ON KEEPING A LOGBOOK

Sunday, January 31st, 2010

An expanded version of this post appears in my book, Steal Like An Artist.

“Writers are the custodians of memory, and that’s what you must become if you want to leave some kind of record of your life…”— William Zinsser, “How To Write A Memoir”

We all know keeping a calendar of future events is important.

What about keeping a calendar of past events?

The best writing project I took on last year was what I call my logbook: a simple Moleskine daily planner in which I kept track of the little details of my day. Who, what, where types of details. Who I met, what I did, where I went, etc.

It’s not a diary or a journal. It’s a book of lists. The lists are simple facts.

Why not just keep a diary?

For one thing, I’m lazy. It’s easier to just list the events of the day than to craft them into a prose narrative. Any time I’ve tried to keep a journal, I ran out of steam pretty quick.

But more importantly, keeping a simple list of who/what/where means I write down events that seem mundane at the time, but later on help paint a better portrait of the day, or even become more significant over time. By “sticking to the facts” I don’t pre-judge what was important or what wasn’t, I just write it down.

Best of all, limiting each day to one page and breaking it down into a list instead of prose makes it easier for me to scan through it later, and get a real feel for the passing of time as I flip the pages.

From the Wikipedia entry for “logbook”:

A logbook was originally a book for recording readings from the log, and is used to determine the distance a ship traveled within a certain amount of time. The readings of the log have been recorded in equal times to give the distance traveled with respect to a given start position.

The distance the ship traveled. I like that.

(Below are a couple iPhone snapshots of example pages — these days aren’t significant, they’re just days with events benign enough to share with y’all.)




14 Comments on “ON KEEPING A LOGBOOK”

  1. JTWilcox Says:

    This is good stuff. Something I’ve considered doing for a while but haven’t actually got down to. I like your approach. Maybe I should finally start loggin’.

  2. Mileejnooy Says:

    Like the way you organize your day like that.
    Should try it sometimes!

  3. bonnie Says:

    I compulsively make lists in my journal. Some days turn out like yours above and some into full-blown entries/journaling. It’s why I started a blog that was intended to be list-themed, kind of a way to channel those lists and others (of books I wanted to read, and things I was thinking of, news stories of note) onto an online presence, but I never really kept up with that as often as I’ve wanted to. I’ve been thinking about recommitting to that and your scans actually were very similar to a thought I had, that when I don’t have time to transpose lists into blog entries, I could just photograph and upload them… I wondered if that would look crappy and if other people would be interested to read my handwritten lists. I enjoyed seeing yours, so I guess that answers that question well enough.

    This is an excellent post. Gave me more to think about. Thank you.

    -bonnie

  4. kim jackson Says:

    super cool!!

  5. Austin Kleon Says:

    Thanks, y’all.

    @Bonnie – Did you know that Umberto Eco has a whole book out about lists? A little bit from that interview:

    The list is the origin of culture. It’s part of the history of art and literature. What does culture want? To make infinity comprehensible. It also wants to create order — not always, but often. And how, as a human being, does one face infinity? How does one attempt to grasp the incomprehensible? Through lists, through catalogs, through collections in museums and through encyclopedias and dictionaries. There is an allure to enumerating how many women Don Giovanni slept with: It was 2,063, at least according to Mozart’s librettist, Lorenzo da Ponte. We also have completely practical lists — the shopping list, the will, the menu — that are also cultural achievements in their own right.

    Wherever you look in cultural history, you will find lists. In fact, there is a dizzying array: lists of saints, armies and medicinal plants, or of treasures and book titles. Think of the nature collections of the 16th century. My novels, by the way, are full of lists.

    I like your idea about just posting images of your lists. A Twitter follower of mine recently pointed out the existence of “typecast blogs“:

    A typecast (blogging) (a.k.a. typecasting or typecasting blog) is a form of blogging by media type and publishing in the format of a blog, but differentiated by the predominant use of and focus on text created with a typewriter and then scanned rather than text entered directly into a computer. Typecasting (the action of posting scanned typewritten images to a typecasting blog) is still a relatively rare form of a media type blog similar to vblog and photoblogs.

  6. Mark Says:

    I almost always journal my times traveling and hiking, but it took me a while to convert to everyday logging. I think it started when I realized I was (semi-obsessively) adding things to Google Calendar after the fact. Times locations people — “so that’s what I did last weekend”-type stuff. I finally put 2 and 2 together and converted to paper. I hope it lasts.

  7. Austin Kleon Says:

    I forgot to mention that I moved all of my “future” calendar over to Google Calendar, synced up on my iPhone. Nice digital / paper divide.

  8. Amy E. Hall Says:

    Great idea! Love the Zinsser quote!

  9. mary Says:

    Sounds like the 17th c. diary of Samuel Pepys…

  10. Randy Murray Says:

    This is a good practice for you, but it’s a valuable family artifact for your descendants. The one’s my great-great grandfather kept are a wonderful look into his daily life and a snapshot of other family members – who otherwise I might only know as a name on a family tree with born and died dates.

    I’ve kept them on and off for over thirty years. Thanks for the nice reminder to keep it up!

  11. Austin Kleon Says:

    That’s a really terrific point, Randy. But, if I want to be well-regarded by my offspring, maybe I should black out a few entries… :-)

  12. Randy Murray Says:

    Black out nothing. What they will value is especially those parts!

  13. Austin Kleon Says:

    @Randy: you’re totally right

    For those of you with iPhones, I just came across this really great app called Momento, which aggregates your Twitter feed, your Flickr, your Facebook, and your Last.FM tracks into a journal-type of layout.

    Here’s my page from today:

    momento app

    You can also, of course, add manual notes. It’s $2.99 right now.

    I think I’m going to use it as a kind of digital companion to my logbook!

  14. FIREFLIES : a newspaper blackout poem by Austin Kleon Says:

    […] I made for the book, way back in July of 2008. I know this because thankfully, I kept a detailed logbook on my book […]

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