As I mentioned in the “My Minimalism Memoir” Blog and Podcast 041, having first played in 2019 in preparation to move to Cologne, I played the 30-Day Minimalist Game (or “Minsgame”) again this March, in order to curb encroaching clutter so that I have more space for what is most important. Now this round of the Minsgame is done, and I won!!!
I still have so much paperwork that I want to cull, namely financial documents, old student work samples, client notes, and coaching notes, teaching notes…then finally the sentimental stuff. But, I kept taming my paper tiger all 30 days–totaling 465 pieces of paper!–and also held in there for 14 days clearing bathroom and wardrobe clutter for a total of 105 additional items!
Reflecting on March 2021 Minimalism Game
I admit it is still very tedious and difficult for me to sort and dispose of items–I do want to keep and be able to use that which is of value, to be able to refer back to my work and favorite resources over time and have a reliable and efficient system for doing so. I am both an aspiring minimalist and honestly a bit of a paper packrat.
I keep playing the Minsgame and making an effort to simplify because I do love feeling unburdened by meaningless or unnecessary clutter that obscures the things I really want to have access to. It’s freeing to let go of what no longer serves me and has gotten caught up in the mix.
I finished the game with a bunch of research articles and notes from graduate school that I still find interesting, such as theory, ideas about change processes, pedagogy and so forth. I decided although the content is relevant to me still, I do not need to keep hard copies of these documents as they should be accessible in other forms. To make it easier than ever to use the information, I made sure to scan them and put in keywords that will be helpful later when I revisit these topics.
That’s been a good result from the Minsgame last time and this–better organization and easier retrieval of relevant information, as well as letting go of things I won’t need or want to access again.
Clearing clutter, making ideas easily retrievable
I sorted out a lot of good stuff that will be easier to find as it is now organized in binders (for those things which I do need a hard copy for) and into the Evernote App (to back up hard copies of critical documents, and as a replacement to hard copies of things for which I don’t need an original) and therefore searchable.
My work always requires research, and then having the results at my fingertips for inspiration and citation this is a system that is ever-evolving.
Keeping track of your creative ideas
Choreographer Twyla Tharp favors an analog system for storing creative ideas, and shares her system in her book The Creative Habit*: “Everyone has his or her own organizational system. Mine is a box, the kind you can buy at Office Depot for transferring files. I start every dance with a box. I write the project name on the box, and as the piece progresses I fill it up with every item that went into the making of the dance. This means notebooks, news clippings, CDs, videotapes of me working alone in my studio, videos of the dancers rehearsing, books and photographs and pieces of art that may have inspired me. The box documents the active research on every project.” (p.80)
Tharp’s boxes serve psychological as well as pragmatic purposes in support of her creative process: “The box makes me feel organized, that I have my act together even when I don’t know where I’m going yet. It also represents a commitment. The simple act of writing a project name on the box means I’ve started work. The box makes me feel connected to a project. It is my soil. I feel this even when I’ve back-burnered a project: I may have put the box away on a shelf, But I know it’s there. The bold black lettering is a constant reminder that I had an idea once and may come back to it very soon.” (The Creative Habit p.81)
I absolutely resonate with Tharp’s fears of forgetting ideas and memories, as she explains the most important feature of the box system: “The box means I never have to worry about forgetting. One of the biggest fears for a creative person is that some brilliant idea will get lost because you didn’t write it down and put it in a safe place. I don’t have to worry about that because I know where to find it. It’s all in the box.” (The Creative Habit p.81)
The “boxes” don’t have to be literal boxes though, they can take whatever shape best suits you, as Tharp explains: “The more technological among us put it all on a computer. There’s no single correct system. Anything can work, so long as it lets you store and retrieve your ideas–and never lose them.” (The Creative Habit p.82)
The pain of data loss
The loss of a particular notebook is to this day one of the things I am saddest to have misplaced over the years and my many moves. It was my notebook of corrections and choreography notes from NCSA, inspired by the notebooks the modern dancers were required to keep for their composition class. Ballet students didn’t have to keep such notes, but I’ve always tried to record and archive my work and learnings, so I got myself a small blue spiral-bound notebook and glued a postcard from the Kona Village Hotel in my hometown to customize the cover, and kept notes and corrections from my classes and conferences with Fanchon Cordell, Gina Vidal, Gyulia Pandi, Frank Smith, Duncan Noble, etc. in there, as well as scribbles about the choreography that we were learning and creating, from classical ballets to contemporary collaborations with fellow students.
I’m not sure when I misplaced that notebook, but it still breaks my heart. I have also lost plenty of data over the years due to failed computers, drives, and every possible technical malfunction. Although I do what I can to hold on to important information and records, ultimately it’s best that I not be too attached and realize that much of it is available through other sources in the modern age. It’s a good yogic exercise to let go! But it’s not a natural impulse for me.
Evolution of organization systems
The origins of my organization/filing systems started with my family of course. My Mom’s address book is kept scrupulously up-to-date and my Dad keeps a pocket notebook to capture thoughts, lists, project lists, measurements…a whole Captain’s Log. I consulted guides for students to help me succeed in college, and after graduating balanced my working and personal lives with a planner.
After reading Living a Beautiful Life* as a young professional just out of college, I started using a proper paper Filofax, but I had always endeavored to keep a calendar and journal (with mixed consistency and results). Some of my favorite fictional characters kept diaries or notebooks, and I was also inspired by Anne Frank and other famous diarists to record my reflections.
Note-keeping like Beethoven
My academic and creative research will always be a part of my work, so it is important that I maintain a good working archive system and that it evolves with my needs over time. Through trial and error and good advice, I have refined my system over the years. As Tharp points out, a writer or creator can work more efficiently with an organizational system in place:
“A writer with a good storage and retrieval system can write faster. He isn’t spending a lot of time looking things up, scouring his papers, and patrolling other rooms at home wondering where he left the perfect quote. It’s in the box.” (The Creative Habit p.82)
Everyone can benefit from refining their archiving skills, but especially creatives. Tharp explains the system that Beethoven used in developing his works: “A perfect archive also gives you more material to call on, to use as a spark for invention. Beethoven, despite his unruly reputation and wild romantic image, was well organized. He saved everything in a series of notebooks that were organized according to the level of development of the idea. […] He would scribble his rough, unformed ideas in his pocket notebook and then leave them there, unused, in a state of suspension, but at least captured with pencil on paper. A few months later, in a bigger, more permanent notebook, you can find him picking up the idea again, but he’s not just copying the musical idea into another book. You can see him developing it, tormenting it, improving it in the new notebook. […]
The notebooks are remarkable for many reasons. Beethoven was a volatile and restless personality, always demanding a change of scene. In the thirty-two years he lived in and around Vienna, he never bought a home and moved more than forty times. I suspect that’s why he needed the elaborate system of notebooks. With all the turmoil of his personal life, the notebooks anchored the one part of his life that mattered: composing.” (The Creative Habit p.83)
I may not be a Beethoven-caliber genius, but I too work with a similar notebook system to anchor me in the midst of whatever chaos may come in life. No matter how much I digitize, I find for me much creative work must exist, at least at some stages of its development, in analog. So I have a daily diary, a bigger bullet journal of weekly, monthly, and longer-term planning, notes, and brainstorming, and yet another notebook of various ongoing professional projects and notes. At some point, the most important projects then are archived as Evernote notes, with photos, music, articles, and other relevant links attached.
If you want to take a peek at the current state of my idea-recording system, I recorded a video paging through the setup of my 2021 Bullet Journal at the beginning of the year.
Archiving acorns like a poet
Each person must consider what type of system serves their creative process best, and I found Sage Cohen’s ideas in the book Writing the Life Poetic* about storing and accessing ideas very helpful to my poetry practice as well as other areas of creativity, particularly the tips in the chapter called “Save Acorns: Keeping Track of Your Great Ideas.”
Cohen describes how this system of archiving and retrieval works:
“What happens when you sit down to write and no bolt of lightning strikes you? When it comes to inspiration, I say there’s no offense like a great defense. Squirrels use their feasts to prepare for the famine, and so can you. When your mind is alert to the acorns of inspiration–and you have a good system for saving those acorns–you can build up a surplus. This secret stash of great ideas can keep the pilot light of inspiration going, and get you through the harshest winters of creative dormancy.” (Writing the Life Poetic p.200)
Cohen shares a variety of strategies for catching these acorns as soon as they arrive:
- Post-it notes. “When sitting at my desk doing other work, this is the fastest, easiest way to capture a poetic thought the moment it arrives. By strategically placing Post-it note pads where you’re likely to need them most, you can ensure that every good idea that flits through is assured a safe landing.”
- Index cards. “When inspiration strikes, I can get the idea down fast and then move on with whatever I’m doing. Index cards are light, easy to transport, and disposable as soon as I’ve transferred a good idea to one of my idea-saving systems.”
- Notebooks. “Kim Stafford, the person who taught me this fabulous acorn metaphor, carries a beautiful, handmade (by him) notebook in his pocket at all times; he records his acorns there. A notebook or notepad can be a receptacle in which to capture, save, and admire acorns over a period of time. Each collection becomes its own masterpiece of possibility–so you can see what you were thinking during that period of time.”
- Recording devices. “Not everyone enjoys or has the time to capture his moments of fleeting genius in writing. Also, for people who are more verbal than visual, speaking poetry might feel like a better fit than writing it down. Sometimes it is best to have both options. I have had contexts where writing was preferable, and others where voice recordings worked better, depending on my mode of transportation, ability to have hands free, etc.” (Writing the Life Poetic p.200-1)
“Once you’ve scribbled down the fragment of overheard dialogue or captured the moment of grace before it melted away like a snowflake, what do you do with it next?” (Writing the Life Poetic p.201) First the acorns are caught, and then like Tharp’s boxes and Beethoven’s notebooks, they need to be organized, with Cohen offering multiple possible solutions:
- Tubs, baskets, and bins. “Create an acorn holding bin where you can deposit your Post-it notes, index cards, cassettes, and notebooks until you’re ready to use them. […] The next time you decide to write a poem and don’t know how to begin, you can cull through your acorn bin as though you’re on a treasure hunt.”
- Bulletin boards and whiteboards. “Sometimes it helps to have your ideas right in front of you, in your line of sight, to keep you on track, or to see how a concept is developing. Post them on a bulletin board or write them on dry-erase whiteboards. I like to collect quotes and inspiration on my bulletin board; on a whiteboard I write my latest goals and aspirations.”
- Paper file folders. “If you have a file drawer or metal stand, paper files can be a simple solution for collecting loose acorn scraps in a way that’s easy to access.”
- Computer files. “I have a single document in my computer titled ‘Acorns’ into which I enter in consecutive order all of my scribbled-on-paper ideas. After a handful of index cards and sticky notes collects on my desk, I transcribe these into the acorn document, date each entry, and then recycle the paper. I like having this ever-expanding record of my creative process at my fingertips when my inspiration well is running dry. At the very least, it reminds me at one time in recent history I did have an interesting idea!” (Writing the Life Poetic p.201-2)
Developing your own system for creative productivity
“Once you start experimenting with acorns, you’ll find a system of recording and retrieving your ideas that works for you. You may be surprised at how much inspiration your mind serves up once it knows that you’re paying attention.” (Writing the Life Poetic p.202) It is true that when we create space in our lives, as well as a readiness to receive and process ideas as they occur, it opens a rich path of possibility.
For now, I’m super satisfied to have a big stack of paper that is officially cleared, and to support you in playing the Minsgame and whatever simple and creative living projects you’re up to. Next I will turn my focus to a new game: April is Letter-Writing Month for me, and I’m continuing to write poetry as well as create choreography, so I’m excited to use the fresh space I have made for more creativity!
What ideas will you capture and act on this week?
Blythe Stephens, MFA
she/her or they/them
A Blythe Coach: Dance Education & Coaching
move through life with balance, grace, & power
* This blog is not sponsored. Amazon Affiliate links potentially give me a percentage of the purchase price if you buy a book using the link.