From the Archives: Andromeda on Keeping (brief!) notes

What an amazing time I had at the writers’ conference in Aspen, Colorado in 2002, studying with Ted Conover, a writer I’d admired for years,, who had so much to teach us. About that time, I remember…very little.

And how exciting to have attended the Kachemak Bay Writers’ Conference, two times– or was it three? I know I attended many great lectures and seminars and talks (that fabulous lecture by Eugenides!), about which I remember…very little.

The problem is not that I failed to take notes on these and other literary occasions. In fact, I filled entire notebooks. I wrote so much, in such a hurried and inspired scrawl, that I dare not wade into those messy pages now.

At my MFA program I also fill a notebook each residency. But thanks to the paperwork requirements the MFA enforces–part of each day is spent filling and submitting paperwork, which can seem, on the surface, quite onerous– I have both less and more than those notebooks. In addition to various other logs and evaluations and contracts, Antioch requires students to submit, a few weeks after each residency, a summary of every residency “learning experience,” including seminars, readings, orientations, and the rest. The total summary document can be no more than five pages, which translates into no more than one good paragraph for every class or reading attended. I may take multiple pages of notes per class, but then I have to distill, and that neat, typed, carefully formatted distillation– and the reconsolidation of memory it allows– has convinced me that I should have started this habit many, many years ago.

These are the kinds of clean, spare records I have for no other writing conference or literary experience, and not even from my own previous graduate and undergraduate school days. I may have boxes of old folders and files, but no desire whatsoever to go through them. If I had instead, from my past degrees, a handful of pages per semester, maybe 40 or 60 in all, what a gift that would be!

Come to think of it, this very brief summary document could be used even outside formal academic settings. I think of the years I’ve spent in a writers’ group — nearly two decades now. If I had made myself type up a single summary paragraph per meeting, summarizing what I learned or questioned or thought about or vociferously debated, I might have gained so much more. Ditto for reading groups. How I would love to remember now the gist of those monthly discussions–but only the gist!

As we’ve said often on this blog, it takes a long time to become a proficient writer, which is why the shortcuts matter.

Will I be disciplined enough to create summary learning documents without an external deadline imposed? Only time will tell. But it’s a good idea I wanted to share. With some great writing center classes and talks starting in February, and the writing conference season starting a few months later, this would be a great time for commiting to a new habit. Just remember (I tell myself and anyone inclined to join me): one distilled paragraph only per talk or class….

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