In the midst of all the high-flying advice given to new graduates, I want to offer something small that I wish I had started sooner and continued longer.
When you’re a student, note taking is a daily activity. In class you take notes on paper or computer; at home you take notes in the margins of assigned reading, whatever amount of that you actually tackle. Graduation looks like a great time to give it all up.
Don’t. Now is the time to begin keeping notes about your life.
When you’re 18 or 21 years old, you remember everything that has happened to you. But that’s when note taking should start, because you won’t always remember the early years.
You might be thinking, “She forgets because she’s old,” but I was already forgetting details about my teenage years when I was in my 40’s. I’ll bet your own parents can’t answer simple questions about your childhood. Everyone forgets — sooner than anticipated. Here’s my story.
I’m a note-taker by inclination. I’ve kept notes on all kinds of things that interest me from places to visit, to favorite restaurants, to people I want as kayaking buddies.
Some of my lists felt silly when I started them, because I thought I’d remember this stuff anyway. But it turns out that I do not remember the names of all my ex-boyfriends, and it was fun, not long ago, to find my old list.
The number of things you might take notes on grows as you get older. Soon you’ll need to track not only your own interests and activities, but those of your partner and of your children. My lists have jogged my memory many a time.
Below I offer three: the two I’ve kept longest, and the one I most wish I had continued.
I started this in 1994, when I got my first computer. When I finish a book, I type in the author, title, year of publication and the year when I read the book.
Then I write a short plot summary (for fiction) or a statement about the book’s intent (for non-fiction). I record whether I liked the book and why. I often end with a note advising myself to read more titles by this author, or to give a copy of this book to a friend.
After I’d been keeping my book log for almost ten years, amazon.com started publishing plot summaries, as well as reader critiques. My plot summaries grew shorter as a result, but I like writing my own critiques.
About Pulitzer-prize winner Robert Olen Butler, I recently wrote, “These are great short stories because I feel complete at the end, not as if the whole thing was too darn short.”
After reading Bill Clinton’s autobiography, I expressed frustration with all he left out: “I don’t think Clinton was really ready to write the honest ‘My Life.’”
When I don’t like a book, it’s satisfying to say so, if only to myself.
I track our cars in a computer log every time they go in for service. I put the mileage, the date and what was done. I find that my log is much easier to review than the receipts I get from repair shops.
These notes have saved me from unnecessary expense several times, because I know precisely when I bought a new battery or new tires.
As with my book log, I’m basically writing advice to myself because I know that without it, I’ll forget important details.
“This place gives a free car wash.”
“I like the new service manager.”
“I had an expired coupon, but they didn’t care about my tardiness at all.”
Finally, there’s the list I wish I had kept but that fell apart. When I began it, in handwriting, before I had a computer, I called it my “Life Chronology.”
I began in about 1975 and tried to record everything major I’d done. Job changes went onto the list, new boyfriends, health issues, new living arrangements. After I married at 31 and had children, I started life chronologies for them, too, but sadly, I got busy and failed to keep up.
Every now and then, though, I glance at what I have. I’m stunned that our wedding cost just over a thousand dollars. I’m surprised that Woodland Hospital kept me for two days after normal childbirth. I’d completely forgotten that I taught a brief class when my baby was only 3 months old.
I wish I had not let this particular log fall by the wayside when my kids were 6 and 9, because I’ve learned how fallible memory can be. Photographs (which I also collect) jog my memory, but not about some of the most important things. For example, they record births, but not deaths.
Sometimes the notes from my kid’s childhoods feel to me like gold from ancient pyramids.
We gave our daughter a snake for her 8th birthday?
Graduation speakers will tell you that you should develop lifetime habits that are good for you. In a well-known commencement address erroneously attributed to Kurt Vonnegut, columnist Mary Schmich offers the humble advice that you should wear sunscreen. I agree that sunscreen saves your skin, but by definition skin is only skin deep.
Take the advice about sunscreen. But more important: keep notes.
— Marion Franck lives in Davis with her family. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org