marginaliaA colleague told me a story once. He had been advising the Vatican on work they were doing to scan important documents, some dating back centuries. IBM had been given the work, and they had put equipment and a team on site so that none of the documents had to travel.

Document scanning can be dreary work. Consider things like contracts, business correspondence, financial records. But in publishing and in archives, the work can be interesting. I would love, for example, to be involved in scanning documents related to the transcendentalists. They have to be voluminous, far-ranging, and rich.

Anyway, back to the Vatican. As my colleague tells the story, one of the technicians was having trouble scanning a page so that the marginalia was coming out as clearly as the main text. The technician, an American, called over one of the Vatican archivists.

“Is this important?” the technician asked.

The archivist studied the document for a moment, handed it back to the technician. “Apparently da Vinci thought so.”

The story could well be apocryphal. I don’t even remember who told me the story. It was that long ago and my connection to the colleague was thin. Apocryphal or not, though, it made a point. Sometimes the marginalia is more important than the text itself.

I mentioned my note-taking style in a recent post. Through college and into graduate school, my style was always to take voluminous notes. It helped me structure what I was hearing and it helped me remember. I didn’t even have to go back to the notes, necessarily, because the process worked so well. Over time, I became even better at creating structure as I listened.

When I look at those old notebooks now, as interesting as they might be, I am most drawn to the marginalia. They tell me, in small ways, what was going on in my life. They tell me, even more importantly, what I was thinking about, and sometimes fretting about.

  • At the start of one semester, I made a note about the names of the other people in the class (“Kus, Donna, Patricia, Nikki, Chris E.,” and someone I could only identify as “Boston5.” Maybe he or she worked at the local television station?)
  • In the opposite margin, I wrote down the names of several other BU professors in the program (Mager?, Kelley, Robert Davis). Maybe I was trying to figure out who my dissertation advisors might be?

I wrote many other notes.

  • “Hypertext” in a circle
  • “128 Bay State Road (next to Army Vans)”
  • “Call Susan Morgan” (Susan was a colleague at Xyvision, the new company I had just joined as a Course Developer.)
  • “EM 711” (I wrote this several times, as a reminder that the material covered in the text would be covered in more detail later, in another class.)
  • Apparently one of my classmates wasn’t in class on 10/31/1989: “Chris Out Sick”
  • After the midterm, I wrote the word “Papers” in the top right corner of one page. Again circled. I must have been anxious about getting things done.
  • A week later I used the upper-corner again for another circled note, “Monday Nights 7-10,” then that same evening I made a note about another possible class, “EM 731, CBI, Screen Design, Human Factors, Authoring Language Programming.” That is so 1989.
  • Work was clearly on my mind, though, because that same evening I wrote, again circle, “OVERHEADS FOR CALS.” This was a reference to a work project at my new employer. Apparently I needed to write it in all caps.
  • (A brief aside: I was marveling at the quality of my notes and I remembered what a good lecturer my professor, Wilbur Parrott, was. I then did a search for him and that led me to an 1878 patent, “Improvement in whiffletrees” and another Wilbur Parrott, who was listed as a witness to that patent. I doubt I will end up using it, but there is indeed poetry in everyday things.)

My notebook ends with what may have been the final lecture on 11/28/89, but after a few blank pages I had faithfully recorded an informal bibliography of the five journals I should be following and then a list of books. I then have two more pages of notes at the very end of the notebook. Left loose in the back of the notebook were the slide I mentioned above and its accompanying note, the journal article, four other journal articles, and some handouts. There is also a short paper I wrote. There’s no grade on it, so I must have handed in another copy. I have to admit it’s pretty good.

Why do I mention all this? I am convinced that our own marginalia is good raw material. As mundane as the notes are, I can use some of them for germs of stories or details for other stories (see my recent entry here on this same subject). I like the thought of this student being so focused in the class, and clearly enjoying it, but then work creeping in. It’s not easy being a working student. and more students than ever are working more hours than ever.

I lived that life for a long time. I worked and did freelance work for each of my four undergraduate years. For the six years that I was a graduate student, I worked anywhere from 24-40+ hours per week in a day job and also freelanced. After I was awarded my M.A., I added teaching to that. For five of those years I was also married. I changed course, so to speak, when my wife and I decided to have children,  so I didn’t have the added stress of being a parent. (That’s also a rising percentage of even undergraduates who have children, and the majority of parents who go to college are women.)

There are stories in there. Some of them might even end up being pretty good.

January 15, 1987

nissan-stanzaOn January 15, 1987, I left my office in Bedford early, drove to the post office near my apartment in Arlington, then to the library, and then into Harvard Square to teach a class at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education. I put 46 miles on my 1984 Nissan Stanza, going from 37,418 miles to 37,464 miles.

How do I know this? I know this because I was earning some money as writing and had to keep good records. I also know because I am a bit of a pack rat. No one has to keep 29-year-old tax records. In my case, the records take up the first 20 sheets of a small notebook. There was simply too much good blank paper left to throw it away.

I still have essentially all of my notebooks–and probably nearly all of my blue books–from my undergraduate and graduate classes. For example, on November 28, 1989, in a classroom at the Boston University School of Education, I presented a single slide on the idea of advanced organizers to help improve reading comprehension. The slide was based on a 1960 article in the Journal of Educational Psychology entitled, “The Use of Advance Organizers in the Learning and Retention of Meaningful Verbal Material.” I know this because I still have the slide, done by hand, and a set of notes, and a copy of the original paper. I also took well over 150 pages of notes that semester because writing so many things down always worked for me in helping to learn new things.

(The notebook reminds me that, even though I didn’t finish my degree, I was a pretty good doctoral student.)

Here’s what else I know about November 28, 1989, this time with help from the web:

  1. It was a Tuesday.
  2. It started out as an unusually warm day for Boston, with rain in the morning, then a high of 59F that lasted most of a cloudy day. Then it cleared and the temperature dropped precipitously, and by the time I got out out of class (probably around 10:00 pm) the temperature had dropped to the high 30s. The 20-mph winds, though, made it feel like 29.
  3. The Boston Bruins beat the St. Louis Blues that night, 5-1. Ken “The Rat”  Lineseman, one of my favorite players of that era, scored twice. The game was in St. Louis, so I may have been home in time to catch the end.
  4. Deer hunting season began in Massachusetts (I didn’t even know we had one).
  5. Further away in the world, the Soviet Union continued to crumble.
  6. In the midst of the Velvet Revolution, the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia announced it would give up its monopoly on political power.
  7. In another blow to communism, Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci fled to Hungary.

To dig in a little more, I browsed the online Boston Globe through my MIT library credentials. While all these things were happening, the Globe showed what I could not recognize at the time. It was (and is) a provincial paper. Local news–murders, lesser crimes, obituaries of the minor and very-minor–outpaced all of the larger international stories. There were six stories about the Boston Red Sox, even though the season had ended almost two months before.

Why mention all this? I’ve discussed how internet research can provide wonderful raw material for writing. I recently finished writing a short story that I kind of like. It blends a fictional story with a few elements from my own past and, significantly, some events in history. The setting was 1982, and the narrator, like me, was working in the defense industry at a point when the Cold War was still very real and very scary. I remembered certain events of that time, and tracked down the details, read a number of articles about them. It brought the events themselves into sharper focus, but it also helped me understand why the character was as fearful as he was. He had good reason to be, even while many of the people around him were not.

All of this raw material can prove useful. I could base a story in that time. The main character could be based on my life as a graduate student or it could not. It could be the professor listening to the brief presentation. Maybe the professor is irritated or bored or distracted. Maybe it’s a classmate and she has something else more important on her mind. Maybe it’s someone at the Bruins game. Maybe it’s a man setting out to hunt or his son watching him leave. Maybe the man is not well. It’s his last hunt. Maybe his son is with him and is trying to come to terms with what this means.

I could write about some of those ideas without a great deal of additional research at this point. I’ve been that graduate student. I’ve been that professor. I’ve been that fellow student with something else on my mind. I’ve been at Bruins games. But I’ve never been hunting, and I never saw life behind the Iron Curtain. I wouldn’t visit Germany until 2001, when I was in Berlin and there were only vestiges of communist rule left.

I can even keep mining this material for now. I just picked up my mileage log for 1989, turned to a page. On November 7th I drove to Computer Mart of New Hampshire and then returned there on November 9th. I remember Computer Mart as the go-to place for Apple Macintosh repairs. Clearly something had gone wrong with my machine. It had to have been stressful for me. I was at a new job since late September, I was taking that class, I was a newlywed. They were champs, apparently, for getting the computer back to me in two days. Still, that was a long drive, 115 miles round trip. I left work one of those days, picked up the computer, and drove home. I could write about that.


I’ve Been Searching

internet22.pngI’ve mentioned elsewhere that the Internet has bolstered my creative writing. I love that I can find simple things quickly–the name of a street, a line from a song, a recipe for a drink. I have always loved dictionaries, almanacs, encyclopedias, and maps; use it well, I tell my students, and the Internet gives you many of the secondary sources you need.

As I write, my mind goes to ideas, or details I need to know, and I want to hunt those details or concepts down. A character is afflicted with an illness, and I want to know how they might be feeling, what challenges they face, and what their prognosis might me. I send a character down a street to pick up a passenger in his limo, and I want to know what that street looks like. I used Google Street View recently to look at a street scene to help me describe what my character would see when he looked out the window of a certain Irish pub in Manhattan.

Over the last few weeks, I have been working on four different stories, finishing one, and putting two on a back burner while one might head to the finish line. I went through my Google search history. Among many mundane searches (directions, work-related searches), I was delighted to find a long list of searches related to the stories:

  • Do hangovers kill brain cells?
  • Wretch
  • Retching
  • Bar stool designs
  • Worst kind of bipolar disorder
  • Wild Turkey 101
  • Chinese 8-Ball Pool
  • Ski skiing skied
  • Italian word for boy
  • The tulip bubble
  • Shades of purple
  • Belly shirt
  • Sussuration
  • Agape Greek love
  • Alderian therapy
  • Self-disclousre in therapy
  • What would a doctor do to help a patient die
  • Synonyms for sacred
  • Medical term for senility
  • Medical term for as needed
  • Refinery jobs
  • Population of Antarctica
  • Forest fires
  • Common Mexican girl names 2003

If I were even a half-way decent poet, I would have a good start on something here. Oh, and if you have never heard of the tulip bubble, you really owe it to yourself to read about it–on the internet, at least to start there.