The observation journal has been very useful for not only collecting thoughts but developing them. Many of these are for creative projects. The journal, however, has helped my clarify thoughts and opinions on processes and theories, and to find new questions to pursue beyond those. This has helped with making things, of course, but also with writing about things I and other people have made.
In this post, I’ve:
- set out a quick outline of how this appears to work, and
- followed it with an example of a page that led to a piece for the Meanjin blog.
Finding ideas behind the patterns
Sometimes an interesting question will spark on the page, and I’ll chase off after it for several days until I run it to earth. But sometimes ideas emerge more slowly. The observation journal has let me approach those gradually, waiting until I have enough information or something has crystallised in the back of my mind, or the time is otherwise right.
In both cases, this seems to be the approach I follow. The key part is the two-step of looking, and then looking again. (If you’re a Pratchett reader, there’s a dash of Tiffany Aching in there.)
- Collecting impressions over time
- Noting patterns
- Either noticing obvious patterns, or forcing connections between apparently unrelated books, shows, etc, or being struck anew by something in an older entry — see Bookmarks and Remarks, and Todd Henry’s note-taking model referenced there).
- On this point, and the one above, see Distilling Thoughts and Readings.
- Picking a particularly interesting pattern
- Sometimes this involves finding a working name for it, as with industrial fabulism.
- Listing key aspects and examples
- Often (as here) I’ll have already noticed some obvious aspects of the pattern. I’ll list those, then look for examples of each.
- At other times — as with staginess — I’ll just list the examples, and see what emerges.
- *Listing notable components of those examples
- What about that book or picture of movie makes it so particularly an example of the thing I’m examining?
- *Looking for new patterns and points of interest in this new level of notes
- Sometimes these are obvious. At other times, finding links can be a puzzle. Sometimes the disparity is the point, and the joy is in the surprise of bringing these apparently disconnected examples together.
- Seeing what can be done with that
- A story, a theory, an amusement, a structure, something to fight with or against…
Step 4 is where I’d tend to stop in the past, when trying to get from “things I know” to (for example) “a written essay”. But steps 5 and 6 are where the process generally tips into a new gear and the fun begins.
Example: The Romance of Navigable Worlds
At the time I wrote this page, I was working on a post for Meanjin on what I’d been reading, and the ways I was trying to make those books fit each other. That piece ended up being particularly about the idea of “the romance of the navigable world”: What I’m Reading: Kathleen Jennings.
I’d been thinking about this idea in my paper “Heyer . . . in Space! The Influence of Georgette Heyer on Science Fiction”, which eventually became a chapter in Georgette Heyer, History and Historical Fiction (available from UCL Press, and although the print version is very reasonably priced, the ebook version is free). But at that time, I was interested in the mechanics permitted by a story that was about becoming competent in a world, vs a story that was about breaking and changing a world.
However, the appeal of such stories kept recurring through the observation journal, in various guises. See, for example, the aesthetics of stagey worlds (Chasing Patterns With Digressions on the Appeal of Staginess and Little Groves), the delight of of watching people become competent (Sparks and Navigable Worlds and Five Things to Steal from Midsomer Murders), and structure as trap vs structure as freedom (Distilling Thoughts and Readings). It also kept appearing in many books I was reading.
Of course, once you notice a pattern, it’s easier to find new examples — even spurious ones. The trick there is remembering whether you’re analysing for Serious Purposes (using defensible examples) or creating fiction/ornament/entertainment/havoc (in which case the spurious ones can be the most fun).
So on this page, I dropped all those ideas into one place. I listed the types of books (generally rather than by name, in this case). And then I noted the relevant characteristics of each. This let me see what further patterns emerged. At this point I wasn’t thinking of using this argument as an article structure, as such — but I wanted to see if I had more to say than “I’ve been reading books with this in it”.
There were a few new patterns — the sense of bumping around a world and bouncing off its walls, and the possibilities this approach has for narratives without obvious antagonists. But the most interesting pattern was the recurring note that certain of these stories tended to be, or could easily be, or were inherently conservative. That in turn (particularly with small or exclusive or rigid worlds) suggested ways the fantasy of a navigable world could become as much a tragedy as a romance.
In the end, the layers of these notes gave structure to the piece on what I’d been reading — but looking for those patterns added detail and nuance, and questions I could introduce into future conversations and explorations.
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