How to keep a writer’s notebook
A method for the unruly
Yesterday, when I sat down at my desk, I couldn’t find my notebook. The panic that brought: without it, a part of my brain was missing. It wasn’t that I wanted to find information in it - instead, I wanted to write in it. A stray piece of paper wouldn’t do. I needed, in that moment, to add to that particular collection of words, to find the relief of disclosure.
The notebook was easily found, packed accidentally into a bag with other things. But it made me think about the long relationship that I’ve had with notebooks, and their centrality to everything I do, the way that they foster my creativity across years and decades.
I’m sure that’s true of most other writers. And yet, whenever I see guides to keeping a journal online, I rarely recognise my own practice in there. I’ve seen so many idealised journals, designed for public display, written in overly neat handwriting using multi-coloured pens, filled with motivational quotes and orderly bullet points. This kind of journal feels oppressive to me, reeking of all the things I sought to escape after leaving school: the people-pleasing, self-conscious, high-pressure spaces of my school books. The tyranny of good presentation and legibility.
In my view, a good notebook should be at best partially legible - that’s what creates its mystique. It should actively repel the casual viewer, and exude a feral air that unsettles intruders. It should be a disorderly space, defiant of bourgeois convention; a rowdy heath instead of a tidy garden. Its dark magic lies in a series of collisions, the juxtaposition of thoughts that, in any ordinary space, would not go together. The result should be an unruly object, defying polite society.
Here’s my guide to keeping a book like this.
How to think about it
My notebook is made for nobody’s eyes but my own. It’s a completely private space, and I protect that viciously. I will never show anything directly from its pages, and I certainly don’t let anyone have a flick through. This is important, because it gives me the freedom to write anything in it. That might be my darkest thoughts or my fragile feelings; but mostly it’s just terrible writing. I’m allowed to be incoherent, self-pitying, tacky, boring or stupid in this space. It’s nobody else’s business.
This absolute assertion of privacy is fundamental. If you do nothing else, do that.
I always call it a notebook rather than a journal, because that helps to keep things casual. I do not write in it every day, or even every week. Sometimes I’ll fill half a notebook in a couple of days; sometimes, whole months will go by without a single word written. It doesn’t matter. My notebook is there to catch the thoughts that need to be caught. It doesn’t work on any schedule.
For this reason, I carry it with me at all times.
I have one very important boundary: no beautiful notebooks.
This is a hard and fast rule. People buy me gorgeous, hardback, creamy-papered notebooks all the time, and I give them to my son to draw in (sorry, friends; buy me socks next time). This is because gorgeous notebooks are disapproving bastards, and I can never write a single word in them. They make me feel like I have to say something meaningful in perfect cursive. They stall me.
I always buy my own notebooks, and I choose nice, plain, simple designs. I like my books to lie flat when you open them, have wide lines (the thin ones are tyrannical), and a margin if possible. The paper needs to be thick enough that your writing doesn’t bleed through or imprint, so very cheap ones are out, but there’s no need for excess here.
They also need to survive in my backpack, so I quite like the ones with an elastic band built in so that I don’t get hairpins and receipts stuck between the pages.
My go-to is the Rhodia Soft Cover, A5, which is such a well-behaved notebook. I tend to buy mine in Sapphire, but that’s because, for ages, it was the cheapest colour on Amazon by a mile - about £8. I have absolutely no idea why they charge different amounts for different colours, and I find it annoying.
But there is a problem with always buying the same notebook, which is that they all look the same and it’s difficult to find anything quickly. I work around that by finding a different sticker for the front of each one (usually, at some point, I’ll get a free sticker with a purchase of some kind, or I’ll steal one from Bert; if not, I use washi tape). This gives each notebook an identity. When each book is finished, I put a label on the front showing the date range that it was in use.
Moleskines, by the way, are ridiculous.
Gratuitous opinion: spiral-bound notebooks make it too tempting to tear out pages. Don’t buy them. Keep everything.
Above all else, come as you are into this space. Some days, your writing will look fluid and gorgeous. Some days, it will look like something has dipped itself in ink and crawled over the pages. Both are fine. Despite what your teacher told you, presentation is morally neutral.
Get your thoughts down in the way that suits you best. For me, that’s just long blocks of writing. But you can do it however you like. It’s yours.
I follow some rules to keep it all in some kind of order, though:
Always put the date at the top of the page.
Start a new page for each note.
If you’re taking notes from a book, put the full title, author, date and publisher at the top of the page, and then put a page number in the margin next to each note or quote. This means you can check it again later and will save you untold angst.
Only write on the right-hand page - leave the left blank. This might sound wasteful, but it’s actually very useful. That left-hand page is for your notes and interjections. It leaves you space to add in anything you missed, or to write in comments and thoughts that occur to you when you re-read. If I’m note-taking from a book, I use the left-hand page for my own thoughts and keep the right-hand page for the content of the actual book. I commend this to all of you, because it invites you to have a critical, reflective relationship with your thoughts.
Your notebook exists to capture your creative life in the broadest possible sense. It exists because your memory is never quite as good as it should be. Get everything down as soon as you can, while it’s still in your mind. Bright ideas have a terrible habit of dissipating if they hang about too long.
A non-exhaustive list of the things I include in my notebook:
Head-emptying sessions about what’s on my mind today.
Observations while I’m out - fragments of speech, things I’ve seen or noticed, feelings that were triggered.
Reflections on bits of culture I’ve encountered - for example, exhibitions, plays, films, articles, events. I’ll try to capture in detail what I saw, and my thoughts and responses.
Ideas, as they come, even if they’re fragmentary. These things are so fleeting, so don’t make them wait.
Conversations, and my thoughts in their aftermath.
Strategies and plans - for example, I quite often sit down and sketch out my creative projects for the next six months, year, two years, five years to think about the big picture; and about once a year, I analyse all my platforms, how they’re working together, and what I’m ready to shed.
Long, impressionistic rambles about current or potential projects and where they’re going. What are they about?
Detailed notes from books that I think will feed into my own work.
Quicker notes about books I’ve read more casually.
Workshop plans and ideas.
Much else besides.
What I definitely don’t use my notebook for:
Shopping lists, to do lists, takeaway orders.
Other people’s work; in particular, I don’t let my son draw in it, even when he’s desperate.
Meeting notes, if I can help it. I keep a separate pad on my desk for those task-oriented notes that come from the business end of what I do.
Sometimes I keep a separate notebook for a specific project - for example, when I was writing Wintering, I kept a journal that I knew would feed into the memoir segements. When I’m in a phase of writing morning pages, I use a separate notebook and just throw them away when they’re full; the information is not useful to me, and storage becomes an issue after a while. I have boxes of notebooks going back to 2004.
What to do with it
Over the years, I’ve tried many different ways to order or index my notebooks, but none of them have worked. Instead, I am now deeply comfortable with there being no order at all. All of these different elements sit next to each other, and I love the chaos.
The thing is, my notebooks have two lives. The first life is about the process of writing: getting everything out of my brain and onto the page, where it’s safe.
The second life happens when I read through them. I do this again and again, sometimes flicking through the pages, and sometimes reading carefully. They become deeply familiar spaces, and over the long term, they show me the evolution of my ideas.
For information that’s applicable to a certain project (for example notes towards a book), I scan the pages into Evernote and tag them so they’re all together when I need them. If I’m feeling particularly officious, I’ll add post-it notes in the relevant pages, too.
But mostly, I don’t index my pages in any way. Sometimes, I’ll remember a note I made, and I’ll go hunting through two or three books to find it, and the joy is that I’ll stumble across lots of other forgotten notes in the process. I will only be able to read 79 per cent of my handwriting, which is bizarrely useful because exciting new combinations of words suggest themselves while I’m trying to decipher my own text. The lack of order is a wonderful thing, throwing new connections and perspectives into my path.
The contents of my notebook are always a first draft, if they’re anything at all. I expect to do another layer of work if they’re going out into the world. This lets me keep my notebook as a neutral container for my thoughts, free of judgement; a place of beginnings and false starts; a soft cushion for my most vulnerable state. It’s the best way I know to protect my creativity from the more critical public sphere.
I’d love to hear how you use your notebooks and journals - there’s no single right way to do this. Let me know if a post about handling research would be useful too!
All good wishes,
Two How We Live Now podcast episodes you might enjoy:
Coming up at The Clearing
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