28: my terrible memory helped me become a writer.

I was in middle school when I received a gold key writing award.

It was for a piece of fiction I wrote called “Playland” – a story about a kid and his deadbeat single mom who would never get up off the couch unless it was to go to get fast food from this McDonald’s down the street.

The kid loved the place because of the playground inside, and in this particular story he meets a girl about his age and they play happily together, until after a while they realize they’ve crawled for a long time and haven’t reached the top. They wander until finding this colony of lost children who’ve been trapped and starving the depths of playground for years. He ultimately discovers this age-old cursed cheeseburger deep in the heart of the playground, which he tosses down the tube slide to return things to normal.

So yeah. Award-winning stuff right there.

I think awards like that are great for kids – winning it really encouraged me to continue my creative pursuits, and to develop my writing voice young.

One might tend to think that it was this encouragement that pushed me to write for a living. And I’m not saying it didn’t help. But there are other reasons I chose this path.

My life consists of endless sticky notes and to-do lists.

My brain is constantly preoccupied with big picture stuff – there is endless human conflict and suffering on our planet, which is part of a rapidly expanding universe that we will likely never fully be capable of exploring, and ultimately I’m going to die someday.

So if I have to remember to bring a dish to Monday’s potluck at work, my brain outsources this petty excess information to a sticky note, which I had to carry home from work, stash inside of my laptop until Sunday when I’ll cook it, and then will have to stash again on my car’s steering wheel so I don’t forget to take the dish out of the fridge next week.

If I don’t write down a thought, it disappears. I have, by my own declaration and that of others, one of the worst short-term memories of anyone I know.

I rely heavily on the written word because it can do what my brain rarely can – carry information from one point in time to the future for later use.

My desk at work is covered in notes, spreadsheets and color-coded, indexed checklists which I’ve marked with my own mysterious symbols that indicate prioritization of the items. I’m constantly revising them and making new ones.

To some, this might sound maddening. But to me, it’s beautifully orchestrated organizational chaos. And it helps me to focus and be productive, and I find it deeply satisfying to complete a to-do list.

So how has this impacted my career path?

I rarely studied in school. I wasn’t good at it.

In my humble opinion, there’s no need to memorize anything. If you can write it down and reference it when needed, you’re set. After you’ve applied a piece of knowledge or skill enough times, memorization gives way to experience.

I love history, but couldn’t keep dates straight. I love science, but I couldn’t master the terminology just by reading it. Math came easily, but only if I was allowed to look at my notes to remember processes and formulas.

Exams are dumb, and always filled me with dread – I don’t think they properly assess intelligence or comprehension.

On the other hand, I loved doing research and writing essays. So while my knowledge of the other subjects never surpassed “vague and general”, I was excelling in, and loving, English.

And despite my lack of study skills, my horrid memory and tendency to make lists led me to take really excellent notes.

When I discovered journalism, it was an excellent fit.

Not too stuffy, like academic writing tends to be – and the whole process revolves around taking detailed notes: I conduct an interview, record every word, highlight the standout quotes, and then arrange and rearrange the structure until that chaos of notes I’ve scribbled forms a narrative.

My natural creativity coupled with an inability to retain short-term information turned out to be this sort of yin and yang of motivators to pursue this field.

And now, every day, this blog is an item on my to-do list.

It feels good to check it off.

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