I once worked with a guy who was a phenomenon for quotations and illustrations. Every book or article he read, was mined.
This was before Dropbox or Evernote, so what he was doing was visible. Drawer after drawer in his study was filled with 5×3 index cards, with a meticulous system for referencing and cross-referencing. And a shelf full of ring binders, with all the materials in order.
Being young, I thought this was the way to go, and I copied him for years. I too had my ring binder and index cards.
Then one Sunday evening, in the middle of a sermon where I used one of the illustrations I’d carefully curated, I looked at the faces in front of me. Bored. To Tears. And no wonder, really, because I was telling them about something I’d learnt about one of the Russian Tsars.
Just cut me a teeny bit of slack. I like history. I’d have found it interesting. I hope.
But at that moment, across my eyeline, I saw an imaginary ‘Breaking News’ message from CNN: ‘This Is Very Boring’.
Across my eyeline, I saw an imaginary ‘Breaking News’ message from CNN: ‘This Is Very Boring’.
And eventually, when I worked out why, I threw those index cards and ring binders in the bin. Yes, I had put hundreds of hours into that system, but it was irrelevant to the task at hand. Some of them I still treasure: Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address I can repeat from memory. Some of John Stott’s best lines.
But I was behaving like a librarian, an archivist. And that’s not my calling. It’s not who I wanted to be – it’s who I felt I ought to be.
What I realised was that this wasn’t serving me – and more importantly, it wasn’t serving the people listening. The saints. The church. God’s people gathered. Here were the four reasons I unearthed:
Stale, not fresh.
Each of those carefully curated quotations and stories had whiskers. I may have been struck by them at some stage, but by the time I needed them, they had to be reheated to work. And remember, I had to do that for me to get them to work – the people listening had no back-story on any of them.
Generic, not personal.
None of them were things that had happened to me, or us – they were all things that had happened to someone else (and probably highly polished to make a good anecdote).
Mine, not yours.
I like history. I like classical music. I like cricket. I’ve got stories from all of them. But you won’t get anything from me about soccer, or knitting, or gardening. So the connections don’t work. For every person I connect to because I mention Mahler, I push countless people away – some can’t stand him, most have never listened to him, many have never heard of him. So I have to make connections on other, more common grounds.
Literary, not living.
They were beautifully written, some of them. Elegantly put. But someone wrote them to be read – or maybe said aloud in a more literary time. Mostly, they had the dead feel of quips or anecdotes, the sort that used to be sent in to Reader’s Digest. ‘The story is told…’
Mostly, they had the dead feel of quips, or anecdotes, the sort that used to be sent in to Reader’s Digest.
So, I chucked them, and I pray for attention, recall, and retention.
You might say, but these days we do have Evernote, and Dropbox, and tags and search fields. It wouldn’t take hundreds of hours and boxes of index cards. And I reply (this is personal, remember), they’d still be stale, generic, literary and only of interest to me.
Now, an important exception. If I’m writing something, boy do I keep notes. Many, many notes. I don’t trust my memory for that, thank you very much.
But this week, I’m using the time I reversed my dad’s car into a ditch, the day after I passed my driving test. It just came to mind as I was prepping the sermon, it’s relevant, it happened to me, and it made me laugh. And it neatly explains the passage.
Call to action: throw your files away, too! (Or do you disagree? Pile in!)