions are mundane in retrospect: situational elements that I found striking at the time. Like an entry from September 2, 1993, which I wrote among strangers in a seminar room on the top floor of Holton Hall at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, just before the beginning of my first class of graduate school:
We’re sitting here waiting for Prof. Gordon. The room is totally silent—save for two sign-language “speakers” who are chattering incessantly.
The next year, also in Milwaukee, people waited excitedly on May 10 for a 90-percent solar eclipse, the first of its kind to appear over America in years. The day was beautiful, as I recall in my journal, clear and virtually cloud free. Students and neighborhood people milled about the campus with sheets of black paper perforated by pinholes, hoping for a glimpse of the moment when image of the sun would transform into a black disc haloed by a ring of intense light.
It was in many ways a party atmosphere. We observers were out there mainly for the entertainment aspect of the natural spectacle. In my entry for that day, I mused on the difference between the contemporary scene and what might have been the case a few thousand years before, when eclipses “set off orgies of sacrifice and ritual,” and then I made joking reference to an “inexplicable, primal urge” I had to disembowel a goat.
The eclipse began around noon, and I recorded my initial impressions:
It’s getting darker, that is the light has a muted quality about it. I have the urge to look up, but I won’t. It’s hard to write a thesis with fried retinas.
Unlike many of the people around me, I didn’t think ahead to bring a perforated sheet of black paper. So as the eclipse went on above, I walked home, continuing to observe the changing character of light around me—all without once looking up. Then, at the fullest moment of the eclipse, I happened to glance down, where I beheld thousands of perfect, tiny images of the solar phenomenon cast in the shadows of the tree leaves that darkened the sidewalk and lawns of Frederick Street. It was magnificent. I didn’t need the black paper after all.
Neither of these scenes from the mid-1990s would be available to me today in such pristine, eye-witness form had I not written down my impressions of them at the point of their arising, capturing them in medias res on the lined pages of my nine-by-six inch notebook. In my basement, there is a cardboard box containing numerous notebook journals spanning the period from 1989 through the early 2000s. That is a lot of impressions, and it is both entertaining and instructive to mine the information in them. But aside from a few false starts thereafter, I have not maintained a personal journal since 2003. I think this is unfortunate. Nor, as I mentioned earlier, do I think to carry a simple, wire-bound notebook around to jot down ideas or collect dialogue that I might hear by way of eavesdropping—another form of gathering that I rarely practice any longer.
And while my writing is far better today in terms of craft understanding and technical skill, I must conclude that I have been ignoring an important component of my creative toolbox for too long. It is time to reinstitute the habit of collection. After all, the sensual information around me is every bit abundant as the stars in the night sky—which, as you now know, I’ve only recently begun to recognize again.