‘Piling, not filing’

‘Piling, not filing’ is a piece of advice to which I attribute my relative sanity. It was given to me in the very early stages of my PhD and has remained the keystone of my self-help litany. Spending the first couple of months meticulously taking both type and handwritten notes, I had been filing these away in neatly labelled folders (both real and virtual), ready to be instantly recovered and referenced at a later date. This, I told myself, is the year I get organised. This is the year that I streamline my life, via my research, into a super-efficient, well-oiled machine. No more messiness, no more chaos. All this was epitomised in and enacted through my filing system. 

Imagine my horror, then, as it started to fall apart at the seams. As my research simultaneously broadened and deepened, the neat dividing lines between my files and folders and categories started to distort under the pressure. One set of notes was no longer only relevant to one avenue of investigation; one label no longer quite defined the uses and abuses of the notes it was supposed to contain. As hypothetical chapters began to emerge in my mind, both paper and virtual notes needed to be in several places at once, rather than in one folder forever. In what I now see as a vain attempt to control this burgeoning chaos, I flitted from one filing system to another. Expandable folders to contain the different sections of a chapter; a ‘current’ folder in which I would assemble that week’s work before deciding what to do with it, or in which to insert older notes that had permanent homes elsewhere. It was all getting rather complex, and my Ryman’s bill was steadily rising.

I never quite committed to either handwriting or word processing the notes I was supposed to be filing. Seeing advantages to both, I wanted them all. For a while I experimented with a division of labour: I handwrote less important notes, and typed notes from texts to which I thought I would need to refer more regularly and in greater depth. Of course, this was based on the naive assumption that I would be able to make this distinction before I had read the texts in question. This prescriptive error, as it turned out, was at the heart of the collapse of these systems. Instead of being led by my research, I was trying to force it into pre-ordained shapes and categories, the ultimate consequence being that I didn’t listen to what the words in front of me were saying. Not only was I prescribing how I was going to understand them later in my research, I was also, inadvertently, trying to file my notes before I had written them.

Before I realised what the problem was, it just looked and felt like I was unable to handle my own work. In a state of confusion and mild panic, I had a conversation with my second supervisor. Trying to conceal the fact that I thought everything was already falling apart, I casually mentioned to her that some of my notes seemed to want to be in lots of different folders at once. In an equally casual reply, belying the profundity of the sentiment, she told me, “There’s a lot to be said for piling, not filing. Trust yourself.”

I have been learning to trust myself ever since. I stopped filing. It felt at first like giving in to disorder, like losing control. But I gradually realised that gripping things too tightly suffocated and contorted them, and that the less I did this to my notes, the less it happened to my thoughts.

Most of my notes are now in a series of notebooks (albeit meticulously numbered, with handwritten page-numbers and hand-drawn margins), each one physically different from the last to facilitate recollection. I write down the date and location each time I write in the books for the same reason; I am, I have learnt, much more likely to remember something I have read or written by remembering where I was when I read or wrote it. I will also probably remember whether it was in the large purple notebook, or the small Mr Men notebook, or the mid-sized stripy notebook. I think of my notes as a kind of horizontal pile, or a series of diary entries, documenting not only what I have read, but how I read it, where I read it, and how I felt about it at the time. If a text particularly takes my fancy, I make notes on loose leaf sheets, so that they can circulate around and about the notebook bedrock, and can be read alongside complementary theory and scholarship. But the lion’s share of the notes are in the notebooks, and they are what I would rescue from my burning flat.

I can’t search my notes, but I know them well. I have much more involvement with them as I write them without a filing cabinet in mind; drawing in the margins, circling and highlighting, sticking in addenda and going back over them, days or weeks or months later, with a different frame of mind and a different coloured pen. I feel, when I write my notes, that I am having a conversation with the words and ideas I am reading. It is much easier to recall a conversation in which you have been personally involved, than one you have observed at a distance.

For what it’s worth, I have kept the notes I tried to file in the folders they were in when I started trusting myself. They were put there when I was in a particular frame of mind and had a particular perspective on my work. They, and their plastic homes, are part of an era of my research from which I have moved on, but which I can’t erase.stillpoint 1

Alice Hazard is a third year PhD student in the French department at King’s College London. She works on faces and faciality in twelfth and thirteenth-century vernacular literature.

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