You safeguard the unruly tangles of my mind,
creating keepsakes from those thin filaments
that threaten to float away on the breeze.
Between your pale blue tines, I insert my
untidy scratchings, knowing that your order
will prevail over my chaos.
And that pink line emblazoned above the blue;
is that an artery placed there to remind me
of the path to my heart?
The face you present to the world is elegant,
but underneath you are a blank canvas,
one that invites my wildest sketches.
I don’t need a dinner napkin to write on.
I don’t need an old envelope to sketch on.
I just need you.
O faithful companion to my dreams!
As you might have guessed from my ode, I’m in love with the humble 3” x 5” index card. I first started using them in my early twenties to keep track of meaningful quotations and affirmations, during regular bouts of attempted self-improvement. Now, as a writer, I carry a handful with me wherever I go.
Do you find you receive creative impulses at odd moments? You may be driving your car, taking a shower, going on a walk or standing in a grocery store line when inspiration strikes. If your ideas aren’t recorded almost immediately, they can evaporate and fade.
How do you capture your ideas? Do you scribble them in a small Moleskine™ notebook, reach for an envelope from today’s mail, or use the scratch page by the phone? Maybe you use an application such as Evernote™ or Simplenote™ to capture your latest revelations.
Why not try a device that has a long history going back a thousand years – the index card. As you might guess from the name, the cards were originally used for cataloguing or indexing key words in a manuscript.The term index refers to the pointed finger (index finger) symbol medieval monks used to mark key words on a page. 
When Melvil Dewey developed his library classification system in the 1870’s, he created cards (approximately 3” x 5”) for his catalogue drawers. This type of card catalogue was used until the 1980’s.  Over the years, used library cards were given to the public to re-use and that’s how they ended up in general use.
Over the years, people have used these cards for many purposes, including:
- to-do lists
- goal lists
- shopping lists
- meaningful quotations
- recipes – generally stored in small boxes with divider tabs
- bookmarks – they provide a ready surface for notes about the book
- flash cards – a useful study aid for both children and adults
But did you realize that these cards can be a valuable tool for writers? You can slip a supply into your wallet, purse, or notebook. They are low tech, portable and inexpensive, and they come in a variety of colours in addition to the standard white.
Did you know that Vladimir Nabokov wrote entire novels on index cards? In an interview in with Herbert Gold published in The Paris Review, Nabokov said “My schedule is flexible, but I am rather particular about my instruments: lined Bristol cards and well sharpened, not too hard, pencils capped with erasers.”  I’m not suggesting that you do this, but here are some ideas for ways index cards can be used by writers.
‘Writerly’ Uses for 3” x 5” Index Cards
- record snippets of overheard conversation – you can discreetly record others’ words while in a cafe or restaurant. These snippets might provide inspiration for a poem or the development of a character for your current writing project
- jot down ‘writerly’ ideas. These might be related to your current writing project, or a future story, article or poem. Why not save them in one place? A large, wide-mouthed Mason jar works well for this purpose
- work with sequencing. As they can be moved around, index cards are ideally suited for sequencing. An example: the order of scenes. Assign a numbered card to each scene in a short story, along with a few notes about that scene. Place the cards on a tabletop and move them around until the order feels right
- keep track of character traits. As you develop ideas for a character, jot your notes down on index cards and store them in an envelope. When you have a collection, place the cards in front of you and read them over. Use your senses. When you think of this character, what do you see, hear, imagine touching, feel and even smell?
- write prompts on the cards, then when you need some inspiration for freewriting, pull one of the index cards at random. You could store your prompt cards in a Mason jar too
- record the key points of a speech. Have you been asked to speak to a local writers’ group about your work, or about some aspect of writing? The cards will fit easily into the palm of your hand and you won’t have to shuffle distracting 8 ½” x 11” sheets of paper in front your audience
- plan a visual presentation using a program such as PowerPoint. Write key points on the cards and move them around until the order feels right before creating the actual slides
- write down new words and their definitions as you read. Save and review the cards regularly to build your vocabulary
- record book recomendations. Make sure you have your list with you when you visit your local independent bookstore
Do you already use 3” x 5” index cards? If not, have I convinced you to give them a try? I’d love to hear about your experiences.
Until next time,
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Our blog posts will continue over the summer, but we won’t be offering any more writing retreats until the autumn. We hope you’ll consider joining us for a Day Away to Write on October 6, 2013. The leaves will be just starting to turn – a perfect time for a country drive. We’ve also posted our 2014 retreat dates on our home page.
1, 2 and 3 – Levenger product website: http://www.levenger.com/3-x-5-cards-705.aspx
4 -Vladimir Nabokov, “The Art of Fiction No. 40″ ,interview by Herbert Gold, The Paris Review, Summer 1967