Attempting Intellectual Craftsmanship with a Decomposition Book [#OneLittleThing Series]

Attempting Intellectual Craftsmanship with a Decomposition Book [#OneLittleThing Series]

My new "Decomposition Book."
My new “Decomposition Book.”

Behold: my new notebook, a.k.a. a “Decomposition Book.” Yes, it has cute farm animals on it. I particularly like the inquisitive lamb at bottom left.


I have been struggling lately to find a method of capturing the little things that intrigue me in everyday life. I know that some of these factoids and concepts could coalesce into bigger ideas; but I find that taking photos of things with my phone or saving them into Evernote reduces them to just another few bytes amidst all the jetsam of my digital life.

And so, a notebook. No app seemed suited to the task. The closest options seemed to be Day One, a journaling app, and Inkflow, a more unstructured journal/book app that allows the inclusion of more photos and of handwriting. (Photos are still my major point of discontentment about using a notebook. I record so many things visually now. I need a teeny printer that prints photos onto super sticky notes so I can put them in the notebook. Hmm.)

My desire to keep a record of more random ideas/observations comes from two sources.

First, one of the best things I learned about in graduate school: C. Wright Mills’ “On Intellectual Craftsmanship.” (I delight in claiming Mills as a fellow Texan and Longhorn!)

C. Wright Mills
C. Wright Mills. Illustration by Jared Rodriguez for, via Flickr.

His advice to maintain a “file” to collect ideas, notes, observations, and theories as they develop has always stuck with me. I have several such digital locations, but I rarely revisit them. It’s much harder to flip through a bunch of random notes, PDFs, and websites than to recline with a notebook and open it to a random page to find or record inspiration.

Mills explains the purpose, structure, and use of the file at length in the essay. Here’s a short excerpt, but the whole thing is worth reading:

You will have often noticed how carefully accomplished thinkers treat their own minds, how closely they observe their development and organize their experience. The reason they treasure their smallest experiences is that, in the course of a lifetime, modern man has so very little personal experience and yet experience is so important as a source of original intellectual work. To be able to trust yet to be skeptical of your own experience, I have come to believe, is one mark of the mature workman. This ambiguous confidence is indispensable to originality in any intellectual pursuit, and the file is one way by which you can develop and justify such confidence.

By keeping an adequate file and thus developing self-reflective habits, you learn how to keep your inner world awake. Whenever you feel strongly about events or ideas you must try not to let them pass from your mind, but instead to formulate them for your files and in so doing draw out their implications, show yourself either how foolish these feelings or ideas are, or how they might be articulated into productive shape. The file also helps you build up the habit of writing. You cannot `keep your hand in’ if you do not write something at least every week. In developing the file, you can experiment as a writer and thus, as they say, develop your powers of expression. To maintain a file is to engage in the controlled experience.

Second, and from a more poetic perspective: One of my Linfield College colleagues, the wonderful novelist Anna Keesey, spoke recently on campus about some of her habits of mind and her approach to storytelling. She described herself as having a “magpie mind,” after the bird that collects delightful objects in its nest. Anna said that she, too, collects objects of fascination, which later manifest in her creative work.

Pica pica - Compans Caffarelli - 2012-03-16.jpg
Magpie, a.k.a. Pica pica. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

I don’t foresee that my little Decomposition Book will yield anything as great as what Anna or C. Wright Mills have produced, but my own inner magpie will enjoy collecting and thinking on my own collection of intriguing objects.

  • This post contains affiliate links, which means I receive some teeny-tiny commission from Amazon if you make a purchase using the links. The post itself was not sponsored, and I didn’t receive any free products.

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