Last week I wrote about the importance of paying attention and how it can elevate our everyday moments and inspire us to create. While mindfulness is important in its own right, the observations you make and information you absorb when being mindful can also provide the raw material for creative work, as long as you find a way to record them. Austin Kleon, writer of Steal Like an Artist and Show Your Work advocates keeping a notebook handy at all times, and Twyla Tharp, choreographer and writer of The Creative Habit, explains how she keeps a box for each project, where she stores every last scrap of source material related to the project. I’ve found that the act of recording can be just as important as the act of paying attention, though for different reasons. Observation helps us tune in with the present moment. Recording helps us capture the magic of the moment for future use. Paying attention can enrich your life, but recording your ideas, discoveries, experiences, and learnings can help you to enrich other’s lives with your creative productions.
It can be tricky to figure out how to start a practice of recording, so here are four ways you can keep track of your experiences and observations. Use these to build up a creative archive that you can pull from at any time:
I carry around a notebook devoted just to ideas, because I used to find that they would get lost amongst my to do lists and brainstorming. In it I have separate pages for blog ideas, artwork, workshops, and other projects. Any time I come up with something I want to do, I write it down. I go through the book every so often to see if anything sparks and add those items to my to do list. Having all the ideas in the same place helps me keep track of them and sometimes while they rub elbows they start to grow and combine in whole new ways.
We really are lucky, in the age of smartphones, to have a camera with us constantly. Taking photos helps develop your eye for composition and gives valuable observation practice. Whether you’re out and about or relaxing around the house, use your phone’s camera to help you notice and record interesting colour combinations, textures, or shapes. These are part of your creative development and don’t have to be shown to anyone. Make a folder of photos labelled ‘visual research’ to hold these experimental shots. If you are into posting on Instagram or other social media sites, the more pictures you take, the better you’ll get at it and the more material you’ll have to draw from.
I try to keep track of what I’m learning, whether it’s from books, podcasts, documentaries, or from my own experience. I write down interesting facts, concepts, or real-life stories that seem particularly interesting—you never know when such a fact or story might make its way into a creative project. We encounter so much information everyday that it’s impossible to remember or store it all. But the stuff that makes you think the hardest, or inspires the most curiosity, is always worth keeping track of. Bookmark websites, take photos of or type passages from books, record voice messages explaining important concepts. I don’t know how many times I’ve wanted to reference something I’ve read or heard and can’t find it again, so I’m trying to find a way to keep my information—at least on a few topics—close to hand.
That song you heard that made you feel buoyant and joyful? Write it down, along with the lyrics that caught your attention. Write down that quote you heard in a podcast that got your creativity flowing or copy out any lines from poems or novels that sing to you. Other people’s words and images can provide so much fodder for our own ideas and projects so start collecting the ones that have the most impact on you.
Other things you can keep a record of:
- – Meals you’ve enjoyed (cooked by you or others). I keep a list on my phone of meals that I want to cook again, with photos and links to the recipes so that when I’m stuck for what to make, I can just scroll through my archive.
- – Things that make you smile. I used to keep a running list of things I love and ended up making a zine out of them.
- – Objects that inspire you. I have a lovely ornate box where I keep all my little treasures. I also gather objects while traveling that help inspire a certain feeling, mood, or sense of place.
- – Daily events. Create a record of your own life, focusing on whatever you choose: the best thing that happened, or the worst, what you wore, what you ate, what you accomplished, who you saw.
- – Overheard conversations, intriguing characters, spectacular wildlife, particular qualities of light, funny things your friends say. The possibilities are endless!
1) Don’t get so caught up in recording that you miss the moment itself. Don’t be like Phoebe in that episode of Friends where she spends the whole time writing down everything that happens as it happens while everyone slowly starts hating her. Try to find the fine balance between being present and taking notes.
2) Also be careful that record-making doesn’t take the place of actual creation. There always comes a time when you have to leave the research stage and start making something. Don’t let record-making be an excuse to not produce anything. Let it be a tool, not a hindrance.
3) Know that you won’t be able to record everything interesting. Ideas will slip away before you can write them down, you will forget the punchline to that amazing joke, and you won’t always have time to write in your journal. Accept that whatever you do get down is enough, and let the rest go.
4) Try to keep your records organized. The whole point of recording is to go back and find inspiration or information to create something new so if you can’t find things or it takes too much effort to sort through them, it won’t be useful in the end. This is something that is still pretty haphazard for me so if you have a system that works, let me know!
5) If the idea of keeping so many notes or objects around stresses you out, limit what you do record. Focus on one thing that really matters to you and that can contribute the most to your creativity. Take photos, or jot down quotes, or keep a list of poems you like. Don’t try to do everything, just what resonates the most with you.
6) If you’re worried that holding on to objects or newspaper clippings and filling notebooks with strange, unrelated thoughts or ideas makes you bad or weak or messy or disorganized, I’m here to tell you that it’s okay. Creativity doesn’t lend itself well to minimalism. Give yourself permission to be messy and scattered if necessary. As long as you’re forging a deeper connection with inspiration, you’re doing just fine.
What sorts of things do you like to record or keep track of to inspire creativity? Leave a comment below!
P.S. Another great way to keep a record is to draw! It helps you record things the way you saw them, and can help you remember things much more clearly. If drawing is something that interests you but also intimidates the crap out of you, you’ll want to check out my year-long drawing project, starting September 1st. The goal is to spend a year learning about drawing and making it easier and more fun—and less scary! Next week’s blog post will have all the details so make sure you check back here then!