Twice in the last couple of weeks I’ve had cause to refer back to stuff I’d written down but didn’t expect ever to refer to again.
The first time was when I returned to some old pages in the notebook I use for brainstorming rough ideas and outlines for individual chapters of my Darwin book. I typically go through this process to gather my ideas and research into some sort of order—to see the wood for the trees, so to speak—before sitting down at my computer to begin writing the chapter. Once I’ve got into the flow with the writing, I seldom if ever refer back to the notebook. The notebook is simply a tool for getting myself into the right frame of mind for writing. I returned to it on this occasion because, since completing the first draft of one particular chapter over a year ago, I’d read a couple of things elsewhere that made me wonder whether the chapter contained a serious error. I wanted to remind myself how I’d got to where I got to. The scrawled ideas in my notebook didn’t answer all my questions, but they gave enough pointers to enable me to retrace my research and eventually satisfy myself that I had not, in fact, committed a blunder.
The second time I referred back to some old stuff came last week when I was piecing together a few ideas for what is likely to be my next chapter. I had an idea to include a personal anecdote from a trip to Ireland several years ago, and was trying to remember when the trip took place. By digging around in my copious correspondence with a close friend, which goes all the way back to 1990, I soon unearthed a brief account of the trip. I was astonished to learn it took place 15 years ago this month. How time flies! The letter contained a couple of nice, forgotten details that may well end up in the chapter.
Over the last couple of years, thanks mainly to Covid, my letters to my friend have pretty much petered out. Correspondence has been replaced by FaceTime calls. In difficult times, it’s good to be able to talk face to face, even when you’re 200 miles apart. Working on my book is also, no doubt, partly to blame for the drop in my letter-writing. When you spend your working day researching, making notes, brainstorming ideas, and occasionally even writing a few words for the actual book, keeping up with personal correspondence can seem like a conflict of interests… You should be working on your book, not banging out mostly nonsense to friends! But it seems to me I’m missing a trick, here. The truth is, writing to my friend has become almost effortless for me. Over the years, I’ve developed a particular style in these letters that I can adopt at the drop of a hat. I can, almost literally, bang out a couple of thousand reasonably entertaining words about pretty much anything—or, more often, nothing. Perhaps, if I were to do more of that, some of this effortless writing technique might seep into my proper writing.
What was unexpected with both these recent examples of trawling through my old stuff was just how much pleasure I derived from the exercise. Flicking through the pages of my notebook provided a fascinating (to me) reminder of what had been going on in my mind during the different chapters of my book, from half-baked ideas that never saw the light of day, to half-baked ideas that somehow eventually did. Searching for the word ‘Ireland’ in my correspondence also resurrected memories from a number of other trips, including one of which I had—and still have—almost no recollection. If you can recall the details of a trip to Ireland, you were probably never there.
As a teenager, I occasionally—although only ever briefly—dabbled with keeping a diary. My pal Amy Liptrot has kept a diary for years, and now uses it as the basis for much of her published writing and journalism. As she said in a recent Guardian interview, “My ambition has always been to write my diary for a living. Which is kind of what I’m managing to do.” Indeed, Amy’s hand-written diary has become so important to her that, as she explained in the interview, she’s recently been looking for a fireproof box in which to store its many volumes.
But keeping a conventional diary doesn’t strike me as my kind of thing. Nowadays, I keep a writing journal, along with daily notes about my work, but these are very much like the notebook I mentioned above: used for brainstorming issues and ideas, with no real prospect or intention of their being revisited in future. I also have a number of old, non-work-related notebooks; an extensive catalogued collection of digital photographs; several albums of pre-digital photographic slides and negatives; my index-card reading notes from many of the books I’ve read over the years; some old school exercise books; and a host of old posts buried in the graveyards that are my various blog archives. All of these collections informally document stuff I got up to, or things that happened to interest me, over the years. They are, it turns out, my unplanned archives.
The Germans have a useful word to describe the assorted collections of documents left behind when a scholar or other noteworthy figure dies: nachlass. I certainly don’t think anyone apart from me would find much of interest in my own archives. But it occurs to me that perhaps I should be showing more of an interest in them myself. This would at least have the distinct advantage of someone showing an interest in them without me having to die first. Who knows, there might actually be some gold in them thar hills.
It also occurs to me that my informal, unplanned archives are only likely to be of much use to me in future if I continue to add stuff to them. So, if you’ll forgive me, I’m off to bang out a long letter about pretty much nothing to an old friend…