Let’s talk about notebooks. I love notebooks. I love back-to-school time because I can buy ten for a dollar. One of my favorite books as a kid was “Harriet the Spy.” And now, as a writer, I keep many many notebooks.
I recently read Joan Didion’s essay “On Keeping a Notebook.” She says, “Keepers of private notebooks are a different breed altogether, lonely and resistant rearrangers of things, anxious malcontents, children afflicted apparently at birth with some presentiment of loss.” I’ve kept diaries and journals since I was eight years old. Pages are filled with hearts with my name and some boy linked together as if I had access to secret powers to make those liaisons a reality. I still have pages scrawled from high school and art school and I cringe at the what I read sometimes, at who I used to be. But as Didion says, “I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind’s door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends.” I will never not have a record of who I used to be- for better or worse.
Currently I keep close to a dozen on-going notebooks:
1. Writng Process: I’ve been keeping this since 1998. I track the process of my writing in general. Writing goals. What I accomplished on a particular day. What I hope to accomplish the next. Entries explaining months long gaps in the notebook. I see patterns in the ebb and flwo of the process so when I am ebbing I can look back and see that this to will pass. That it’s all part of the process.
2. Writing Practice: I have close to 40 of these filled. They are based on the Natalie Goldberg method of freewriting on a topic for a set amount of time and just filling pages. Seeing how your mind works. This is what started me on the writing path so many years ago.
3. Story Notebooks: Now I keep a notebook for each story. I do writing practice aimed at the story or from a certain character’s POV. I keep notes from workshop in there. Ideas for upcoming scenes. Questions I have about the story. What if questions that may take it in a new direction. I’ll play with POV and monologues trying to get a handle on the characters. I’d like to start adding visual elements.
4. Morning pages: After Julia Cameron. These notebooks are the big blank artist sketchbooks from Borders. Blank pages. Some months I write in them religiously, three pages every morning then I wake up and am tired of my own voice. Tired of the whining. Now I’m looking for ways to add more visuals to the pages. Make it more messy. More layered. I am convinced that if I can let go in one art form it will inform the other.
5. Visual Journal: This is strictly art. I play with collage, try new techniques. It’s for fun. I’d like to try a collage on one page and a free-write or found poem on the other then tie them together visually somehow.
6. Books to Read: A list of books to be read divided into categories: short stories, novels, memoir, writing craft, science, classics. It’s never-ending.
7. New Words: A notebook of words new to me and their definitions. Words I just like the sounds of like tabernacle, obsidian, confetti, zigzag, throttle.
8. MFA Notebook: Currently I am working with 3 texts as part of my self-guided MFA program: “The Making of a Story” by Alice LaPlante, “Master Class in Fiction Writing” by Adam Sexton and “Deepening Fiction” by Sarah Stone & Ron Nyren. I write out answers to the questions posed in each book, trying to deepen my understanding of the craft.
9. Observations: This is new. As a writing group we decided to write 2-3 observations a day in hopes of becoming “one of those people on whom nothing is lost” as Henry James said. I actually got the idea from a reading at the Kenyon conference this summer. A poet read some of her observations and they were beautiful little jewels. Small moments of being awake. It’s a great habit to get into. I can already feel a difference. I am noticing and on the look out for small momets and then I am required to paint that moment in words.
There are several others that I have started and stopped such as one that was going to document my reading for a year. That would’ve been a full time project in itself. But the nine decribed above are notebooks that I work in on a fairly regular basis. They each help me to “”write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear,” to once again quote Joan Didion.