Anyone who’s followed me for a while, knows that I rely on a mix of old and new technology when writing. I love the software programme, Scrivener, and the way it allows me to shuffle my chapters around and edit easily. I’m also a fan of the old-fashioned sticky note and the even older-fashioned index card, so I was mighty chuffed to read this post by Yvette Walker and discover that she’s a fan of them, too.
Yvette and I first got to know each other when she lived in Perth, and we met up again at Varuna this year. Her prose is exquisite and I loved her début novel, Letters to the End of Love, as you can see from this review I wrote in 2014.
So, here’s her ode to the index card. If you’re an index card lover, you’ll enjoy this post, and if you’re not, read on and you might be converted.
Yvette Walker is an Australian LGBTQI writer of Irish ancestry. Her first novel, Letters to the End of Love, won a WA Premier’s Book Award and was shortlisted for an NSW Premier’s Book Award. Her short fiction has been published in Review of Australian Fiction, The Nightwatchman (The Wisden Cricket Quarterly) and the anthologies Meet Me at the Intersection (FAP) and Headlands: New Stories of Anxiety (VUP). She has been a writing fellow at Varuna, the Writer’s Centre and the Michael King Writer’s Centre. Yvette is currently working full time on her second novel about the life and work of the silent film star Alla Nazimova.
You can find Yvette on her website and Instagram.
Pick a card, any card
My first novel, Letters to the End of Love, had its origins in a dream. One night I decided, after a particularly fraught time when none of my writing was working, to stop trying to be a writer. Later that same night I had a long, cinematic dream about a young man diving into an endless dark. It could not be ignored, this dream, it was powerful, it was beautiful; as if Ernst Lubitsch had snuck into my unconscious and was shooting a picture there.
I took back my declaration never to write again, and I wrote a short story about the dream. That short story (eventually) became Letters to the End of Love. “Eventually” being the operative word. I am a very slow writer. For me, it takes a long time to get things right and I’ve had to come to terms with that.
I keep a work diary but it’s the diary of a distracted lunatic. Things begin well, in a frenzy, and then trail off into nothing.
What I do well is research, and I can’t begin a novel without engaging in a great deal of reading. Then there is the thinking, and the seemingly endless questions. I walk. I talk to myself.
And I keep index cards. Cards full of quotes from writers, theorists, philosophers, artists and spiritualists, cards full of favourite sentences and paragraphs, cards quoting newspaper reports and theatre reviews, outlining ideas for short stories and novels, breaking down scenes, detailing historical research, asking questions about the work in progress, and attempts at possible answers.
These aren’t virtual cards generated by an app, they are yellow or green or white cardboard rectangles of a standard size, five inches by three inches. They fade over time, but not so much they aren’t still readable. They get smudged by dirt, stained by tea, bent at the corners, and are punctured by holes made by drawing pins. They breathe.
Index cards were invented around 1760 by Carl Linnaeus, the Swedish botanist, zoologist and physician. In the 1870s, Melvil Dewey standardised the index cards used in library card catalogues. And almost two hundred years later, Vladamir Nabokov wrote the drafts of his novels on index cards:
Nabokov arises early in the morning and works. He does his writing on filing cards, which are gradually copied, expanded, and rearranged until they become his novels. 
Hooray for Nabokov, but I don’t write my novels on cards. And unlike screenwriters and television writers, I don’t use them for beat by beat plotting. I concede that I do write scenes on cards and shuffle them around, throw them in the air, pin them to a cork board.
However, what I most love about index cards is not their storyboarding uses, but their ability to bring ideas together and make something unexpected, something significant, something that might be useful, even crucial, to the work in progress. Writing everything in a journal, disparate ideas stay separate and cannot be seen side by side, or in the wrong order. The chances of a Eureka moment are slim in an ordered, chronological journal. Index cards are different.
While the art of the sentence requires the writer to smash words together (over and over) until they become something larger than the sum of their parts, the art of the novel requires that you smash ideas together, which inevitably results in the blowing up your laboratory, the burning your hands and your own disastrous self-poisoning.
Index cards are great for smashing ideas together. And old index cards are something to collect, to hold onto. Every writer has a sordid collection of bad ideas, awful scenes, and undercooked sentences. For me, they are usually the ideas or sentences that I underlined several times, and then liberally peppered with exclamation marks (!!!!!) I was so sure, at the time, of their brilliance. I never want to see, or read, those terrible creations again.
But I do want to re-read that quote from Anne Lamott scribbled on a yellow index card, that quote that got me through my first draft.
Trawling through my old index cards, it’s clear that I am obsessed with philosophies of time, the ethics of historical fiction, and the creative reimagining of the historical past. Oh, and good sentences.
It’s also clear that the index cards helped me to map out the topography of my first novel, helped me to define its surfaces, features, elevations and points of interest. And like a superstitious card player who will only play with her lucky pack, I am still using many of these cards.
Working on my second novel these past few years, I have been creating even more cards. My central character, the actress, screenwriter and film director Alla Nazimova, is a real person. I have her entire life mapped out on index cards.
I have also written out a series of scenes for the prospective novel. How these two sets of cards will intersect, the real biography with the fiction, remains to be seen; but there is no doubt that the index cards bring an element of chance, of magic, of gambling into my writing. They open up possible futures.
 Vladimir Nabokov, The Art of Fiction No. 40. Interviewed by Herbert Gold. The Paris Review. Issue 11. Summer-Fall 1967.
Fascinating insight for me, a non writer. Learned the origin of the Dewy system….I had never given this a thought over all the years that I had used it, Wonderful. Thankyou.
I loved these little snippets of history, too! (I wonder if Yvette wrote them down on index cards first! 😉)
It’s true that you can rearrange index cards much easier than the pages of a journal. Sounds like a good idea to try. Thanks.
They give you a lot more freedom—to shuffle their order, put them side-by-side. Better than tearing pages out of your notebook! 😉
Thanks Karen. Best of luck trying out index cards.
I may need to purchase some index cards. I like the idea of smashing ideas together and not flicking back through endless notebooks. Endless index cards would be a change and perhaps the very thing required. Thank you.
I use them a lot and store them in a couple of purpose-built tins. I use dividers with tabs so I know what’s in where. I also have a CD holder that one of my kids made in woodwork that works well to hold them, too. Sometimes nothing beats good, old-fashioned pen and card. 😀
You’re welcome Rhiannon. I find using index cards (though I do journal when necessary) helps me consolidate my thoughts, as they are small snapshots of lots of thinking. Also I try to limit the quotations to those that knock me over, so now I have a nice collection of the best thoughts on writing and reading.
What a gorgeous piece Yvette! I loved learning about the history of index cards and seeing the way you use them. Might just have to get me some of those!
They’re a small investment for a big return, Morna! Hope your writing’s going well, too! 😀
Thanks Morna. I’m glad you enjoyed it. I wouldn’t be without index cards.
Fabulous post by one of my favourite writers. Index cards, post-it notes, coloured pens—some of my favourite tools for writing. Thanks, Yvette and Louise.
I think we’re showing our age, Amanda. But good old-fashioned hardware rarely lets you down. 😉
Right on both accounts, Louise 🙂
Thanks Amanda. I’m glad you enjoyed it.