Keep track of the tiny details By Melissa Kirsch Welcome. I like to get up while it’s dark, before anyone else has begun to stir, walking through the apartment on tiptoe with the world on mute. I fix my coffee in the dark and wake up slowly. There are fewer variables, minimal stimuli. At 5 a.m., New York’s famed sleeplessness is repudiated.
This morning, I used the time to sit and think. I tried to remember the early morning on this date 19 years ago, but found many details were lost. That day, in my memory, begins at 8:50 a.m., when I left the house for work. My recollection is limited to the broad strokes of the narrative I’ve retold over the years: I went here, I saw this, I felt this. I know I bought dried figs on the walk home, but only because I’ve recounted that one detail so many times. If only I’d kept a log book then.
I learned about the log book from the artist Austin Kleon, who recommends keeping “a calendar of past events,” a notebook where you record the ordinary facts of the day. It’s a very simple form of commonplacing, of setting aside information for your future self. I love the simplicity of this practice, how it’s distinct from a diary, which to me implies commitment and complete sentences. As Mr. Kleon writes: 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 prejudge what was important or what wasn’t, I just write it down. The log book excites me because its simple lists of small details might, when I reread them someday, unlock troves of memory.
If I jot down that on Sept. 11, 2020 I bought oat milk from the deli on the corner, then perhaps, decades from now, that shorthand will remind me of the $5 bunches of hyacinths I bought every spring at that deli, how I once saw a handwritten sign taped to the shelf there that said “PLEASE STOP BITING THE BREAD,” that I used to go there late at night and chat with the owner through masks, that I once saw a famous musician there in his pajamas and slippers. I’ll be able to access the particulars of this period and not just the synopsis of a year in quarantine.