On the last day of my father’s life, he summoned the nurse who was taking care of him to his room and said, I imagine in a commanding voice, “Write this down.”

He said his name. She wrote it down. He said his date of birth. She wrote it down. The most forceful record my brother and sister and I have of that day is some spidery handwriting on a creased piece of paper.

Write this down.

Taking notes has become increasingly important to me. Not just because I have a lot of ideas that I don’t want to forget, but also because taking notes is my way of processing ideas. Not everyone is like this.

Issac Asimov tells the story in his voluminous autobiography of waking up in the night and saying to his wife, “I know what I ought to do in the novel.”

She said, anxiously, ”Get up and write it down.”

But he said, “I don’t have to,” and turned over and went back to sleep. The next morning he would remember it. Asimov wrote more than 470 books. He had, he wrote, a near-photographic memory.

No such luck for me. I need to write things down. I always have a notepad in my pocket and a handy pencil.  Ideas most often come when I am moving. I walk. I get ideas, I write them down. I get off my bike after my ride home from work and start talking into the voice recorder app on my phone.

Since I write things down, I’ve noticed patterns. Here is the most gratifying one: Even if I don’t write something down, I will remember it anyway in an altered form. I will cycle back to certain storylines, plot points, and concepts again and again. I know this from flipping through years of paper journals and color coding the idea-threads in them. (I probably shouldn’t be admitting this to you, but I like to figure out how things work, especially my own mind.)  I’ve noticed that the pebble of an idea will be swept downstream, sometimes taking years to tumble out at its destination. Nothing is lost. Even in those sorry moments when a computer wipes away a draft I can recreate the words from oblivion and even believe they are better than what was lost. If you write, the same thematic materials continue to surface. They are part of you, a shadow theater on an interior wall.

That last morning of my father’s life probably happened differently than the play I perform in my mind.  He was more likely scared and weak, not commanding. He probably wanted to be sure that when he died he wouldn’t be misidentified and lost.  He wanted us, his children, to be able to find him, to connect him to his name, his identity after he could not speak. He was scared, but that doesn’t take away from the importance of his final instruction.

Write this down.

Thanks for giving this a read,


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