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Da Vinci Was a Good Traveler, He Carried a Notebook

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There is a measure of a good traveler — or at least one who intends to write — and that is whether or not he or she carries a notebook at all times, and uses it to jot down observations, thoughts, ideas, and to do lists. I live from my notebooks — which are often modest stationary store affairs or pads of paper I lift from some unsuspecting friend. I usually fold the notebook in half, with a small carpenter’s pencil inside marking my place, and stuff it into the back pocket of my jeans. A dozen to two dozen times a day I will whip it out and jot something down, and, thus, my work is fuel.

I probably write as much as any other traveling writer on the planet — I estimate my output at over 600,000 words per year — and I’m only able to do this for one reason: I take extensive notes constantly. Writing in the notebook has become, at this point in my career, almost a biological action — I don’t know anymore if respiration would continue without constantly taking this action. Writing is a way of life.

(Read more at How to take field notes when traveling.)

My filled notebooks now amount for a massive mound at my parent’s home in western New York State. There is probably close to 100 of them by now. My bi-yearly/ yearly visits to my family means depositing the array of variously shaped and sized $1 notebooks that I’ve picked up in my intervening travels.

Leonardo Da Vinci notes

As just about any writer quickly figures out, memory is an essential tool to cultivate, but it is absolutely useless when you don’t remember what it was that you’ve remembered. I can often recollect and recited entire conversations verbatim, but I must first remember that I had the conversation and intended to write about it. As the human mind is structured to only be able to think of one thing at a time, it sometimes needs reminders about what it was that you planned to think about again in the future. This is where the notebook comes in.

Notes are often just as much reminders of what you’ve remembered as what you’ve forgotten.  

Not only do I record thoughts, ideas, conversation, and those things that I’m absolutely positive I’ll remember to think of again (it is amazing how often even the most powerful thoughts in the present cannot be recalled in the future), but I also record extensive “to do” lists. Or, more clearly, “to think later” lists. This can be anything from a one word blog post idea, to an outline for a full article, to a proposed investigation, to a “keep a look out for this” note, to the name of a contact or the proper name for a part of something.

In this way, when I sit down to the computer to type, there is a towering list of possible topics to chose from, and there is never a lack of articles to write. Waking up one day and not having anything to write about would feel like the equivalent of stepping off the edge of the earth: it would be the end. Luckily, I have a mini-pile of bent up, ratty, wrinkled, and torn notebooks sitting next to me right now, totally scrawled full of notes.

Leonardo da Vinci was a good traveler. He would always carry a notebook with him, attaching it by a chain to his belt. In these books, he would jot observations, ideas, sketches, names of contacts, and, yes, to do lists. Minus the drawings, his travel notebooks did not look in any way dissimilar to those of a myriad traveling writers criss crossing the globe right now. From Da Vinci’s recently found travel notebook:

The measurement of Milan and suburbs

The measurement of the Corte Vecchio

Get the master of arithmetic to show you how to square a triangle

Get Messea Fazio to show you about proportion

Get a Brera Friar to show you Deponderibus

Ask Benedetto Portinari by what means they go on ice in Flanders

These are true notes, taken by a pro. They provide a list of what to look for, who to talk to, what to try to find out, as Da Vinci traveled around Milan. Though written in the 15th century, these travel notes are not much different than myself, or, I assume, any other traveling writer takes today. From my notebook:

Maya guy Walter

Butterfly guy

Coffee organization

Get an architect that does colonial reconstruction to show how these buildings were made and fixed

This is, more or less a to do list of people to contact this week. My notebook is full of other notes — mostly thoughts, ideas, observations, quotes — that also border on the nonsensical.  These notes are always quickly taken in the moment, without delay, regardless of what else is occurring.

You can tell the difference between a professional/ established traveling writer and a newbie amateur or a diarist by 1) their notebook, 2) their note taking habits. A well worn writer of the road takes notes in beaten, battered — EASY TO CARRY — stationary shop notebooks while walking, riding, running, biking, climbing, eating, doing summersaults . . .  with lightning quick short hand.  A newbie or a diarist will sit down at the end of the day in a hostel or cafe and mull over complete sentences before a hard bound, formal, and difficult to carry “journal.” These guys can take all day mulling and won’t reproduce (can’t recall) a tenth of what they meant to record. I know this, because I once used this highly under productive method. When I see someone in the street stop suddenly, flip out an unpretentious spiral bound ledger book from their front shirt pocket and make a note as quickly as though they were jotting down a street crossing — taking notes as an event is occurring or an idea hits them — I know I’m looking at a pro.

Sometimes people ask me if excessive note taking gets in the way of deep experience or thorough observation of an event or situation. I answer, invariably, in the negative. Taking notes brings me closer into a scene, writing focuses my attention, consolidates my observations, gives me things to look for, and aspects of a place and a culture to investigate at closer range. Keeping a notebook sheathed to “fully experience” something is a cop out for the lazy, and a sure way to allow that “experience” to slip through your fingers, escape memory, and be lost for good.

Writing is a derivative of living, when your days are full of life there will always be a mountain of words waiting to be written. Taking notes is a necessary mechanism for writing this life.

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Filed under: Travel Writing

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 76 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to Forbes, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3048 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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Wade Shepard is currently in: Polis, Republic of CyprusMap