Ambient note-taking and Jenny Odell’s art of observation

Writing it down on paper will help you figure it out, artist and writer Jenny Odell said in her talk on “The Art of Observation” hosted by the NUS Libraries Writers’ Centre.

“Many of my most resonant sentences were written in these journals,” Odell said as she shared a photo of a shelf full of spiral bound notebooks.

Odell wrote “How to Do Nothing Resisting The Attention Economy” and “Saving Time Discovering A Life Beyond Productivity Culture.”

In talking about time, Odell discussed the fungible nature of how we see time, through the lens of capitalism and labor. It is a sense of time that is not in sync with nature.

During the pandemic lockdowns, she put up a camera on a tripod and had it take photos of the sky from her window, capturing changes in the clouds at a time when the days stretched to weeks and months of seeming sameness.

In her online talk moderated by writer Lawrence Ypil, Odell discussed close observation and her “ambient note-taking” that are central to her creative method. It is how she processes experiences and ideas, she said.

Odell goes on long walks with a pen and notebook – flashing a photo of a pocket-sized Clairefontaine with a knock type pen – like a “pedestrian conspiracy theorist.”

“I don’t think I could write anything without a piece of paper,” she said. Writing journals by hand allows you to do things non-linearly, she said as she showed a notebook spread with an idea map.

It’s “easy to get distracted” when you write notes on the phone. You reach for it and get all these notifications.

Odell is an only child. She started writing journals when she was 7 and the experience “was almost like creating your own sibling.” Her journals seem like a conversation with a friend or sibling, she said

Odell uses Scriviner to write, describing the app as “like having a giant binder” with the ability to collect scraps of information and link ideas.

“It’s like having a web browser but only for your project,” she said.

She counts herself fortunate for not being in a field such as journalism with its brutal and punishing pace. The ambient note-taking that she practices takes a lot of time and if you don’t have much of it, you should just “modulate your ambition.”

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