what a physical notebook provokes


I’ve been a digital-first person for as long as I can remember. Typing words on a keyboard onto a screen had always felt more intuitive than moving a pen with my hands. Even before the computer’s arrival into my life, using my hands made me feel clumsy. So I have never related to people who liked sketching or writing ideas with pen and paper more than using the computer and the mouse. 

But I am not sure if it is part of ageing or something, in the past few years I’ve begun to seek out analog experiences. I have also started to find the idea of filling up physical notebooks and sketchbooks romantic. Maybe it is a response to the over-digitalisation of our lives these days.

I didn’t like writing notes in physical notebooks because I am not the type of person who would transcribe or even ocr the physical notes into digital text. I am also not the type of person to systematically review physical notebooks, which is the point of having them in the first place. I still strongly prefer storing my notes digitally – if I remember to write them – so I can perform search and database queries on them, and I use mechanics like “on this day” to review them.

A while ago I came across this youtube video titled, “A notebook to save you from infinite scrolling & boredom” – yes I know it is click bait-y but my curiousity got better of me. Watching the video gave me the idea that it could be meaningful to have a handwritten book of my favourite quotes. I like saving quotes from all over the place but they tend to disappear into a black hole. Some of these quotes have an effect of reawakening me whenever I come across them again, like this one:

Non-action is already something. There are people who don’t seem to do very much, but their presence is crucial for the well-being of the world. You may know people like this, who are steady, not always busy doing things, not making a lot of money, or being engaged in a lot of projects, but who are very important to you; the quality of their presence makes them truly available. They are contributing non-action, the high quality of their presence. To be in the here and the now—solid and fully alive—is a very positive contribution to our collective situation.

Source: How to Sit by Thich Nhat Hanh | link

I store some of these on this website, but the same issue happens – I forget to review them. But with a physical notebook, I can use it like how some people use Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations: flip it randomly to see if something jumps out at me whenever I feel I need a pick-me-up. I may forget to do it, but having something physical that is shelved right in front of me is more obvious than a piece of text buried deeply in a website. 

So I started writing some of my favourite quotes in a notebook:

photo of my notebook containing some quotes

I didn’t understand why buddhist monks copy scriptures, but through the process of writing in my notebook I think I know why. The act of copying something, rewriting it down, makes an indent on the mind. Through the mere act of copying: the power of the quote – why it had affected me so deeply – is regenerated again. 

(Bonus: my handwriting actually got better progressively.)

Once I came across a beautiful quote online, and it actually turned out to be a poem, so I started writing down poems in the notebook too. One of my favourite poems is Mary Oliver’s Journey, which a very kind friend (thanks Corey) had transcribed for me before I left SF. Copying it into my notebook made me feel some of the sensations I had felt during that time, all the way back in 2015. The poem is still very relevant to me now, in the context of these times.

There is another thing about this I find it difficult to articulate. Consuming digital notes is mostly scrolling linearly. We can make them interactive by linking it to each other, etc but it still requires linear scrolling most of the time (unless you use some mind/concept mapping tool or some wonderful interface where you can lay out your notes like cards across the screen or something). 

However, we can be very deliberate about how we want to place the text across a notebook with facing pages. We can place accompanying sketches or illustrations anywhere we want on the spread without technical considerations of a software, we can use whatever pens, inks, paint, crayons, scraps we want. As a former graphic designer, I find that potentially fun and more provocative. How can I use the potential of a page spread to provoke my mind when I encounter it again? Most of our digital notes are endless columns of homogeneous text due to technical limitations. We can do a ton to spruce them up, or even have handwritten digital notes on tablets these days, but they lack the dimensions, textures, spatiality and smell of physical media. There is also something magical about flipping physical pages.

digital illustration of the display of text on a mobile device versus a physical notebook

I feel like this is a new avenue of exploration for me (yes I know I am very late to the game). Apart from quotes and poems what other notebooks can I have? Another youtuber had a notebook just for the jokes they write. I’ve started a notebook where I write my transient unimportant thoughts, but I have yet to develop an instinct which makes me notice them in the first place. 

I think life seems to pass in a whirl, but in reality there is so much going on. Externally there is so much that move and inspire us, but we tend to forget them. Internally our interior worlds are always generating interesting thoughts, feelings, imagery. Sometimes the magic happens when our interior and external worlds intersect. It is important for me to be in a position where I can capture more of these, to be more conscious of reality and life. Most people don’t pay attention or place value to their thoughts, but I find them to be so interesting. I am always semi-sleepwalking, and the presence of physical notebooks and sketchbooks around me reminds me that every moment is an opportunity to slip into a creative existence.

related posts
Winnie Lim

22 Jun 2024 at 12:20

posting art from my backlog

  originally published on: instagram

this one is from feb. recently i’ve been into a matcha phase, especially after learning it has anti-viral properties. bonus: it has anti-depressant-like effects too. drawing and painting really requires a stillness i find hard to possess, hence i am always starting and stopping. that’s why am bent on posting all of my backlog i guess, each one was really squeezed out of me.

related notes
Winnie Lim

19 Jun 2024 at 11:32

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