By Ginny Padgett
I started a nonfiction book project in 2014 based on experiences and interviews with 15 people once a month for a year. I’m still not finished writing it. When I take excerpts of it to workshop for feedback, sometimes they are met with astonishment by some of the respondents (also from workshop). “How can you remember our conversations and the details of our meetings so accurately? You have a great memory!”
I was flattered by their accolades, but there is a simple, mundane explanation. As soon as I returned home from each encounter, I made strategic notes to jog my memory when I was ready to write. If something in our discussions struck me as important enough to me to use as a direct quote, I jotted down key words. Not only could I remember the quote I wanted, but that often provided enough spark to reconstruct the whole exchange, bolstering interest with dialogue while fleshing out the action. I don’t think I have a better than average memory. Notes, and perhaps practice from journalism school, were the trick.
As time elapsed, I came to see diarizing an event has personal benefits as well. While writing my manuscript, it occurred than more once that these notes and recorded dates jump-started memories I needed to calculate and navigate everyday life.
Mindfully now I record outings and appointments in my calendar with details…and don’t delete them as tasks accomplished. “What was the name of that movie we went to last month?” “Where did you find that tray?” “Where was that cute restaurant we stopped at on the way to Baltimore?” “When’s the last time I saw the dermatologist?” I can find the answer to these kinds of questions in a jiffy. It doesn’t make for world peace, but sometimes it does make my life easier, tidier or evokes a smile when I look back and find a happy time spent with friends and family.
Fortunately, notetaking is easier than ever since the smart phone in your pocket is packed with more technology that the 1960s space-race effort. Snap a photo. Use the voice recorder to make notes for yourself. Ask your companion or interviewee if you may record a chat about an interesting subject. Immediacy is primary to getting it down right for nonfiction.
I realized another plus. Keeping notes on events, behaviors and deportment, environment, conversations can be prompts for plots, characters, settings, and dialogue for fictional writing. Take notes and see where they lead.