Writing: Keeping a Notebook

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Okay. So that picture isn’t of my current notebook. That is, actually, a notebook of mine from college, a million or so years ago. I found it in my studio when I was going through some drawers. Looking through it, sampling its fascinating combination of French homework and pretentious teenaged bullshit–well. I guess it’s finally served its purpose, in that it inspired me to write something. Namely, a blog entery ooo-oon….

Using A Notebook

Let all that meta sink in, if you will.

Anyways, I think using a notebook is important, but not for the reasons a lot of people say it is. When I’m trying to think of something to write, I almost never thumb through mine. The statement ‘Ooh, I know I had a good idea, but I can’t remember it–thank God I wrote it down!’ has possibly never been uttered near my word processing device. Good ideas I usually remember no problem.

If you’re one of those people who tends to think of something really, really worth doing and then promptly forget about it, I guess it might be worth your time to have a notebook for the above reason. But, if this doesn’t happen often:
why write shit down?

Well, for one, I hope the big brawny ideas that come striding, lumberjacklike, out of your writerbrain aren’t the only reason you keep a notebook. I keep mine f’rinstance, mostly for minutae–names I like, facts I didn’t know, words I don’t recognize. Those things (along with  shopping lists, reminder notes, and confirmation numbers scrawled in the top margin) make up the majority of my little notebooks.

Are these things important, overall? Maybe. Probably not. But they give you a good and writerly habit: the habit of curiosity.

Good writing–dependable writing–is twenty percent genius and eighty percent follow-through. A notebook encourages you to explore the things that’ve made you curious–find definitions for new words, find out the history of funny names, look up a process or an item that you found interesting. If you’re not sure about a detail (such as: how much control does a game designer have over the game’s final content?) write it down so you can look it up later. This serves the excellent double function of making sure you remember things you might be writing incorrectly, and indulging that curiosity habit I’m talking about. Looking these things up might, after all, show you that you need to take your story in a new direction to make it work–or give you mental fodder for other stories, later on down the line.

Again: keeping a notebook doesn’t have to be a super-organized thing. It doesn’t have to be something you live or die by. But when you have a chance, it’s good to indulge.

My notebook from the Distant Collegial Past doesn’t look much different from my notebooks now. I still use the tiniest notebook I can write in comfortably–small enough, preferably, to fit in a back pocket. No, I don’t give a shit if they’re Molskine. I’ve got a whole slew of them in the studio: cheap drugstore notebooks, the kind you used to be able to buy at CVS for fifty cents. They’re not particularly organized, and once I’ve looked up what I’m going to look up from them I rarely look back at them, except when I’m cleaning or feeling reminiscent. They’re undated, because I’m not a damn scrapbooker, but I can usually figure out which ones are from when, more or less.

But the process of writing down things you notice, even if you never look at them again, will help you remember them better. That alone is a good reason to keep a notebook. And I have to say, though I know a lot of people are going to disagree with me:

How you keep one matters, too.

I know, I know. You’ve gotta do what works for you. I’m not going to stop you, but I do have to say: I don’t think it works as well to do it on your phone or tablet or what have you. I think it makes the whole process take longer, and speed is what you want–if writing stuff down in a notebook is going to be difficult, you’re not going to do it. A bitty book and a pen, in easy reach in your pocket or the confines of your purse, is faster than a six hundred dollar electronic device. Also, if it rains, your pen and paper will forgive you in a way your phone won’t.

So, once more: my notebooks don’t contain the genius-bombs that hit at four in the morning. Contrary to popular belief, those’re usually pretty easy to remember. They don’t contain lines of unabashed beauty, the unfinished sestinas of public transit induced anguish (at least, the ones past college don’t). They contain, mostly, a wilderness of strange names, snippets of conversation, odd questions (‘who makes slaughterhouse bolt guns?’, says one page of my college notebook). And, of course, phone numbers, shit in French, and life stuff (‘Remember toilet paper PLEASE PLEASE.’. Or, most mysteriously: one page with the word DACTYL written on it in block caps).

There are no fun clues to the person I used to be in there. No tinsel-sparkles of effervescent young genius. I rarely look at the notebooks, because they’ve already served their purpose: simply by writing this shit down, I remember it better. Most of the notes are meaningless to me now, useless (such as this random picture of the Pimp Coat of Christ, which I couldn’t for the life of me give you context for present-day:)

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But it helped me to do it. It gave me a reason to explore the world a little bit more, for a little bit longer. And for that, it’s worth doing.

How about you guys? Do you keep notebooks? How? What do you write in them? Do you feel like it helps you?

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4 thoughts on “Writing: Keeping a Notebook

  1. I have a little notebook I keep in my purse. I use it mostly when brainstorming plot points. There are lots of question marks. What if he did this? Or this? Starting to write something out longhand is a great way to break writer’s block, too.
    That said, I don’t always carry my purse around with me, but I ALWAYS have my phone on me. The notebook app has come in handy more than once. Fortunately, it doesn’t rain a lot where I live.
    PS – I kind of love the Pimp Coat of Christ.

    1. I guess this is an important angle to think of it from–I’m a purse person (purson?) and if I’m out of the house I’m carrying a purse. So my notebook is always handy.

      The page before PCoC is French notes and the page after is a shopping list featuring arugula and pears, with the pears underlined as though they were very important. I guess there’s never any context for the Pimp Coat of Christ.

  2. I bet you wrote DACTYL so that in five years time you’d see it and think why the fuck did I write the word DACTYL.

    I’m disappearing under a sea of old notebooks. I never throw them away because, you know, one of these days I might need to know that thing about something I made a note of in August 1981.

    1. I hate to say it, but I think the reasoning’s even more commonplace than that. I was taking a creative writing class at the time (poetry–le pretention!) and I’m willing to bet that was that day’s excuse for notes. Or I just liked the sound of the word.

      Or I was thinking about pterodactyls.

      Could be anything, really.

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