by Ruth Harris
Who has used this secret superpower to achieve success?
Tom Brady, Quarterback.
A recent article on the sports page about Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ Quarterback Tom Brady preparing himself and his team for the Superbowl grabbed my attention.
According to the story, one of Brady’s habits throughout a season is to create a vast notebook of slightly modified pass-play combinations and intricate options to help teammates prepare for games. He has done the same in Tampa.
“You’d think we’re building rockets with the amount of information that’s in a notebook for a bunch of football players,” Brady said. “But all those plays and all the schemes add up over the course of the year.”
Tom just won another Superbowl. Was it notebook juju?
Helen Gurley Brown, Author and Magazine Editor.
Helen Gurley Brown, bestselling author of Sex And The Single Girl and the long-time editor of Cosmopolitan magazine, was another devoted note-taker. Article assignments from HGB, as she was referred to, often came in the form of three or four word notes.
These scribbled notes memorialized her transient thoughts, fleeting ideas, quick insights, and flash observations. I received one saying “Robert Redford is vulnerable.” I don’t know what impelled HGB to make this note—did RR not get a role he wanted? Or the girl he longed for? (I know, hard to believe.)— but those four words ended up as a Cosmo article about ways in which everybody—even the rich and famous—is in one way another vulnerable, prone to disappointment and bruised feelings.
Another scrawled note read: “men who bring you down.” I questioned its source and discovered it referred to a Cosmo editor who’d been dating an attractive widower. No matter what she did or how hard she tried, she could not move him out of the depression that had ensued after his wife’s death. Instead, the weight of his gloom infected her. It affected her productive and successful professional life and eventually caused her to break off the relationship.
Those brief notes, passed to writers as starting points for articles, would be expanded. They formed the basis for what became one of the world’s most successful magazines. With 64 international editions, printed in 35 different languages, it was distributed in over 110 countries.
For HGB, those notes became an international language.
John Bolton, Washington Power Player.
John Bolton, attorney, diplomat, and Repblican political consultant served as United States Ambassador to the United Nations from August 2005 to December 2006. More recently, he served as the National Security Advisor to President Donald Trump. Mr. Bolton is well known in Washington for voluminous note-taking during high level DC meetings.
Those notes served as the basis for his best-selling book about his tenure in the Trump administration: The Room Where It Happened. It was published in 2020.
Richard Branson, Entrepreneur.
The billionaire founder of Virgin Air carries a notebook with him everywhere. He credits note taking as one of his most important habits.
“I go through dozens of notebooks every year and write down everything that occurs to me each day, because an idea not written down is an idea lost. When inspiration calls, you’ve got to capture it. I can’t tell you where I’d be if I hadn’t had a pen on hand to write down my ideas (or more importantly, other people’s) as soon as they came to me. Some of Virgin’s most successful companies have been born from random moments – if we hadn’t opened our notebooks, they would never have happened.”
Thomas Edison, Inventor.
During his life Thomas Edison captured over 5 million pages of notes to ensure that everything useful or important was captured and recorded so it could be referred back to as a powerful memory aid.
Bill Gates, Mr. Microsoft.
Bill Gates—you know him, the founder of Microsoft, philanthropist and one of the richest men in the world—is an avid note taker. Although the digital space is where he made his fortune, he goes old school and uses paper and pen to jot down items he wants to remember.
George Lucas, Movie Maker.
The Star Wars director kept a pocket notebook with him at all times for writing down ideas, thoughts and plot angles.
Phoebe Ephron, Screenwriter and Mom.
Screenwriter Phoebe Ephron famously reminded her daughter, Nora, that “everything is copy” and to “take notes.”
Caroline Webb, Scientist
Behavioral scientist, Caroline Webb, author How to Have a Good Day, advises: “Write it down as soon as it comes to mind. Use your intelligence for getting things done, rather than trying to remember what you need to do.”
Sheryl Sandberg, Leaner In.
Although she works at a tech company, FaceBook COO, Sheryl Sandberg is rarely seen without her notebook. According to Fortune magazine, she keeps track of her day with a “decidedly un-digital spiral-bound notebook.”
What do They Know that You Don’t?
- Brilliant ideas tend to come helter-skelter and in no coherent order. They often appear when you’re distracted or occupied with something else. Making a quick note guarantees that your brilliant idea will not be lost or forgotten.
- The genius idea you’ve been looking for suddenly comes to you from out of nowhere while you’re standing on line at the bank. A few words dictated into your phone or scrawled on the back of a deposit slip will save the idea—and your book.
- The killer plot point might arrive unbidden and not necessarily when most needed. Make a note and that plot point will be there for you.
- Characters can—and will—be flat, boring, uninspired. Sorry about that. A saved article about a woman who made a fortune selling burritos on the subway or an obituary about someone who fought sexism/racism/ageism and won can be the basis for your character’s struggle to achieve his or her goal. Whatever their problem, some characters need a kick in the butt and that note you almost forgot about can give the solution to their problem without the cost of expensive therapy.
- The “perfect” sassy/hilarious/devastating come-back might take a week (or more!) to marinate before it jumps into your head, fully formed. Better write it down. Quick. Or you might forget it.
What Should You Make a Note About?
The answer is, everything and anything as long it piques your interest and makes you perk up and take notice.
- An overheard lovers’ quarrel.
- A weirdo question from the person next to you at the meat counter. I heard a woman ask the butcher to spatula her chicken. A comedy of confusion and misunderstanding ensued. Turned out, she meant spatchcock. (Splitting, then flattening a chicken to cook faster.)
- The crass remark the pastor of my mother’s church made to me right after her death. Made a note. Forgot him. Didn’t forget what he said.
- The grass skirt blowing in the frigid breeze I saw on a guy very early one bitter cold NYC January morning. I guess that party ran really late.
- The bizarre encounter with a former colleague who thought I was someone else (which I didn’t realize until ten minutes later when I was trying to figure out what on earth he’d been talking about).
- Even meetings (Zoom or otherwise) provide fodder—the sleepy colleague nodding off in the middle of a presentation, the dopey comment in response to a boss’s qustion, the crabby guy from Accounting, the Marketing Director’s cute kid/kitten/dog, the smart remark, the brilliant solution, the funny moment.
If You Don’t Make a Note, You Might not Remember that Intriguing Detail
(even though you think you will.)
Use some or all of the following helpers—
- Dictated into your phone.
- A cyber note-taking app like Evernote or One Note.
- An email you send to yourself.
- Pen or pencil in a notebook.
- An index card.
- On the back of a grocery receipt.
- Or (ahem) on a cocktail napkin.
- Snap a pic because one day the details of wardrobe, grooming, or setting will be just what you need to set the “Perfect” scene or bring a season or a specific place to life. Your camera will remember details of shape, color, mood, background you might forget.
- Here is a list of the best notebooks in 2021.
- From the steno notebook, to the reporter’s notebook, the (very) pricey Smythson Soho planner, and the classic Moleskine to apps like Evernote and OneNote notebooks come in an almost endless variety of shapes, forms, and sizes. There is at least one that’s perfect for you.
PS: for Pantsers.
Even pantsers need a way to control the messy process of writing a book. Notes can and will take the place of—shhhh!—the outline you (I) hate to/can’t write.
Make Your Notebook a Habit.
There is every reason to think that what works for Tom Brady, Helen Gurley Brown and Richard Branson will also work for you.
Little by little, day by day, note by note you will create an invaluable resource file that is uniquely yours. It will be filled with your insights, your interests, and your observations.
As Tim Ferris said: “I trust the weakest pen more than the strongest memory.”
by Ruth Harris (@RuthHarrisBooks) February 28, 2021
What about you, scriveners? Do you carry a notebook to jot down all those gems to use in your fiction? Do you carry an elegant notebook, or a ratty one? (for some recommendations for elegant notebooks, see Ruth’s Post on Gifts for Writers.) Do you worry about ruining a lovely notebook with sloppy notes? (That’s my problem…sez Anne.) Have you perused an old notebook and found a wonderful inspiration for your WIP?
BOOK OF THE WEEK
The Married Woman—Once a shy wallflower, Carlys Webber marries multimillionaire Kirk Arnold. Soon Kirk changes from a loving husband to an angry stranger. Will Carlys risk her precious marriage for a few moments of stolen passion with the irresistibly handsome and sensuous architect, George Kouras?
The Single Woman—Fashion world superstar, Jade Mullen survives deception and divorce. She vows never to be betrayed again. But what will she do when her devoted lover, architect George Kouras, asks her the one question she doesn’t want to answer?
The Husband—Kirk Arnold struggles to forget the dark secrets of his tormented past. He achieves one dazzling success after another. But will he succumb to the tragedy that destroyed his family? And will Carlys pay the price?
The Lover—George Kouras rises from humble beginnings to the top of his profession. He and Jade fall madly in love and think they have discovered a new way to live happily ever after. But what will she do when she finds out about George and Carlys?
Set in the glittering world of fashion and in high-powered executive suites, in run-down houses, ethnic neighborhoods and sedate suburbs, Husbands and Lovers is about men and women losing—and finding themselves—in the gritty 1970s and glitzy 1980s. “Steamy and fast-paced, you will be spellbound.”–Cosmopolitan