How I Take Smart Notes

The first time I started hearing about the Zettelkasten method was on Cal Newport’s podcast.

It seemed like it was more trouble than I wanted to engage in.

After reading this post, How to Take Smart Notes: 10 principles to revolutionize your note-taking and writing, I saw this as a system that filled in some of the blanks in stuff I was already doing.

But after hearing more about it through Austin Kleon, talking about reading Sonke Ahrens’s book, How to Take Smart Notes, I started reading it on Kindle.

I realized that I already cobbled this method together. About 70 percent of it. I use it through the Bear notes application and work through the process in my journals and pocket notebooks.

So to give you a summary of what I do, I’m going to explain the basics of my note-taking habit and how I marry that to this method. I won’t talk about what I ditched.

There are four kinds of notes, according to Ahrens:

  1. Fleeting notes: where I take notes on the fly that are informal, short, and quick. I use my pocket notebook for these since I carry it around in my wallet. It’s typically a Field Notes notebooks. It’s just filled with questions, observations, and things I notice. I sometimes post these on Twitter about once a week.
  2. Literature Notes: These are the ones that I use the most. They are notes that I take in physical books in the form of marginalia, and that usually goes to Instagram once a week. When I finish a book, I’ll collect all the pages that I fold over. I write a summary or review in the back of the book about what I learned or what I noticed that attracted my eye. For example: this post on Benjamin Percy’s The Ninth Metal.
  3. Permanent Note: from the literature note, I’ll make a permanent note in Bear and save it as a doc in my Dropbox, then I’ll edit it a few times and post it to my blog.
  4. Reference Notes: These are digital things I read on Kindle that will get a short summary in Bear (like a paragraph), and I’ll usually talk about it in my newsletter.

Really what this process solved for me is what I do with books or articles I read online or on Kindle. Kindle’s highlighting and note feature is about as good as that device is ever going to get and I don’t care for it. So the method I worked around concerning literature notes with Kindle is using notecards to write out the particular things I highlighted or noticed, then that goes into Bear. I tag it with a specific theme, the author, or a concept connected to it.

I know the magic of this method is when a bunch of unrelated permanent notes reaches a critical mass that’s when you have new connections to make. But that’s not really been the case for me yet. I’ve found that paraphrasing what I read, looking it over, is enough. For example, I’ll tag everything that I wrote over a season. Let’s say this summer, so I’ll use the 2021/summer tag and get a bird’s eye view of every note that I put in throughout a season. I wrote 137 notes over the course of the summer, that’s roughly two notes a day all summer, and I came up with one essay idea, and one short story idea.

When I look at the weekly newsletters I write that include my reference notes, notes I take on books, and references to other articles I get a picture of what I write about and how that interests me. This is not something I had before the summer. Sure, I had a general idea, but not the hard evidence of what it is that I notice and read about, and therefore come up with things that no one is writing about.

For example, writing about practicing Stoicism when you’re neurodiverse is something that is barely written about. Massimo Pigliucci has one article on it. There’s an article by Anna Joy Tanksley on practicing Stoicism as an Aspergian. There’s a great article by Sophia on employing the dichotomy of control to neurodiversity and practicing Stoicism helped with ADHD. But mostly, men don’t cover it at all.

Ryan Holiday doesn’t cover it, and William Irvine mentions the limits of Stoicism on his website. Donald Robertson–a cognitive behavioral therapist doesn’t touch it at all other than saying you should get a diagnosis. Instead he focuses primarily on the negative emotions that are all too frequent when you’re neurodiverse, like being quick to anger, anxiety, and depression. So that gave me the idea that’s something I’m going to specialize in, because none of the people currently writing about Stoicism are neurodiverse, so perhaps, they don’t feel like that’s something can write about, because it is not their personal experience.

A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin

This was tremendous fun, a perfect fantasy book that I can’t help but see the threads that dance between this and The Name of the Wind, Harry Potter, and a lot more that I’ve read before. But what struck the me hardest is not so much the content as the lines. There are a lot of liens that I circled and underlined that I absolutely loved. For example:

“A white tree he made spring up from the stone floor. Its branches touched the high roof beams of the hall, and on every twig of every branch a golden apple shone, each a sun, for it was the Year-Tree. A bird flew among the branches suddenly, all white with a tail like a fall of snow, and the golden apples dimming turned to seeds, each one a drop of crystal. These falling from the tree with a sound like rain, all at once there came a sweet fragrance while the tree, swaying, put forth leaves of rosy fire and white flowers like stars.”

Many of the heroic stories in this book are called songs or “Deed of…” whatever character—and that’s what this book reads like—a song. Throughout this book I’m making sentence diagrams of the things, but most especially, I see an old familiar.

But most especially, the book gives me this sense that I’m swimming in a river of words, or a sea.

The Ninth Metal by Benjamin Percy

This book is Benjamin Percy’s masterpiece. It’s the best work of fiction from him that I’ve read, and I’ve read them all at this point. Things that stood out to me the most were the principal themes of family and duty to that family colliding with the law, lawlessness, and a sense of justice that is personal that comes into direct conflict with the government conception of law, order, and justice and this sets fire to a place that is barely being held together. It’s a naturalist novel.

It’s peppered with beautiful descriptions of the natural world. It represents the ingredients of a naturalist novel in how a main character’s sheltered, hereditary, or everyday existence comes into direct conflict with the outside world. In the Ninth Metal, this is brought on by the conflict between two families: The Frontiers and Gundersons and their prodigal sons: John Frontier and Hawkin Gunderson. Both of them come into direct conflict from the prologue to page 288. They are the personal antagonists of the two main characters.

The naturalist or external antagonist for the Frontiers is Black Dog mining in Northfield, Minnesota. For the Gundersons, it’s the Department of Defense. Both are fighting over control of the mining of omnimetal that was brought here by a comet and grants powers to John and Hawkin.

So this is an X-Men story. Mother Gunderson and her followers are Magneto’s brotherhood and their religious/cult-like overtones worshipping the omnimetal (their chanting of “Metal is” recalls “Darkseid is.”), and the Frontiers are Xavier’s students. Hawkin Gunderson is Magneto, imprisoned by the Department of Defense (or the Nazis, if you’re going to follow my Magneto origin story through line). John Frontier is Wolverine who has a familial Stoic duty, which very nearly brings about his undoing.

It’s very much a local vs. outsiders story because locals almost always lose in a naturalist novel. Not this time, though, but that’s straying dangerously into spoilers.

What made this book so good for my journey as a writer these last two years. But it comes with a dilemma: I don’t know where Percy ends, and I begin. We don’t have the same ideas for stories, but we deal in similar themes: family, social sciences, and the slightest bit of the fantastic set in a world we live in now. It’s like we have similar voices, we’re of the same generation—he’s only a year and a half older than me. To be successful in the ways that I want to be and have come up short because of one thing: I did not submit my work, and Percy did, allowing him to grow where I have been playing at the same four books more or less the last fifteen years.

But I’m not going to play that anymore. Here’s what solidified why I have a book like this one in me, but here’s where it landed for me that Percy and I think along the same wavelengths.

Over the years in his cell, Hawkin had a lot of time to think, and one of the ways he occupied himself was by pretending. Comic books owned his imagination. He had always liked Batman, best of all the superheroes. It was more than his haunting mask and the militaristic Batmobile and the gadgets he kept in his utility belt and the way he crouched like a gargoyle on Gotham’s skyscrapers with his leathery cape fluttering in the wind. It was the villains. The villains who made up his rogues’ gallery were the best of any series. Because they weren’t merely masked and spandex weirdoes to punch and kick and throw Batarangs at. They meant something. They really mattered emotionally. If Batman was order, then the Joker was chaos. Mr. Freeze represented Bruce Wayne’s emotional coldness. Ra’s al Ghul was the father figure wanted desperately but had to reject for his sinister ways. Two-Face captured the constant battle between Wayne and the Dark Knight. What you eventually came to understand, if you read enough comic books, was that Batman was a unification of his worst enemies. ..

Dr. Gunn is the Joker and Scarecrow and Mr. Freeze and Penguin and Ra’s al Ghul and all the rest of them. And this is Hawkin’s Crime Alley, where Thomas and Martha Wayne fell in a rain of bullets and blood and pearls. It was a moment of fusion, convergence. Here is the villain and here is the place and here is the core wound that Hawkin might conquer if he is going to come into his power as a hero. That’s the way the rules work.

–Ninth Metal, pg. 280

The Anthropocene Reviewed by John Green.

I started listening to this podcast back in the beginning of the pandemic, and it has been an almost weekly joy to listen to, so when the book came out, I knew I had to have it. What I found was pretty formulaic: introduction, research which shows Green’s OCD in full-effect with his details for getting the facts right. Highlights include talking about Edmund Halley and his many talents, or what went into making Diet Dr Pepper. This was always great in whatever essay I read–I always learned something new, which is awesome. This is followed by literary allusion, and the positive side of whatever Green is reviewing and his rating.

The best entries in this book are in the introduction and the postscript, and the DFW-like footnotes. My favorite essay is on Indianapolis, and the bits are like how they are the absolute best parts of our pandemic moment. The book is like a time capsule. Here are my favorite parts

On “Our Temporal Range, which makes an allusion to Stoicism’s “View From Above” in an impressive display of time condensing:

“The hard part, evolutionarily, was getting from prokaryotic cells to eukaryotic ones, then getting from single-celled organisms to multi cellar ones. Earth is around 4.5 billion years old, a timescale I simply cannot get my head around. Instead let’s imagine’s Earth’s history as a calendar year, with the formation of Earth being January 1 and today being December 31 at 11:59pm. The first life on Earth emerges around February 25. Photosynthetic organisms first appear in late March. Multicellular life doesn’t appear until August or September. The first dinosaurs like eoraptor show up about 230 million years ago, or December 13 in our calendar year. The meteor impact that heralds the end of the dinosaurs happens around December 26. Homo sapiens aren’t part of the story until December 31 at 11:48 pm. ..”

He then says that the Industrial Revolution, the dishwasher, and cars happen in the last couple of seconds of December 31.

On CNN: “What’s news isn’t primarily what is noteworthy or important, but what is new.” Saying that is basically all twenty-four news channels are good for. The newest outrage, misery, and disaster.

But my favorite essay is on Indianapolis, where Green and his family have made their home since 2007. He moved there from New York City, and he lays down a considerable number of disses on the city. All of which I laughed at:

“Indianapolis has tried o a lot of mottoes and catchphrases over the years. Indianapolis is ‘Raising the Game.’ ‘You put the I in Indy.’ ‘Crossroads of America.’ But I’d propose a different motto: “Indianapolis: You gotta live somewhere.’…

“Someone once told me that Indianapolis is among the nation’s leading test markets for new restaurant chains, because the city is so thoroughly average. Indeed, it ranks among the top so-called ‘microcosm cities,’ because Indianapolis is more typically American than almost any other place. We are spectacular in our ordinariness. The city’s nicknames include “Naptown,” because it’s boring, “India-no-place.”

He then goes on to rate the city four stars because it’s home.

I’ve long said that Indiana’s nickname of the Crossroads of America is because why the hell would you ever want to stay here? And even though Green goes onto say that the city is one of the most economically and racially diverse zip codes in the United States. The problem is, of course, that the rest of the state is rural white and super-Republican and is actively working against that diversity, and has adopted many of the voting rights laws that are being passed in Republican states across the nation. Eventually, if this goes unchecked, Indiana will be so vanilla that it’ll be see-through.

Though I think it’s generally acceptable to live in Indy and Bloomington, they are just about the only places you would want to live. Green even cites that the White River, its main waterway, is completely non-navigable. The city dumps raw sewage into it. When I look around Bloomington, I see every college town I’ve ever visited. I’ve even taught here. It’s called the State University of New York at Plattsburgh. I’ve been here before in Princeton, NJ, Providence, Rhode Island, and College Park, Maryland. It’s a college town. I bet you go to any large college town like this one, and you’ve likely been to Bloomington before too. Not that there’s anything wrong with that other than it’s normal. Average.

I give the book, and really the state as a whole, three stars.

How I leave Literature Notes at the end of books.
I just like this author photo.

Current Status for Fall 2021

Writer/Director Billy Wilder’s gravestone, printed out on my writer idol wall.

Technically the first day of fall is not for another two weeks. Still, it seems like many people go with the idea that fall begins when the schools reopen, and for this East-Coaster, that’s after Labor Day.

Here in Indiana, school started a month ago, on August 4.

I’ll never get used to that.

This summer, I queried agents and submitted an original essay that is like an 18-page overview of my memoir and the ground it covers. I submitted to four agents and just as many publications and have not heard anything back from any of them, which means they’re probably not interested.

This is fine, mainly because it’s something out of my control—all I can do is revise and reshape and read and power through. As William Irvine writes in a Guide to the Good Life, practicing Stoics set internal goals that are not outcome oriented. They’re about the process.

I also started a podcast with my best friend TJ Brearton. It’s called Stories We Tell, and mostly we shoot the shit about what it means to be writers in the current moment. It’s not AmWriting or Scriptnotes, which are for and by writers who are established in a traditional atmosphere like screenwriting, nonfiction, and traditional fiction; or The Writer Files and OtherPPl which is interviews with established writers. It’s about two best friends talking about their respective writing lives and how that collides with their personal lives, the environment, and their health.

The first season is now available here. We’re newcomers with this, so forgive us while we work out the kinks with sound, and get it to the other podcasting platforms like iTunes and such.

This season’s updates will not be daily, but instead weekly. I’ll get into how my practice with the Zettelkesten method went, what I read this summer, Memento Mori, and a bunch of other stuff. Then the blog posts will end for good before the holiday season.

What I’m up to Now for Summer 2021

I’m spending the summer trying out the Zettelkasten method How To Take Smart Notes: 10 Principles to Revolutionize Your Note-Taking and Writing indexing my notes. I’m not so interested in randomizing messages through a serial number—that just sounds like too much of a headache. Still, Tag Conventions, search, and Sedaris-y seasonality will probably do it for me. That way, I can compare notes. Really it’s so that I can create an index of my notebooks and my reading notes and marginalia to sort through and warm up.

Other than that, I’ll be submitting my memoir to agents and an excerpt to magazines and journals.

We’ll all be back to school in the fall, which means short posts perhaps daily and something new to the podcasting world, I believe. Still, you’ll have to subscribe to my newsletter to get a sneak preview of that.

Adventureman by Matt Fraction, Terry and Rachel Dodson, and Clayton Cowles.

I knew Matt Fraction had been working on this for a while with the Dodsons, but since he’s largely left the public internet and I completely missed this even came out. So when I saw the hardcover at my local comic book store, I was like: Wow, this came out?

It was, of course, a pleasant surprise. What I liked most about this was the size of the book. The hardcover, which you can’t tell here, is the size of a coffee table. It’s a coffee table book with widescreen pages that force you to look at all the fantastic Terry Dodson art.

Just look at the size of the pages. My favorite part of the series is the family dinners. The description of those pages recalls my family. We’re loud, constantly talking over each other, interrupting, and we’re all characters.

The other thing I kept gravitating to while thinking about the comics writers is how they’re like film directors. Morrison is kind of the modern equivalent of Stanley Kubrick; Fraction is like Tarantino because he loves to reference things from the past, Vaughan is like Spielberg because of his diverse interests and storytelling sensibilities are rooted in character. Paper Girls is very much an ETish story without budgetary constraints.

Adventureman is a fun callback to pulp adventure films and stories like Doc Savage, Flash Gordon, the Shadow, and Green Hornet mixed with a little bit of Lovecraft. It’s big and bombastic, and the pages reflect as such. Also, it’s not technically about a “man” it’s about a woman.

Paper Girls by Brian K. Vaughan, Cliff Chiang, Matt Wilson and Jared K. Fletcher.

I started reading this book to my four-year-old because he saw that one of the trades featured dinosaurs, so of course, he wanted to read it. After reading the whole thing, I couldn’t help but try to figure out why Vaughan is my favorite comic book writer.

It’s simplicity. BKV never tries to do something that is structurally from left-field. It’s also character: these girls are tough, and fall in love, just like adults. He makes these five 12-year-old girls like adults. They swear every page, and they stand up to boys. Just check out these pages—you know that these girls are badasses.

From Paper Girls #1
Inside cover from Paper Girls volume 4

He’s a master of the page turn and cliffhanger. I don’t think there’s anyone better at a cliffhanger than him—that is his actual selling point—he forces you to get the next issue in a way that no other writer in comics does nearly as well. How does he do it? He roots the cliffhanger in character, not the shock factor of something happening off-panel. He always teases that shocking thing in the panel that forces you to turn the page or get to the next issue. Here’s one of my favorites:

That comes down to two things: he’s great with working with the artists he collaborates with (Cliff Chiang—in this case), and he’s excellent with character, revealed in emotion and dialogue. He is proving that what makes Brian K. Vaughan great is simplicity. Less is more in comics, and Vaughan is the best at it. He’s not trying to wow you with crazy ideas (though they are pretty out there, just look at some of the characters in SAGA), or complete panel, plot structure like Fraction and Morrison that can sometimes alienate readers. Here are some of my favorite pages from the series. Including an example of interaction at the end of the series that doubles as a character difference showing growth for Mac. She is a little more careful with her attitude, which frequently gets her into trouble throughout the series.

From Paper Girls #30

BKV also has a keen eye for what works in comics as a cousin to film, and Chiang just nails it. Also from the last issue:

Go read the whole series.

A Guide to the Good Life by William B. Irvine

There’s a lot to unpack here about this book, but it’s been an absolute best thing about 2021 so far is William Irvine’s work on Stoicism, from his meditation series on Sam Harris’s Waking Up application to this book. It’s allowed me to construct a frame—or a comic book panel on every page of the last two years since my diagnosis and everything that has happened from the pandemic to my house that features three other people who need me to be well. It’s safe to say that I don’t know where I would be physically or mentally if it weren’t for Irvine’s work.

There are far too many lessons from this book that I cannot enumerate here and make it a reasonably sized blog post, but here are a few:

Negative Visualization

It is where you imagine something you like about your present circumstances and imagine if that something is gone. Specifically, this means your job, your house, your children, or your partner.

  1.  At PSC, I realized that was my dream job, and I let it go without a second thought: Irvine defines this as a hedonic adaptation, where we work hard to get something in college, get on the proper career path, then spend years making slow but steady progress toward our goal. So when I landed the dream job (PSC as a full-time instructor), I felt in control even though I was not. Grumbling about pay, coworkers, the institution, and the failure to recognize talents. I threw all of that away because I was overconfident (66-67).
  2. On hedonic adaptation, where we find ourselves living the life of our dreams, we start taking that life for granted. Then I spend time enjoying my good fortune and forming new, grander visions for myself. .. (72)
  3. It is not a rich person’s philosophy. People who have a pretty good life (me) can benefit from this philosophy and the poor. Those who are poor will prevent them from doing many things. It will not preclude them from negative visualization, like his Dream Life meditation in the Stoic Path app. (72)
  4. By helping my parents pack up the LP house as the last time, I would step in that house (84)

One of the biggest things that I took away from this book is the Dichotomy of Control, which is something that initially attracted me to Stoicism in the first place. After reading this book, though, I figured out that I have a saying that I’ve heard throughout my life growing up in the Adirondacks: “There’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad gear, and bad attitudes.” This phrase encapsulates all of Stoicism for me, but especially the Dichotomy of Control. Irvine asserts that it is a trichotomy of control:

  • Things over which we have no control at all: whether it will rain tomorrow or “No such thing as bad weather….” Epictetus’s Advice: we should not concern ourselves with these things
  • We have some but not complete control: whether we win the job, get the publishing deal, etc. Advice: we should concern ourselves with these things, but we should be careful to internalize the goals we form regarding these things or “bad gear,” there is just “gear” and how you use it. You can prepare by getting in the right headspace, blocking social media, reading deeply, and revising the piece you’re working on–that’s all you have some control over.
  • Things over which you have complete control: your attitude, always. We should concern ourselves with these things.   

This helped me form my primary writing goal:

My primary writing duty is to take time every day to write 3 pages of personal essays, journaling, comics, or prose fiction and get it good enough to be submitted. No matter how many times you have to revise the piece but at minimum five times.

The rest is out of my control and not worth overly concerning myself.

Norwood by Charles Portis

What I think I learned from this book is that it is like a Coen Brothers film, like Barton Fink, and you could see why Portis is perfect for them. It was a weird, random, and yet not tired.