Read of the week: Note-taking

Ben Mauk’s newsletter about notetaking resonated with me this week. Ben is a magazine writer (find his work in the New Yorker, VQR, Believer, and elsewhere) and shares in this essay his method of note-taking: everywhere, all the time, and by hand – in a series of ever-present Moleskin Volant notebooks.

“The note-taking is itself the looking,” he writes. “It is itself the thinking, much more so than the act…of writing.”

Ben also shares his dogmatism about taking notes by hand, on paper: “The thing you take notes on should not get emails. It should not text,” he writes in argument against taking notes on a phone. “It should not contain any information that did not come from your mind and the physical world around you, because that is what makes it a rare object, a totem that sees and thinks with you rather than for you.”

Plastic bin neatly stacked with colored notebooks
Ben Mauk takes notes in a numbered series of Moleskin Volant journals. Photo by Ben Mauk

Sees and thinks with you – as if the notebook is a friend, alive in its own way. Or a living extension of the writer’s mind and senses.

I’m conflicted right now about both note-taking (the professional side) and journaling (the personal side). I’m in a bit of a journaling drought personally, having dropped the habit due to overthinking (WHY am I writing all this down? WHO will ever read it? WHERE should I store all these old notebooks?) after journaling consistently for about 30 years.

On the professional side, hand-written notes have fallen by the wayside for me – at a cost, I think.

In my current job, I interview Cornell faculty via Zoom or by phone about their research, then transcribe the interviews into word processing documents. The few handwritten notes I take anymore are scribbled on scraps of paper and recycled almost immediately. It’s a far cry from my days as a journalist with a stack of carefully dated reporter’s notebooks organized on the shelves over my newsroom desk, important passages flagged with sticky notes.

Ben’s newsletter entry about taking notes gets me back to a basic of myself as a writer – the satisfaction and physicality of getting a thought down in ink or lead on a page. And the boost of respecting that thought. It deserves to live and possibly might grow. Such a note is often a starting point, something leading somewhere, a verbal possibility, a place to begin.

By the way, I don’t use the Moleskin Volant or even have a preferred brand or model of notebook, but I do like experimenting with different journals and notebooks. (Ben’s notebook shelf is a lot neater than mine!) His newsletter has inspired me to finish my current notebook/journal, started April 2020, and move on to another with a renewed appetite for taking note of the world.

Leave a Comment