in defense of ephemera: how I work, part 1 (day 4 of 100)

tl;dr: The Zettelkasten method is mostly not for me, but I like the part that forces you to synthesize different ideas in your own words and make connections to other ideas at the level of the note. This is something I will incorporate as an intermediate step between collecting information from a text and writing in a project (more on that in part 2 tomorrow!).


Yesterday, I engaged in some excellent "productive" (read: not really productive at all) procrastination. I went down the rabbit hole of note-taking methods and found myself reading about the Zettelkasten method for a few hours. While the method is undeniably a great exercise in strengthening one's capacity for critical and organized thought, I concluded that most of the system is probably too cumbersome for my purposes.

I've found that for me, a guiding principle of the research process must be to have a project in mind. In my case, that project is a dissertation (or the steps leading up to it: term papers that may one day become chapters, literature reviews, annotated bibliographies, etc.). In the case of Zettelkasten, it seems like the end goal is to create a comprehensive, interlinked network of atomized ideas. That is, the project is the Zettelkasten itself. That's a noble goal, but I'm just trying to get through grad school intact.

Zettlekasten and I agree on a central point: the most important part is the process (it's always about the process, isn't it?) of developing one's own original thoughts out of the links between already-existing ideas. But the way I see it, it's okay if I lose notes after they've served their purpose. I don't have to collect, catalog, and physically link everything, because I don't need to have my brain-library outsourced. And I think this is in line with the Zettelkasten philosophy anyway. I read on one of the blogs (forgive me for not remembering which one; it was a frenzied binge) that the point is not to outsource the brain to find things later. Rather, it's to strengthen the mind's capactity for connections and deep thought, so that when the time comes to answer a new question, one doesn't turn to the archive of notes. One turns to one's own brain, superpowered from the repeated act of breaking ideas down and linking them together.

For me, it should suffice to take active notes, keep them somewhere I can easily clip them for the specific projects I'm creating now, and then archive them. I don't find it necessary to tag each note with a unique ID and painstakingly cross-reference each note with every other relevant item. And I would be overwhelmed by the prospect of having a bunch of disconnected (atomized) ideas. It's my preference to keep them associated with the book or article they came from, in the same note (even if that means having a very long note for an entire book, for example). This also makes citation much easier, which is critical for my work. When ideas are synthesized at the level of the note, it's hard to tease out which item comes from which source. I realize this comes at the expense of building a dynamically connected system, and I do love the idea of freeing individual ideas from their sources. But since I go through all my book/article notes to dump in relevant "atoms" for each project I'm working on, for me it's sufficient to create project-sized dynamic systems rather than one overarching one.

Plus, I enjoy writing by hand and I like having physical notebooks that correspond to particular times in my life (on average, I go through three small notebooks per semester, filled with class notes, meeting notes, reading notes, song lyrics, and miscellany). I'll probably digitize these at some point to get rid of the clutter (probably by scanning them, to save time). True, it's hard to search for a specific thing, but I have a general sense of what items/topics are in which notebooks. If I really have to go back for something, I can generally find it pretty quickly. So I suppose I'm defending the concept of selective ephemera: the ideas are logged somewhere, just not necessarily neatly categorized and linked to other ideas. They're ephemeral in the sense that I'm letting them go for now (once the notebook is filled and/or the project is finished), and they may or may not come back later. If I do choose to find them again, I will engage and strengthen my brain in new ways, as the information is bound to fit into my knowledge network differently in light of new experiences.

I will say that, in light of my Zettelkasten reading, I will make a new habit: Each time I finish taking notes on a new source, I'll skim through my library of notes to see if any connections jump out, and spend some time jotting down any new ideas.

I'll probably change it up someday, but this is the system that works for me now.


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