6.3 - Cabinets of Curiosities - Own Your Distortion

As you cratedig, you’ll collect things. 

Collections used to be a pursuit of the aristocratic elite. After all, who else would have the time to find, buy, and keep useless oddities from all over the world? Some would keep their collections in specially made armoires, and if you visited their home you would have to act interested in all the crap they’ve collected. 

Some went so far to have dedicated rooms to this stuff. Some still do. My friend in Houston has an entire room painted burnt orange and full of homages to the University of Texas. It is quite a pursuit.

I have bookshelves and closets full of boxes of stuff that are all a part of the ongoing project of I’m going to work this into a story one day. Chances are, you have a drawer somewhere full of stuff that doesn’t belong anywhere yet. 

As you work cratedigging into your creative schedule, you’ll need a place to put things and a place to sort things. Everything you come across will either be something you can use immediately or something you can use eventually. You’ll want a place for both. 

Most writers have some kind of commonplace file. It is usually digital, sometimes physical, where they keep things that fit within a specific project they are working on. Every commonplace file is a little different depending on the nature of the project and the quirks of the writer. 

As you crate dig, you’ll want a means of collection and a means of sorting. 

I collect with Keep and Pocket, and I sort with Notion.

Keep is simple and can handle most media. Apple’s Notes app is plenty adequate. There are people on this earth who have figured out how to do this entirely through their email - they are either brilliant or masochistic. 

Notion is excellent at letting me tag, sort, and link one page to the next. It takes a while to get used to and to set up, but once it's there, it is there.

Some people love Evernote for the same reason. I would recommend them, but a technical failure meant I lost about 10,000 notes, and they still haven’t figured out why. 

My Process (which may or may not be useful to your process). 

I subscribe to a lot of email newsletters and lists. Some are directly related to client projects I”m working on, and most are full of randomness and curiosity. Every morning I parse through them rapidly and toss any link that halfway interests me into my Pocket for a deep dive later. The same goes for any story or source or anything that might tie into something I’ll want to work on someday.

Everything gets tagged inside of Pocket. It might be for an active project; it might be for a “someday” thing; it might be a “Find More” kind of thing. I have hours-long blocks set aside in my schedule to go through the stuff I’ve collected. This is when things are highlighted, tagged deeper, and additional notes are made. The stuff that needs more attention goes into Notion - my cabinet of curiosities -  where I try to find a way to link the item to at least three other items.

If I find a crate worth digging into, I’ll open every link. I’ll find everything else a writer has done. I’ll go to the Wikipedia page and click on every source the page cites. This brings you to some strange parts of the internet - tread carefully and with an open mind (and maybe a bit of anti-viral software). Rabbit holes get a bad wrap. The further down you go, the content is less responsive to its advertisers. Not everything you see will be right or accurate or good.

Before COVID, when libraries were still open to the public, I would go every week and get lost for a few hours. I only showed up with a short list of books I was after because I knew every book would lead to another dozen. The way books are organized in a library is fascinating. The card catalog and dewy decimal system will take you to a precise spot on a specific shelf. Then, the world is your oyster. Books lined up next to each other share a common subject. Books on the shelf above and below it are *kind of* in the same ballpark; you never know what you’ll find.

The librarian is also very good at helping you dig into crates you wouldn’t even have thought of. It’s their job. They go to school for this kind of stuff.

Build your commonplace file, your stash, your cabinet of curiosities. DO what you can to embellish the stuff that interests you. Build a list of things you want to dig into next. Take the time to organize thoughtfully.

Most of all, pay attention to the gaps. Notice the information you don’t have or can’t find - there’s often a story hiding in there.