An article on the BBC news website caught my eye last week, Writers’ notebooks – a junkyard of the mind. Naturally, being a curious writing type I had a look and though I’m not clear what prompted the article, it was on the whole an entertaining potter about the pages of one chap’s notebooks. He made them look and sound so exciting, full of curious facts, enigmatic diagrams and sketches, research on things that sound like they might be useful someday, revisited and built up in layers. My notebooks are really not like that.
Aside from this diagram of Centrified City (from the notes for the novel I finished the first draft of in January), my notebooks are pretty much full of writing. Logical, fill a whole page top to bottom, linear prose. I feel guilty if I leave the last few lines blank to start something on a fresh page. If I want to revisit something I write a suitable heading (‘That crime story with the cat, cont. from 3rd May’ – at least it’s all in chronological order) and keep going. I occasionally repeat myself or contradict myself but both of those are illuminating in their own way.
I do write lists. Lists of prompts I can use for exercises. Lists of stories I need to tweak or submit. Lists of objects a character owns. I also write ideas for blog posts, character names, descriptions of things I’ve seen, snippets of dialogue I’ve overheard. Whole stories, sometimes. Then if it’s not something I can type up quickly I take photos of the pages so at least I’ve got a back-up. You never know when the cat will jump onto the desk quicker than you can grab the full mug.
So why is any of this interesting? Is it interesting (other than to me)? Well, the FutureLearn creative writing course I’m in the middle of has been banging on about notebooks too. Keep one, write in it every day, develop ideas there. Jot down every little thing that’s of interest: words you like the sound of, descriptions of people and places, half-baked ideas. Stuff it with postcards and pictures ripped from magazines (that’ll be why they have those little pouches in the back of some notebooks I suppose), of places you want to write about or people who look like your main characters.
Writers’ notebooks sound like grand things. I imagine them (real writers) swanning into a fancy cafe, probably in Paris, a Moleskine notebook and a fountain pen clutched in one hand. They sit there observing, making notes and sketches, perhaps pressing flowers from the table decoration between their expensive pages, tucking scraps of menu into the back. Whereas I (an imaginary writer?) scribble in biro, cramped on a commuter train. None of my notebooks have cost more than £3, and some of them (unused desk diaries for instance) are other people’s cast-offs and hence free. I feel as though in some undefined way I’m missing out, then I remember what it is that makes a notebook into a writer’s notebook: it has writing in, put there by someone who habitually writes.
I can return to my scribbling content, though with a mild lingering envy of research-filled diagrams and pressed flowers.