Notebooks and the Writing Process

When John Gallaher was here, I noticed that he was writing sentences (or line or observations, who knows?) in a notebook throughout the class. At the end of class, I asked him “Why do you use a small notebook?” He passionately responded that he liked being able to carry it around in his pocket, so that he could write something down as soon as it came into his mind. He talked about the mead notebooks, and how the plastic cover protects it if, for example, he threw the notebook onto a table at a bar. He was so enthusiastic about this notebook, even noting the changes the Mead notebooks have gone through the years (they replaced the plastic back cover with a cardboard one, and they shrunk the size of the spiral , which made it more difficult to slide pens into loops). It was easy to tell that he was obsessed with these notebooks.

As a writers in the modern age, we really only need three things: a computer, a notebook, and a pencil. Laptops and pencils, though, are not very customizable. Notebooks are, and that might be why they’re so special to us. Notebooks are very customizable, because they range from small to large, from plain to intricate.

Personally, I am obsessed with notebooks and have more than I probably should. Typically, I have three notebooks in my backpack. One is a new notebook I bought Saturday with the intent of making into a place where I can focus on writing and revising poetry. It’s one of those notebooks that looked too beautiful to write in with a fancy cover and gold edged pages. Currently, I’m four or five pages into it, where I was writing out different stanzas and lines for a poem I’m having difficulty with. The second one is a small, pocket-sized moleskin notebook, which I bought to use for drawing diagrams for my Chemistry class, to use in a John Gallaher sort of way where I write short sentences and observations that I don’t want to lose. The third is my trusty composition notebook that I use as a dumping ground for everything from working on bits of novel ideas to writing down mineral formulas. In my mind, these notebooks do very different, if similar, things. They work as ways to compartmentalize different strains of thoughts for my writing, and function as significant parts of my writing process.

What do you guys do for notebooks? Do you use your laptop more than your notebook? Do you assign different notebooks to different tasks? Also, how you arrange notebooks, do you write all over the place or do you only write on the lines?


5 Replies to “Notebooks and the Writing Process”

  1. I need some structure in my life, seriously. I think if I actually dedicated myself to making my life more organized I’d be better at life generally. But to answer your question, I use to keep a normal composition notebook as a journal. I didn’t write anything specific in it and I didn’t write in it everyday, I only wrote in it when I needed to (times of emotional distress/inspiration). Now I have journals, the medium sized ones you buy at bookstores and look like journals I guess. I don’t carry them around though, but I like them to have pockets. I don’t carry anything but a pen around and my phone. If I have an idea i’ll jot it down in my notes section of my phone and refer to it later, and if my phone is dead, i’ll find any piece of paper around and write on it and then store it in my journal pocket. I think writing every day or trying to organize my journals is too hectic for me. I’m more of a go with your gut kind of gal.
    I don’t have any specific organization for my journal writing. Sometimes it will be an entry followed by a poem, and then other times just a word, a phrase, etc. I’ve always thoughts journals were a reflection of person. I reminds me of the different ways people have of living and of thinking. I would love to do a study on journals one day hahaha.

  2. Lizzie,
    The problem I have with carrying a notebook, is that I forget to carry the notebook. I have so many small, pretty notebooks that I’ve gotten as stocking stuffers or similar gifts over the years, and they always end up with a few pages filled with doodles and writing, the next few pages with shopping lists and phone numbers, then numbers and names and words that I forget the significance of, and so on until they end up about half-way filled, then set aside, and not really thought about again. My problem is that I just write things down on whatever is closest to me, most convenient. I have poetry written in just about all of my class subject notebooks. I have phone numbers typed up on my laptop. There is almost no structure to the way I note-take, which can be frustrating, as things often get lost, or I think to myself: “where did I write that down?” But it can be exciting, when I open up my notebook to look at hum notes from the beginning of the semester and discover a stellar line of poetry that I’d written down and forgotten about completely. I totally get what you’re saying about the beautiful quality of notebooks, though. There is something really magnificent about holding a hard cover, beautifully bound notebook in your hands. For me, though, I find I rarely use that kind of notebook when I have it. I just end up jotting everything down in whatever is nearest to me most frequently, which is usually notebooks for classes (the classic 3-subject spiral bound old-[un]reliables) or the “notes” app on my phone or computer. Once I make an effort to reorganize my life, though, I’d love to try the mini-notebook like Gallaher.

  3. Hi Lizzie!
    Ever since Gallagher came to visit I believe I’ve been writing a lot more in my notebook. I always have my “writing” notebook with me, which consists of small journal entries, lists of things I notice throughout the day, and also in-progress poems. Basically anything I’m working on goes in it, and for me it’s a safe place.
    I typically only use one notebook at a time; it’s about the size of a planner, and usually has some sort of pretty design. I like my notebooks to reflect my personality and the one I’m working in now is a floral pattern with bright pinks and oranges. I really like having something pretty to write in.
    There are certainly instances where I don’t have my notebook with me, or a pen ready. Sometimes when I wake up I will quickly type things into my phone. Other times I’ll write things in note margins and transfer them to my journal later.
    I will say though that my journal is not typically a place for revision; it’s usually a jump start to a poem or piece. Once I have a page or so written I’ll type it up and print it out. I have a folder that I use for all my classes labeled “Things to Work On.” I keep a lot of rough poems in there, and when I have time I will scribble all over them and then reprint and start all over.
    I hope I answered your questions! I like how your post made me think about my writing process.

  4. Hi Lizzie,

    Notebooks are SO special to us. It’s funny to me – you mention your pretty notebook with the gold edges for writing? I once bought myself a beautiful leather-bound journal, specifically for writing poetry. I’ve never written a word in it; the book itself is so impressive, that I am almost afraid to write in it, because everything I write is so not-impressive, especially in its infancy. The notebook imparts too much pressure for me to even use it as a journal, to write my personal thoughts in. It’s always amazed me that I can have such a strong reaction to the cover of a collection of lined pages.

    Before last March, I used to carry around legal pads – but I hated the way you have to keep curling the edges of the pages over, and you can really only use one side of each page. Last March, I purchased a soft-cover, purple composition notebook to use as the ‘dumping ground’ for all my thoughts – computer passwords, novel ideas, homework for class, website designs, etc. I just finished it about two weeks ago, and went through it to transfer anything I might still need (novel ideas, passwords, ongoing project materials) to the new book that I’m carrying.

    My new book is a cerulean blue hardcover composition notebook, and honestly I couldn’t be happier. The hardcover, for some reason, hits the sweet spot of professional (like the leatherbound) without being scary. I love the color, and I never have to worry about if I spill something on it or the pages getting really bent out of shape. It’s also really compact, which is nice. Believe it or not, the transition from one notebook to the other was psychologically difficult for me – breaking in to the new page was an anxiety-inducing event.

    I don’t ever think I’ll be happy enough with my preliminary writings to have a special notebook just for them. For some reason, throwing all my ideas in with all the other useless ‘dumps’ in these journals takes the pressure off for me – like it’s okay if they’re unimportant, nonsensical garbage because everything in this book is just the end of an unimportant thought anyway. Then if it ends up being great, I can type it up or, if not, I can leave it in the notebook forever never worrying about where it goes.

    For my part, I would hate the tiny notebook. I need a large, blank space to write on – I think my writing is more like sketching than scribbling. But I’ve never forgotten my notebook since I’ve started carrying it, despite the fact that I lose almost everything else. It’s funny because, as soon as I started using these last March, they’ve become an integral part of my being – we’re attached at the hip.

  5. Lizzie,

    I have a troubled relationship with notebooks. On the one hand, they fill me with a sense of opportunity and inspiration and excitement – so many beautiful, blank pages! As you were saying, they are more customizable than certain tools, and it can feel affirming to find a notebook that subscribes to your personal aesthetic or to a particular aesthetic that you’re striving for in a new endeavor. They also tend to assuage my doubts in my identity as a writer (thought process: I’m obviously a writer, have you seen my notebook?)

    But, on the other hand, they are super anxiety producing. The presence of the notebook is a persistent reminder that I want to(/needto/should/etc…) be using it. This newfound sense of identity-as-writer fades again into self-doubt, anywhere from within a couple of days to a couple of weeks (thought process: I’m obviously a writer, have you seen my notebook? No, you haven’t? Oh that’s probably because I haven’t used it yet. But I think I’m still a writer?) In this way notebooks bring to the forefront of my mind the doubts and questions that plague my relationship to writing: Can I be a writer when I don’t write anything for months on end? Does that make me a bad writer? If I’m a bad writer do I still want to identify as a writer? Am I a writer if I often have to (and often fail to) force myself to write? As these questions remain unanswered they would color my feelings towards a particular notebook (the sight of which would induce anxiety rather than inspiration) and I would move on to a new notebook in an attempt to shake these doubts and questions and what I interpreted to be personal failures.

    For the past few years I have stopped buying notebooks (for creative writing purposes.) This is, firstly, because I couldn’t continue to spend money on things that I would only use 1/4 of, and secondly because I came to realize that notebooks are the embodiment of some kind of an unhealthy, non-tangible ideal for myself, the pursuit of which was actually coming in between myself and writing. Notebooks embodied the organized writer I always wanted to be, someone with neat and consistent handwriting, with a knack for chronological record-keeping and access to a constant stream of inspiration, incisive ideas, and beautiful writing. My writing was really suffering from this as I found myself writing (painfully) more for the notebook than myself (if that makes sense.)

    I now, most often, write on things that I don’t like or have any strong feelings for aesthetically, which often translates into no one thing or place in particular, often whatever is available to me: the back of a sheet of paper from another class, my phone, a piece of loose-leaf from someone else’s notebook, the inside of a folder, a notebook that I think is ugly that was gifted to me, and so forth. This allows me to write without the pressure of being contained within or limited to a certain place, ideal, or aesthetic. Although I still don’t really like how scattered I am as a writer, with disorganized scribbles of writing floating haphazardly around on almost every paper-surface that I own, I am a much happier writer this way.


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