Post-It Notes: On Writing

Post-It Notes displayed at Union Square in New York City.

“Celeste, you’re shockingly messy.”

The words didn’t sting. Unexpectedly swinging by after her internship, my friend Zoe was right. My appearance — an affinity for a good pencil skirt and the “I have my shit together, grl power” gait — didn’t match up with the countless boxes and reusable bags I carelessly, slovenly shoved under the lofted bed in my temporary housing that summer. Cooking utensils, pots, clothes — all clean, mind you — were strewn across my half of the tiny room. Miscellaneous papers collected in piles as if a leaf blower had attempted to straighten them. No need to ask about my reading list: the teetering contents on the desk, dresser, etc. would give you a hint or two.

I admit: I was thoroughly embarrassed.

To an extent, that moment captures how my brain feels these days: jumbled, disorganized, and cluttered. Call it high-energy, call it zooms, or in the corporate world, a series of pings and flags. These thoughts aren’t stopping anytime soon. According to UCLA researchers, they really don’t. The average human has 50,000 to 70,000 per day.

Growing up, my family had stacks upon stacks of Post-It Notes in our house in all shapes and colors. From little kids, we were told mark your page, jot down a list, don’t forget that thought. These days, I find my thoughts, at times racing, are like walking through a gentle, but steady downpour of Post-It Notes.

Scrolling Twitter — which I do quite frequently— creates part of the downpour. Ongoing Russian investigations that Trump’s Digital Director Brad Parscale brushed off as a “farce” on 60 Minutes last week. A healthcare debate with the thorniest and twistiest of roads that even the most politically engaged among us struggle to follow. Ongoing battles that flicker from near and far: gun control, opioids, coal, shrinking middle-class incomes, nuclear power, American manufacturing, racism, wage equality, Cook County’s soda tax, to name a few.

Occasionally, folks will ask me how to stay informed. I forward them Vox Sentences, a solid, albeit imperfect roundup to get started. As I do so, wonder if now, away from Washington D.C., if I’m still even “in” the news environment, in the pulse of what’s happening, enough.

I feel embarrassed by my mental clutter for a different reason — because I want to have more answers, professionally and personally, than I do right now. I am a twenty-two-year-old who has been afforded incredible resources and opportunities and am ashamed for feeling this lost. Like many twenty-somethings, I don’t feel like I have a clear sense of direction of what’s next. As big extrovert, my inclination is to go out and converse and be intensely curious. To venture to the Enlightenment salons, where I imagine many a Medium user would lounge. Being raised by and surrounded by introverts, I also stockpile my thoughts, for better or worse.

So that, dear reader, is why I write. To document and remember, yes. But to understand. Bullet-pointed lists, quirky turn-of-phrases I come up with while driving, handwritten letters, long-winded rambles weighing decisions and theories big and small, gastronomic experiences, and fascinating people I encounter. It’s one of the few things I know that no matter what, slows down my brain.

When an old friend asked me to describe my writing process, how I come up with interesting ideas to research, and how I conceptualize my arguments, the answer was simple. Rarely, am I at a shortage of ideas. In my head, I pick two Post-It Notes that seem to go together and wrestle to figure out their relationship. Or I pick two or three Post-Its at random. Other times, I pick the biggest one or the other in the periphery. Sometimes, I reluctantly pull off the one that’s stuck on me; the topic I don’t necessarily want to, but need to write.

It is rare that I just can sit down and begin writing. Perhaps it’s ADD tendencies, but warming up the brain is essential. Maybe it’s a mile walk to a writing space. I retype Atlantic articles on my laptop. The kind of environment I can productively write in changes from day to day. I might crave the din of a coffeehouse; other times, a plastic spoon scrapping the bottom of a yogurt container in a quiet library is hugely distracting. I similarly waffle on whether I pump music — an eclectic collection ranging from AC/DC to Zac Brown Band — or not. ASMR is reserved for deep focus.

Quality, exceptional, inspiring writing, which I search for and collect, is likely akin to the kind of unpleasantness from a tattoo needle. Adjusting and tweaking the creation and working with the skin, I imagine (not having a tattoo — yet) is painful and difficult and time-consuming. I am thankfully no longer writing two papers each week for school or at the end of my last semester, 60 pages in six weeks. However, I miss being a student. Even when it’s optional, writing well feels prickly and unpleasant, but is fun.

Yes, fun. I miss timing myself to see how much or what I can write on a given topic or prompt, making writing a game. I miss changing a paper outline halfway through because I realize that the story is best framed through Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms” address to make an assignment. I miss discussing unknowns who are changing how we think about local politics or talking about we can improve the lives of student workers on college campuses. I miss running across a name (like Recep Tayyip Erdogan), a concept (like Equifax’s scandal), or argument (Anne-Marie Slaughter’s Unfinished Business) I don’t know enough about and Googling the hell out of it and placing its relevance in a broader context. I miss opportunities to flush out reflections on a homily at Mass or an interaction on the El. Writing is an avenue to provide better responses to questions like “What do you think of the Chicago Cubs’ politics?” “What do you mean, the 1832 presidential election relates to today?” and the eternal question, “How can we fix this?” in more than a shrug or a tweet.

In most other pursuits, I am an impatient, big-picture person. I take on a different personality as a writer. I become introverted, retreating to a corner or when I was in school, my studio apartment, barricaded for a few days on end. I will spend hours moving from sentence to sentence, paragraph to paragraph, returning to the outline, or in many cases, literally wandering: the bookshelves or or random Wikipedia page, scourging for something new. A different interpretation of the brazen chorus in Hamilton’s “Satisfied” might offer a take on my creative process.

Unlike Alexander Hamilton, I get shy and insecure about sharing most of my writing. Few people know I own of leather notebooks with no spirals (I’m a lefty), the byproduct of five years of periodic journaling. Journaling helps me process life’s transitions, but I rarely look back on those ramblings. I have relished chances to share my academic work, but would spend nights up before a presentation or publication worrying what my audiences and readers would say, think, or critique. What if they are confused, I thought. Or ask about a point I’ve overlooked. Or worse, find the idea, and therefore me, ridiculous or stupid.

Over the years, these insecurities drowned out the kind words from family members, mentors, significant others, and friends to take my writing to a more public space. One professor told me, “We all have conversations in our heads. I want to hear more of yours.” I remembering visibly shuddering at her suggestion to publish non-academic work.

Yet after another week of more presidential tweets about the NFL than Puerto Rico and Las Vegas, the idea hit me for the 157th time this month. Maybe I should start a Medium page. And again when I read about partisan divides continuing to widen at unprecedented levels — 158th. And again when I witnessed an extraordinary cool act of kindness that would make a great story — 159th. And meeting two lovely Chicagoans who are exasperated with the city’s political leadership today, deeming it “more corrupt” than their homeland Italy — 160th. The Post-It Notes seemingly zoom at warp speed. So now, after dozens and dozens of attempts to begin and months of passively reading Medium pieces, I am finally zoning out the “what if” negative self-talk and giving the platform a shot.

Medium seems to be the closest thing to an Enlightenment salon. It’s a forum of discussion and discourse, a way to stay in the know, and a place to stick a Post-It or two. New Yorkers’ most immediate, visceral reactions were archived in Union Square following the days after the 2016 election. The idea was lauded as being incredibly successful. Writing — both the “downloading my feelings on x and shoving it in a drawer” and the “let’s thoughtfully discuss this interesting intersection because no one’s talking about it in this way” kinds — is cathartic and helpful to navigate transitions. And when isn’t there a life transition? Maybe it’s time for more of us to start sharing more thoughtfully and creatively. All perspectives and feedback here are welcome.

I don’t claim to have any answers or construct perfect, linear arguments or be a good writer, but there is one thing I know to be true. Now is the time, more than ever, not only to write more, but discuss. I am interested more than ever, in poking around and examining new things and learning a thing or two as well. Expect some whimsy along the way.

So I present some writings new and old here, on Medium. Whether it’s a party of 1 or 200, here’s an exhibit of my messy room, my brain. Sit down, grab a snack if you’d like, and get cozy. Commentary and musings on both the topical and random. That’s all I know for now.

Here we go.