In praise of the poetry of the Notes app (may mine be deleted upon my death)

On the home screen of my iPhone – on the very left, second row from the top – sits an app I frequent regularly. In fact, according to my diagnostics, an average of six minutes a day. The small rounded-square logo – yellow, white and grey – is designed to depict the top section of a notepad. But like most people, I don’t use it like a notepad.

The Notes app – which has its off-brand equivalents for Android users – is my favourite of all the apps. It feels trustworthy. It’s safe. It feels like a safe, in which to store my secrets, my afterthoughts, my memory-doubts. It’s an old friend to confide in; a place where I can be completely vulnerable.

It’s also a place to write haphazard measurements of a new fridge.

That this one place can be both for wholly secret thoughts and the most mundane details of life: this is what gives it its unique charm. And it’s why, for the last few years, I have been asking my friends to share their Notes with me – and why I’ve begun collecting and cataloguing them.

In her 2017 debut essay collection, Too Much and Not the Mood, writer Durga Chew-Bose describes shopping and to-do lists as “un-poems”. Texts of meaning which are, for others, indiscriminate and unintelligible. It’s the same with the Notes app. The language we use is often so prosaic that it becomes a poetry of its own kind. An unlikely tapestry sewn together by proximity. A place where we digress intentionally.

There’s no judgement in this app. No grammar is considered, there’s no reason to use spell check. It’s a completely raw depiction of our thoughts, messy and muddled and page after page of items that are rarely titled, from dog names to salad recipe to things I didn’t think I’d say today. Looking at them out of context can bring about a sense of art. It’s jazz – or, honestly, it’s punk.

Sometimes I share my own Notes at dinner parties: the perfect conversation starter with phones close at hand. I watch my friends across the table go through their own apps as the conversation begins; from curiosity to realisation, to mental cataloguing, and then the sudden discovery of some tidbit of information they thought lost – but now really need to share.

Looking through someone else’s Notes feels voyeuristic, dirty, almost illegal. The app, when used often, holds our idiosyncrasies and disturbingly human qualities, so much so that they could be considered personality graffiti – marrying boredom with fleeting thoughts, like the words etched into cubicle stalls. They are also a time capsule, packed with outdated references, numbers and titles, revealing past personas, fears, plans and anxieties.

If the theory of multiple universes is true, I believe the intersection could be found through our Notes. One set of listed items across our multiple lives, running in parallel with each other. For those who use the app, it’s a secret reliance we all share which – like those spots just out of focus in your eyes when you close them – give us something else to turn our attention to every once in a while.

Since writing this I have asked many people about how they use their Notes. One friend uses the app to draft every single important text message she’s ever sent; another has made a habit of cataloguing his drunken thoughts in the cab home from a night out. My girlfriend’s father simply uses it to write down all the measurements he needs on the building site.

How people use this tool can tell us a lot about them. This is why Notes is my favourite of all the apps, and why I continue to collect them as screenshots, nearly all anonymous, stored in a folder on my phone. The more I collect, the more I come to understand they will always be forever personal. Only the author can see each Note for what it truly is.




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