At the start of each academic year, usually when I have known them for a week or so, I make this confession to my students. I say to them: ‘I have the stationery thing.’
The point of telling them is not confession for its own sake, but to make the very serious point, hidden in plain view in the form of a personal anecdote, that if we do not note down that which amazes and inspires each day we will lose it in what Ted Hughes called ‘the crush of information’ of living.
I can always predict how this will go down. Half of the room will look at me uncomprehendingly. ‘Stationery? What’s he on about?’ (being polite, they do not say this, but I know it is what they are thinking.) The other half of the room are nodding and making small squeals of approval. They get it. They look as if they want to curl up with a bowl of hot chocolate.
Then, to make my point more memorable, more personal, and strange, I go into a riff about Great Stationery Shopping Experiences I Have Had (France: a supermarket; Switzerland: a department store; Bureau Direct: naturally; Pen to Paper: ditto). Just as half the room are zoning out and thinking about coffee, and the other half are starting to make orders on their mobiles, I read them random (always random) pages from a notebook I have pulled from my shelf that morning.
It will say things like:
Carrots, butternut, Car MOT (?) check
Dentist family or just me?
Metaphor article by Cheryl -where is it?
‘Crystals of purpose’
There is a silence.
Even those who have zoned out are now paying attention. The thing is, I tell them, some of this may not lead to anything, but nearly all of it nearly always does, because it teaches me to pay attention. Not just to the things I discuss over breakfast with my wife that need doing, but the really important leads like Cheryl’s marvellous article on metaphor (Cheryl Hunt Metaphor Article) and the fact that Peter’s new book is amazing and I need to spend some time with it.
Over time, this makes quite a library of snatched moments of attention, what DH Lawrence called the ‘effort of concentration’ of looking at and capturing the world around me. Not to mention colourful Clairefontaine (of course) notebooks, with their grid lines and smooth 90 gsm paper. There I go again.
I thought about this yesterday recalling the lifesaving book of Michael Baldwin, who advocated the same, along with Julia Casterton and Peter Finch, long before there were such things as productivity blogs.
It is a secret poets have known for centuries.