Analogue note-taking

First published 29 April 2013

A couple of months ago, I shuffled a bit further into the 21st century and got myself an iPad.   I’d wanted one for ages, but could never quite justify the outlay. An imminent trip to Australia gave me the excuse…I needed a way of being in touch with my life here that was more manageable, fun and portable than my laptop.

So, it came in the post, all shiny and new, and as I had been warned, I was soon in love.  Such a joy to use!  So responsive!  So much…yes…fun!  Soon, I was carrying it everywhere.

I had lunch with my lovely friend Caroline last week, and we talked about our iPad apps. We were like one of those awful old TV adverts, in which ladies who lunch bang endlessly on about washing powder or diet products. 

We even shared info on apps for dieting.  But Caroline also told me about a couple of her favourite notebook apps.  So, hungry for the next sparkling, exhilarating experience, I rushed home to try them out.  I’ve been looking for a more seamless way of organising my life for a while now.  Since leaving the Arts Council a few  years ago I’d reverted to a paper diary because I haven’t had a portable device that would talk properly to the calendar on my laptop.  Now, suddenly, thanks to iCloud, the iPad does.  Yay!  So I can wean myself off the paper diary again and take a step closer to convergence and seamless management of my life.

I’m also an obsessive note-taker and list-maker, and I cart a notebook with me everywhere.  I jot lists, take notes from meetings,  scribble down phone numbers and passwords, write down ideas that I want to follow up, make sense of my family history research before I commit it to the electronic family tree – all my life is stored in a series of battered notebooks, even more essential now that my middle-aged memory is letting me down.   Since the arrival of the iPad, the current notebook has been tucked into the cover and secured with a band – but, I’ve been wondering, could I find a way to do without the paper notebooks too?

What a lovely seductive thing the notes app is…the facility for task lists. The ability to make several folders for different areas of my life.  A section that lets you write on the virtual pad using luscious virtual ink in several colours, as well as type. Facility for uploading photos and other files as attachments. It can be a notebook, a commonplace book, a journal…

…but I can’t actually settle to using it.  I sat down and constructed a “to do” list on it yesterday, but it felt artificial. Clumsy.  It lacked the spontaneity of a scribbled list.

Today I began some research for a project.  I made some exploratory phone calls.  But I couldn’t make the notes from the calls any way except on paper.  I can’t be doing with the malarky of putting the phone on speaker while I type up my notes.  Ever since I was a journalism student, all those decades ago, research has meant a phone clamped to your ear with one hand, so you could really listen and concentrate, as the other person’s voice is delivered straight into your head, and a pen in your other hand, flying across a piece of paper.  I can’t type quickly enough if I’m taking notes while someone’s talking.  I’ve developed my own idiosyncratic shorthand for my written notes so that I can keep up.   Planning a project involves complicated diagrams, doodles, arrows, circles…I’ve downloaded a really seductive mind-mapping app, too, but it’s so complex it gets in the way of the thinking.

Oh, the disappointment.  I’m a pen and paper girl at heart.  I can happily think at a keyboard when I’m doing a straightforward piece of writing, straight from my head. I have done for decades.  But I can’t think at a keyboard, or on a tablet, when I’m planning something more complex, or have to write quickly to keep pace with someone or explore several strands at once.  The pointing and clicking, and saving, and calling up a secondary screen to add contextual information interrupts the thought processes.

And perhaps most importantly, I now realise, there’s no substitute for the tactile experience of the pen in my hand, the hiss and scratch of the pen on the paper, the smell of the freshly sharpened pencil.  These are essential parts of the process for me.

Should I just accept that in this respect at least, I’m a dinosaur?  That the link between complex thought and note-taking/writing for me essentially involves pen and paper, and that I should stick to what supports my thinking best?

I’ve always fetished stationery, especially beautiful notebooks. I have drawers full of them.  When I get to the final page of one I have to choose another, and I spend ages, touching, gazing at, smelling them to choose just the one I want to have as my next essential life companion.  But oh…those lovely, lovely apps, that I’m desperate to find a use for.  All new, and full of promises they can’t deliver for me.  I so wanted to go completely digital.  Never mind.  I’ll tag and upload this, post it to Facebook and Twitter and LinkedIn, then pour another glass of wine, draw the feint-ruled notebook towards me and scribble a few more notes about this project I’m planning.

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