In 2016, at the happiest moment of my design education, I forgot my notebook on a train and the documentation of my growth that year disappeared with it.
“At least you didn’t lose your laptop...” a friend said gingerly when the last car of the train rushed past.
It was true that I had uniquely decided not to carry my laptop that day. It was also true that I barely heard my friend’s words as I hopelessly ran after the train.
Notebooks are a massive part of my life. I love having a place to store ideas that come to me while listening to an inspiring talk, and being able to log questions should there be a Q&A after. In meetings, notebooks allow me to focus by channeling my energy that would otherwise be spent on a face scratching habit I’ve been battling for 20 years. Before bed, I scribble musings in a journal to empty my mind and place the burden of overthinking on my leather-bound buddy. My first fond memories of truly enjoying drawing happened in the margins of my school notebooks while a teacher waxed on about things I’ll never remember.
Just as my love was maturing for note taking, the page turned... or the train left the station... whatever metaphor really brings everything together for this segue.
I’m not quite sure why, but it dawned on me only last week that I may still be a little traumatized by this incident.
One of my rules with note taking is that there is always a question I can write, which meant I was always paying very close attention. Immediately after losing my notebook, taking any notes started feeling pointless. The less I took notes, the less I paid attention. Without the pen waiting for me to scribble, tuning out became easy.
I tried desperately with software to cling onto what I was doing before with ink, but it never felt natural. The hodgepodge of apps that I stitched together could barely satisfy my note taking itch. Bits of ideas and memories got lost as I switched from app to app, but unlike the grief I felt for my forgotten scribbles, I couldn’t muster an ounce of sadness for the virtual musings. In fact, a lot of the time I couldn’t even remember if the apps contained anything of value.
Looking back at notes in ink revealed not just what I was thinking back then but how. Added details revealed layers beyond the writing—from the way I scratch a mistake with varying degrees of vigour, to how my letters become increasingly indistinguishable as I grew tired. These provided clues about my state of mind that added a visceral quality that I now realize is half of what note taking is for. It’s not about your past self telling you something. It’s about connecting with your past to feel something.
Soon after I lost that notebook, I tried to revive my habit. However, it became obvious that the notebook going missing was only foreshadowing a deeper dissatisfaction with my life. Instead of merely tuning out of meetings and talks, I started tuning out in general. The rate at which I consumed media rather than created it was increasing at terrifying speeds. My intensity at work cooled off. Side projects faded. Feelings dulled.
I can’t ever be sure why my brain thought it apt to remind me of this notebook after six years of that fateful mishap. Was my subconscious trying to hit the breaks before I hit rockbottom? Whatever it is, I’m grateful that the same brain noticed an old, but mostly empty, notebook of mine lying on my parents' bookshelf. This past weekend, I sat in the front row of an improv theatre workshop, wrinkled pocket notebook in hand, and let the ink flow with ideas from the skits. The jokes were mostly terrible but my hands kept moving as I laughed anyway. Looking back at the notes, they are covered with arrows, boxes, and frantic scribbles. A hint of inspiration.
I’m certain that the darkness isn’t over. Whatever is lurking beneath the surface can’t merely be held down by a notebook, no matter how heavy with inscrutable writing it is. But maybe it can be held down by hundreds—or even thousands—of notebooks. Maybe my inner-self was reminding me about the joy of filling page after page with ideas. Or maybe I was being reminded of the best thing about a notebook: all the blank pages, waiting to be filled.