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Taking Notes


Memory Almost Full


We generate far more actionable information than is encoded in all of our combined genetic material, and carry much of it into the future. We’ve been pumping out persistent data since that first caveman’s painting on a wall, and we’ve kept on pumping ever since. We crank out something like 2.5 quintillion bytes of data a day, more than a billion, billion, bytes. The question is, what do we do with information that is useless, taking up a lot of space, and how do we decide what has no reason to be kept?

Back to the caveman, that primordial writer, and to us — the art of taking notes.                                                                                                              

I must confess, I’m not a master of this art, but I’m a serious practitioner. I take a lot of notes, and maybe you can learn from my mistakes.

There are all kinds of notes. The quickly scribbled, possibly brilliant, ideas that come to you while you’re watching something stupid on TV, or washing dishes, on your way to work, or at work, in some foreign place, you witness something, an epiphany you know you will forget if you don’t write it down—gone like a dream you wake up from.

There are bits of information that might turn out to be relevant for future plots: fragments of poems, and ideas, diaries from trips to other places, photos, plans, codes for house alarm and route, translations. Details—how things smelled, or felt, or sounded.

I’ve accumulated many notebooks. I have notebooks by the TV, in the car, and on my desk, and in my pants. Men used to carry notebooks in their pants. ‘Little black books’ they were called. I started using them in collage: class notes, addresses, important dates. I still have dozens of them stashed away with names, past lovers, places, books I wanted, clever quotes and such. Some are from fifty years ago. Why am I saving these?  You never know when one might hold some data that’s exactly what I need—although this is extremely doubtful.

Back pockets are hard on notebooks. Those early black books lasted twelve or thirteen months. But thirty years ago I found the perfect replacement. A police notebook, heavy leather, cover holds a pad—one of those things the cops flip upon when they’re making an arrest. I’ve had the same one all these years.

I’m probably one of the last to have a little black book. They have been replaced by cell phones that hold gigabytes of information; even photos saved in seemingly into a galaxy of space.

Travel Notebooks. 

I am one of many who keep travel notebooks. I count four now scattered on my desk, for no good reason, possibly romantic, semi scrapbooks interspaced with ticket stubs, recites from hotels, boarding passes, restaurants, and currency exchanges. They take up desk space, but one might hold information needed later.

I see half a dozen other notebooks in arms reach. One has data that pertains to an unfinished novel that has been through two revisions and a viciously professional, expensive editor who found so much wrong I put the thing aside. Another notebook’s for a magnum opus has gone through three revisions. I would like to finish it before I die, but not sure I want to devote the rest of my life to it. A hundred fifty thousand words—it should be two books, one of many problems.

All in all I count a dozen notebooks on my desk and nearby table, far too many. I’m a data hoarder, but determined to get rid of some of my accumulation, one page at a time if nothing else.

If you look carefully at upper center of this photo, you can see one labeled, ‘Trash’. Why haven’t I thrown it away? Needs one more look through, on some other day, not this one. Smaller notebooks have been used for less important and intentionally temporary items: deadlines, submit places, contests—scattered here and there.

My desk is a constant mess, but I have a cognitive map of where things are. When notes go digital into computer’s ‘Documents’, I’m never sure, and often forget what I named the file I saved them in. There have been PC crashes. We have all been there—the horror.

I take notes, on paper that will never disappear. They might get lost, but will be found, if not today, than some day later, possibly by chance as I am looking for an unrelated subject. Ah the joy of it, like finding money on the sidewalk.

I hope you are better than myself or keeping track of things, more organized, skilled cell phone users, but there may be one or two of you who know whereof I speak.

I’ll end with what I think is true story I read, about a playwright. He was tree trimming, and had stopped to rest upon on a branch. An idea for a play came to him and he went through the whole thing, from beginning to the end, and it was brilliant. When he set foot on the ground again it was completely gone, and never came back.

So keep on taking notes of thoughts in passing, but keep better track of them than I do. Never be without a pin and paper, in the car, airplane, or living room, have something you can scribble on. Save often and save early. I have two small tips.

  1. Numbering notebook pages, with an index on 1st page will help find specific notes, rather than having to look through all the pages to find one description, or a thought.
  2. Don’t be too brief. I look back at notes taken a year or two ago and can’t remember what the hell I was thinking about.

One good thing about notebooks, no one can steal our ideas, without breaking into house. Notebooks are a look into the past, more subjective than diaries, an endless flow of ideas, titles, plots and feelings ready to be shared. Some writers struggle to come up with a new ideas, some keep notebooks.




Understanding Poetry Tags: Writing Poetry


Understanding Poetry

On more than one occasion I have noticed a reader responding to a poem, or poetry in general as: “I really don’t understand poetry.” As a poet I have often wanted to respond. This looks like a good opportunity.

To begin with I should explain that I am an uneducated poet. My degrees, gleaned many years ago, were not in literature, journalism, or poetry, or English. I have never learned to spell, in all these years, and confess that there is poetry I simply do not understand. At best I comprehend about a third, or less of poems I see in the New Yorker Magazine. So many times I just don’t get it. There is a sort of intellectual, educated, learned, intellectual, and academically correct poetry that goes right by me. I once asked a more literate friend to explain this mystery to me. What was between the lines, unseen by me?

He said the reader was supposed to experience an epiphany.

I think this may have happened to me once, if ever, but it doesn’t matter. There are plenty of poets and poetry I understand immediately, without effort.

Though totally untrained I have been able to have some of my own poems published now and again in literary journals edited by learned professionals and graduate students. It’s interesting to realize my work is being decided on by graduate students—twenty-one year olds who are still in school. Some get their work published in The New Yorker. Some will graduate to become editors of commercial journals—that pay.


This modest success is within the reach of all of us. Few of us write poetry with the thought of making a buck. To do so is crazy, but crazy might be a good thing for poets to be.

About forms:

There are many forms, sonnets, sestinas, and villanelles are a few. I honestly could not define what any of these are. It doesn’t matter. Though some contests and journals might look specifically for one of these or other forms, they are a minority – in my opinion.

Rhyming poetry is another form. It used to be almost required, but not anymore. Many literary journals will not accept it, which is a shame. I am a rhyming savant, it comes easy to me. Maybe that’s the reason, too easy. It’s considered sort of corny now . . . but fun. My rhyming poems have gone over big at retirement and birthday celebrations—modest social events. There are, however, journals that look for this form. The following is an excerpt taken from a contest listed on line this month.

Two prizes of $1,500 each and publication on the Winning Writers website are given annually for a poem in any style and a poem that either rhymes or is written in a traditional....


Rhythm is always important – cadence. But don’t get put off by mind numbing concepts such as, iambic pentameter.

The following abridged excerpt is from an interview with Allen Ginsberg in The Paris Review.


I think Diana Trilling remarked that your poetry, like all poetry in English when dealing with a serious subject, naturally takes on the iambic pentameter rhythm. Do you agree?


Well, it really isn’t an accurate thing, I don’t think. I’ve never actually sat down and made a technical analysis of the rhythms that I write. They’re probably more near choriambic—Greek meters, dithyrambic meters—and tending toward de DA de de DA de de ... what is that? Tending toward dactylic, probably. Williams once remarked that American speech tends toward dactylic. But it’s more complicated than dactyl because dactyl is a three—three units, a foot consisting of three parts—whereas the actual rhythm is probably a rhythm which consists of five, six, or seven, like DA de de DA de de DA de de DA DA. Which is more toward the line of Greek dance rhythms—that’s why they call them choriambic. There are definite rhythms that could be analyzed as corresponding to classical rhythms, though not necessarily English classical rhythms; they might correspond to Greek classical rhythms, or Sanskrit prosody.


 And in Howl and Kaddish you were working with a kind of classical unit? Is that an accurate description?


Yeah, but it doesn’t do very much good, because I wasn’t really working with a classical unit, I was working with my own neural impulses and writing impulses. The difference is between someone sitting down to write a poem in a definite preconceived metrical pattern and filling in that pattern, and someone working with his physiological movements and arriving at a pattern, and perhaps even arriving at a pattern that might even have a name, or might even have a classical usage, but arriving at it organically rather than synthetically. Nobody’s got any objection to even iambic pentameter if it comes from a source deeper than the mind. What’s important is the breathing and the belly and the lungs. We all have that ability. American poets have been able to break away from a kind of English specified rhythm earlier than English poets have been able to do.


Do you think this has anything to do with a peculiarity in English spoken tradition?


I don’t really think so, because the English don’t speak in iambic pentameter either; they don’t speak in the recognizable pattern that they write in. The dimness of their speech and the lack of emotional variation is parallel to the kind of dim diction and literary usage in the poetry now. But you can hear all sorts of Liverpudlian or Gordian—that’s Newcastle—you can hear all sorts of variants aside from an upper-tone accent—a highclass accent—that don’t fit into the tone of poetry being written right now. It’s not being used like in America—I think it’s just that British poets are more cowardly. 

*       *       *

Ginsberg is one of my favorite poets. One can always understand exactly what his work is about, and there are many others.

Charles Bukowski

Charles Bukowski, another favorite said: “An intellectual says a simple thing in a hard way. An artist says a hard thing in a simple way.” Spot on. Let’s all be artists

I Don’t Know

Wislawa Szymborska

The excerpts and comments below are from a review I saw on the Polish Poet, Wislawa Szymborska’s 1996 Nobel Prize lecture.

“Poets, if they are genuine, must keep repeating ‘I don’t know.”

Her poetry demonstrates this ideal through its allegiance to astonishment, a feature that’s perhaps her most lasting influence on poetry. Astonishment is a surrender born out of inquisitive and active humility; its sympathetic refrain of “I don’t know” offers poetry space for a wandering imagination.

The phrase “I don’t know” is “small, but it flies on mighty wings. It expands our lives to include the spaces within us as well as those outer expanses in which our tiny Earth hangs suspended. It is the core of curiosity, and, paradoxically, it’s perhaps the phrase most integral to empathy. “I don’t know” doesn’t mean I don’t want to know but rather I want to know more. It is an allowance of space meant to be filled. It makes room for the other and for other people.”

Poetry, Szymborska contends, is the operative exercise of not knowing.

     “Each poem marks an effort to answer this statement, but as soon as the final period hits the page, the poet begins to hesitate, starts to realize that this particular answer was pure makeshift that’s absolutely inadequate to boot.” Poems are not parades of the known but rather failed attempts at knowing—much like the essay, named thus for the Old French word meaning “to try— essayer.”

Reminds me of a Buddhist koan: What are the first words of wisdom? Answer: I don’t know. 

*       *       *

This blog is getting longer than intended, but before I end, since we’re into Asia, and forms, I want to say a bit about Haiku—traditionally a short three line poem (5 syllables, 7 syllables. 5 syllables).

One of our Writers Abroad members recently wrote a very nice piece about Haikus, and I thought I would see a lot of responsive attempts to write them. This didn’t happen. Another member advised readers not to get too hung up on Haiku forms, which are some of the most restrictive, in my opinion.

There were no attempts, at my last look. I suspect most of us were put off by the rules and perhaps, as for myself, uncertainty as to how many syllables were in certain words. But you can Google them, i.e. ‘How many syllables are in phenomenal?’ One gets an immediate answer. As for form, forget about it, unless you are submitting to a contest with specific requirements. Have fun!

Japanese Haiku master, Basho’s koans, rarely end up 5 -7 -5 in English. Maybe they do in Japanese script. I don’t know, but they work. Below is my Basho favorite.

Look Children

Hail stones

Let’s run out!


Wow. It’s got everything, including humor. That’s hard one, getting humor in the punch line, a surprise. Not easy, but this is a fun form, or not-form, educational in both syllablic understanding, rhythm, and economy of words.

Let’s all run out without the fear of rules and what we don’t know. “What’s important is the breathing and the belly and the lungs.” We all have that ability.


We are all poets, some of us don’t know it.



Shovelling Snow In Sweden Tags: Snow Days

Snow days should be a perfect time to write, with nothing much to do and few diversions, but things happen. Seems like all I want to do is sleep.


Had a cold these last 2 weeks, now starting on my third. The weather is not good. It often isn’t here in Sweden—lots of rain, and snow, and shovelling. 80 years old, with a cold I can’t seem to shake. I feel like shit, and I’m shovelling snow twice a day. Wife also shovels, but she’s Swedish. Shovelling snow comes natural to them. It’s in their DNA.

I thought I would be writing, but spend more time peering through windows. Has it stopped? Yes, for the moment. More is promised later on tonight. I was born in Illinois, but got out as soon as I could. I still remember local winter news (we had newspapers back then) about men having heart attacks, while shovelling snow. There were a few deaths every year. I’ve got a good heart, I think. Just sayin’.

I am not used to shovelling. I’ve spent almost all my years in San Francisco, and Seattle. It snows in Seattle, but seldom—and there was nothing to shovel where we lived. We did not own a snow shovel. I didn’t know what a show shovel looked like. Now we have two very serious ones. They are curved scoops, thirty inches wide, and can pick up a lot of snow in a hurry. You can slide the thing along in front of you, but snow gets heavy. Wife insists we shovel our double driveway when snow it less than an inch deep. This makes for a lot of shovelling but is probably a good idea—like I said, she’s Swedish. They know snow, the Swedes.

I’m thinking it’s a primal part of Swedish DNA,  genetic fear of being snowed in, trapped, and starving to death. I’m sure it happened in the old days. The American way, in my opinion, would be to stock up, booze and food, and wait it out. A day or two, no problem. Phones and the TV work. A perfect time to write, an introvert’s delight, but my creative drive’s gone bear-like. All I want to do is sleep, to hibernate. This wish as yet unrealized, but with good reason. Wife has clients coming to the house. The Swedes have not yet learned the art of suing one another, but an accident would be an ugly thing, if someone slipped and hurt themselves. Salt doesn’t work; it just lays there and looks at me. We had a chance to buy a departing neighbour’s snow blower this summer, but it was a big, clumsy looking thing and it seemed silly for just a double driveway.

There were new arrival immigrants housed near here a year ago, and young men in our neighbourhood were glad to make some extra cash. We hired three to help us move a very heavy dresser into the house. They were delighted with the cash earned in less than an hour, and we with their help—a nice, friendly, experience. The motel where they were staying is empty now. They have moved on, but I keep thinking that there must be someone who would be happy pick up a hundred kronor cash for thirty minutes work. Maybe next year. In the meantime there is shovelling to be done.


Still snowing. Three more inches fell last night, and non-stop all this day. I have begun to write with nose and head stopped up, but my creative juices flow. The subject—snow of course. Snow poems, the silence, whiteness, brightness, but the muse is interrupted by the need to scoop and move the stuff around. I wonder, how old do you have to be to get a free pass out of shovelling? Ninety ought to do it. Maybe less?  This getting up in years, the growing long of tooth, more food to feed the muse.

It’s interesting growing old. Full of surprises, unexpected, and defining moments of awareness. At a dinner party with wife’s family, after my arrival in here Sweden, there were several youngsters. A young mother started pointing to the diners at the table as she asked a child sitting on her lap, “Do you know who that is?” There were ten of us. The kid knew almost all our names, but when she came to me and asked, “Who’s that?” The child grinned with pleasure, knowing that he had the correct answer. “Old man,” he exclaimed without a second thought. My new found relatives cracked up, and I laughed too, but it was an epiphany—the first of many age related. These people saw me as an old man, and in truth I was the oldest at the table—but was still in my mid seventies. When did ‘old man’ happen? 

More of those moments came this snowbound week, while watching TV. I learned I was geriatric. When you turn eighty you are automatically classified as geriatric. Yuk. Sounds awful. There were several shows with older people who could barely move, or drive a car, or understand computers. People in their seventies. ‘She’s seventy five and driving a truck, all by herself—amazing.’ Still more bad news, eighty year olds dying all over the place—of course, they’ve always done that. That’s what people do. They die, sooner or later. If you make it to eighty you’re doing pretty good. A lot of us didn’t.

In the mean time typing’s easier than shovelling. Spring will come again, as always, and the words float out of nowhere to white pages spattered with black ink. Takes more than snot to stop a plot, and long term memory recalls a host of willing subjects.

Digger Odell was a character on an American radio show called, The Life of Riley, long ago-mid 1950’s. Digger was a mortician who always ended his exits with, “I’d better be, shovelling off.”


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