Past Notes to Future Selves

“So much of our time, whether we realize it or not, is spent creating an archive through which we frame our lives.”
Brice Montgomery

It’s hard to believe with the recent spate of 70-degree days in the midwest, but just a few weeks ago, it seemed like winter would be endless. During a fit of snow day-induced motivation, I repurposed my isolation to dust and rearrange my bookshelves. After I pulled every book off the shelf, I realized I didn’t have a clear organizing principle for putting them back. I’m not an alphabetical guy, I’m a bit of a genrephobe, and I’m certainly not a color-coder. It took several minutes of questioning whether I’m anything for me to eventually give up and lay down between the stacks of books.

I mean, it was a snow day. Apathy is to be celebrated in those circumstances.

On one of the unshelved towers, I noticed Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space, a book I purchased years ago to seem smart before realizing I was not smart enough to actually read it. I was curious to see if the intervening years were more intellectually forgiving than the book, and while I was surprised that I could make headway, I was even more surprised by what I found in the margins—dozens of pencil-scratched notes to myself, heavy-handed enough to bore through the pages of the first chapter.

I should pause here to note that I am a preservationist. I never dog-ear, spine-snap, or otherwise threaten the sanctity of a book. I can’t recall ever writing in a book because doing so would be tantamount to wearing shoes in the house.

This is why I was beyond surprised to find marks of myself in the book, especially marks of a self I didn’t fully recognize. I certainly knew the handwriting, with its distinctive balance of preschooler-level motor skills and doctor-writing-a-prescription flippancy, but the thoughts and concerns felt foreign to me. Even so, as I read through the notes, I was reminded of everything that felt important to me in the past—I was reminded of why I purchased the book to begin with and what it represented. Through the marginalia, I was able to enter into a conversation with a past self, and by doing so, I felt more like who I want to be now.

The person who unsuccessfully stumbled through The Poetics of Space almost a decade ago was looking for very different things in the book than I was on a snow day in 2024. It was initially a little disconcerting, but as I spent an afternoon rereading forgotten memories, I realized how much it added to the book itself, and how much it modeled how I approach life.

 

Marginal Improvement: Writing as a Frame

A major realization through my margin notes was that I often don’t think about my thinking, and more specifically, what it means for my selfhood.

It’s an understatement to say that most of us are exceptionally busy, and we don’t have much time to think about who we are. If someone asks you about yourself, you probably point to something extrinsic, volunteering information about what you do or where you’re from or who you know. It can feel very estranging when any of those things are removed, which is where I was on that snow day—with everything external enveloped under a blanket of snow, what was left of myself? What are people without context? Was I reading too much into this?

If this all sounds very highbrow and pretentious for a blog post about cleaning, I agree, and yet I still feel compelled to write it. If nothing else, I will have this blog post to revisit in a few years, possibly inciting a visceral cringe, but at least it will be a way to remember the self I was when I wrote it. For me, writing is all about these marginalia—the pencil-scratches surrounding the main event. We cannot control very much in the world, but we can control how we frame—that’s why I reflexively jot down notes throughout the day.

Even if you don’t have a formal writing practice, odds are that you have also left marginalia on your life and the lives of others. You have years of social media captions that form a rough sketch of who you are (or who you wish you were). You’ve kept letters from friends you no longer speak to because of how they saw you in that moment. You’ve aggressively highlighted your priorities into your favorite book, forming a kind of inverse erasure poem. All of it frames how you navigate the world.

Writing offers us the context that life doesn’t naturally afford us, and nothing really matters without context. Think about how you and your friends retell the same stories over and over, often adding different nuances or emphasizing different parts each time. So much of our time, whether we realize it or not, is spent creating an archive through which we frame our lives. Without that marginal archive, life can be as shapeless as a snow day.

Writing is always a question of how we will remember ourselves.

Brice Montgomery
Creative Director
Brice likes to think through how messages are best translated for different audiences and purposes. He also makes baked goods.
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