In a world of organized social media feeds, Sharon Lam revisits the beautiful chaos of her notes app.
The Sunday Essay is made possible with the support of Creative New Zealand. Original illustration by Sofia Drescher.
First published September 19, 2021.
“Since the note is in my notebook, it probably has some meaning to me.” Thus began Joan Didion’s landmark essay, On Keeping a Notebook. Given that the note “oh shit this song just came out Sounds like it sounds like the theme song hey Arnold hell yeah wait wait Where da fuck is my rooibos tea” is in my notes app it probably doesn’t have any sense or even no sense. This was my immediate conclusion after going through some 500 notes on my phone, dating back to 2010.
I couldn’t have done this with physical notebooks, which disappear on me like sticks. However, with notes and cloud syncing, I’ve always carried around the same endless-page notebook for over a decade. But while Didion’s notes are posh snapshots of stylish strangers in epistolary-elite hotels and mannerisms, mine read like clues in a shitty remake of Memento. “Hysterical dog pregnancy”, “plastic bag boy = Shannon”, “the decor made me feel positively about the economy”. Who wrote these? Why? Who is Shannon? In the endless capacity of digital note taking, nothing is too small or insane to jot down.
There has also been the unexpected co-optation by celebrities of the ratings app for a public apology. From Justin Timberlake to Justin Bieber, the familiar but neutral interface helps, at least visually, to trick people into believing that stars are just like us: they make mistakes and their phones are also in dark mode! Their sexual assault half-apologies are in the same font as my hotspot number, that’s totally normal!
Between the Notes app as a public platform for Serious Matters and the Notes app as a preinstalled private ashtray for one’s thoughts, authenticity and quality can be hard to come by. Which poses Didion’s theory: is there still room for romance or memory in a digital notebook?
Much like the aforementioned Memento protagonist, I spend a level four afternoon trying to make sense of what I just had. had to note. The numerous “creative” notes are immediately noticeable (the emphasis here is on the rhetoric around “creative”). As Lorde, who in his newsletter described the Notes app as a “sort of mythical zone for the modern songwriter,” Notes have been a staple when I, too, am overwhelmed by an unstoppably inspired mythical fight. . Instead of popular music, I produced increasingly difficult attempts at poetry and “ideas” suitable for r/im14andthisisdeep.
To these “creative” notes are added functional notes: account numbers, URLs, addresses, measurements. The line between functional and creative can be blurred. Drafts of serious work messages inappropriately intertwine with sad little 3 a.m. confessions to myself. What appears to be the start of a breakup text is interrupted with information for flat viewing. A list of things I’ve read on T-shirts is the best “poem” I’ve ever written.
The rest is trash. Copy and paste pieces, notes that don’t even make enough sense to be wrong. Why, for example, did I write the word “courage” and nothing else on February 23, 2017? What was I referring to in November 2015 when I wrote that “it’s like giving half a medallion to twins who separate at birth but not really”? Of course, each piece of text is timestamped to the minute, but these numbers are as meaningless as “46802” or “608 35 391”, which are among the many strings of numbers I also jotted down. But without even a color of ink to fade away, no state of writing, and only a limp human brain succumbing to years of instant information and distractions, I can no longer see or understand the woman who wrote the lie. mathematical as “50% > 80%”.
The app interface flattens everything – time, authorship, location. Celebrity handwriting looks like mine, and something written eleven years ago looks exactly like something written today. My very first note is from 2010. Adorably enough, my high school schedule. It doesn’t appear in the gel pen, or even its original iOS 3(!) interface, but in exactly the same visual way as the appointment details for a Covid vaccine.
Things I copied from other people also appear in the same sans serif hand. Some notes make me think “it’s so good, I couldn’t have written that”, and I’m right. I read a series of ironic sentences by Lorrie Moore. Other brief misattributions include a list of descriptors by Michael Kors on Project Runway, about 30% of Franny & Zooey just retyped with lots of typos, and a beloved poem called “hot amoeba ass” by a now semi-cancelled author.
Aesthetic consistency is perhaps why the screenshot of the notes has become a medium for celebrity apologies. There’s not the stiff body language and unnatural speech of an apology video, and it’s easier to believe there’s no PR team behind it – the distance between the celebrity and fan is the same as the distance between phone and face.
Ariana Grande was the first in 2015. She captured an apology after saying “I hate America” while licking donuts in a store, which makes about as much sense as my own cryptic dribbling. Since then, other celebrities have followed in the format, with varying degrees of success. In one of Taylor Swift, a careless cultivation left in a visible “research”, ruining the illusion that she had just written the note herself. In reality, a successful notes excuse can take days to compose and “the shorter the statement, the longer it takesas legal and public relations teams try to juggle responsibility and public image.
Someone who consulted no literate people, let alone his teams, was Ja Rule, who in 2017 wrote probably the best (and by the best, I mean the worst) apology notes. In response to his role in the schadenfreude cultural moment that was the Fyre Festival, he wrote that it was ‘NOT A SCAM’… ‘I truly apologize as it IS NOT MY FAULT’. The caps, the absolute zero effort to look sorry – gorgeous.
For most of us though, the notes app is just for the eyes, and maybe that’s where the romance lies. I have never read the notes of a friend or a member of my family, and I never wish to do so. In a sea of apps that algorithmically nudge you to like/share/subscribe, notes remain perfectly unkept. We can still seem mysterious to ourselves. “Your notebook will never help me, nor mine you,” writes Didion. No one but me would be helped by my fortune as divined by a bird (unless you had hoped that I would invest in your business which, due to my lack of “exceptional financial energy”, it is better for both of us that I don’t), or the note I made in 2015 about Van Gogh’s supposed nephew accepting my friend request on Facebook (which only helps me insofar as I’m grateful to stop spending my time adding supposed nephews on Facebook).
“Remember what it was like to be me: that’s always the point”, is what Didion is getting at. Guess that’s why I’m still dragging hostel addresses in Gili and my grade 12 timetable. The donut apology has since been deleted from Ariana Grande’s official accounts, but is the note still in her phone? Has she ever met him while looking for clues to his past or a wifi password? Unorganized and invisible, the humble notes app has transcended its function as a simple notepad, digital or otherwise. The ever-growing textual chowder of our thoughts, URLs, and copy-and-paste offers an identity that is entirely different from the ones we share. My notes are 11 years old now. Will I ever re-read 20, 30 years of scratchings from San Francisco? Or will Apple have changed the font to Gill Sans? Or go completely wild with a wheelbase? A vintage Times New Roman for iOS 50? The future is uncertain. I can only hope that I will still have notes by my side, and with them: courage.
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