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  • Cameron M. Clark

On the Necessity of Writing Notes and Lists

Updated: Sep 18, 2020

Beloved author and world renowned neurologist Oliver Sacks made a list of the reasons to write. “Why write?” he asks. To:


put in perspective




express myself

speak for others


tell stories



“fix” in words

find verbal equivalent




create beauty



And why write down a list like this at all? To 'save it' for later, of course. To relieve our memory of all the thoughts that occurred to us over the course of minutes, hours, or days, that we may later want access to in an instant. A list is a powerful thing.

I’m often asked for memory strategies that will help people recall all the information that they need when they need it. Things like the names of acquaintances or extended family members, dates of birthdays or anniversaries, grocery items to be bought, or the rather confusing name of that quant and picturesque Italian town you may have visited on your last European adventure. My answer is always the same, and often disappointing to those who ask – WRITE IT DOWN. That’s right, the best way to remember something is to not rely on your memory at all. Write it down so you don’t have to remember it in the first place, but also so that you can review it later and thereby strengthen your memory of it.

My suggestion to write things down as an ‘external aid’ to memory is so often disappointing because it is familiar. Many feel that they already make full use of this method in drafting shopping lists or keeping contact information of friends and relatives in one place. However, my suggestion to you is this: the secret of writing things down as a memory strategy lies not in the knowledge that it works well, but rather in the consistency and creativity in which it is applied. That is, the more often you are able to write things down in an organized way, the more access you will have to these thoughts and pieces of information when you need them later. To that end, I want to motivate you to write more things down by way of the perhaps extreme example of Oliver Sacks. From his 2015 autobiography On the Move: A Life

"They called me Inky as a boy, and I still seem to get as ink stained as I did seventy years ago. I started keeping journals when I was fourteen and at last count had nearly a thousand. They come in all shapes and sizes, from little pocket ones which I carry around with me to enormous tomes. I always keep a notebook by my bedside, for dreams as well as nighttime thoughts, and I try to have one by the swimming pool or the lakeside or the seashore; swimming too is very productive of thoughts which I must write, especially if they present themselves, as they sometimes do, in the form of whole sentences or paragraphs."

Here is Dr. Sacks capturing a thought outside of a bustling train station in Amsterdam:

(photograph from On the Move: A Life)

And here he is writing in a journal on the roof of his car after presumably having decided that seizing his fleeting thought was more important than his physical journey that day:

(photograph from On the Move: A Life)

You need not seek to generate over a thousand hand-written journals as Oliver Sacks did. But think – where in your daily routine do you find yourself forgetting the most often? And how might you solve that with a creatively placed opportunity to write things down, whether in a “little pocket one”, or “an enormous tome”?


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