The Writer’s Notebook

Writer's NotebookIt’s one of the first things that we are ever told as writers – always carry a notebook. In it we should write snatches of overheard conversation, descriptions of characters that we see in the street or the beauty of the sunset on our way through the park.

For years I didn’t carry a notebook but recently I’ve started stuffing one in my handbag ‘just in case’. I seldom write in it because I feel self-conscious standing in the check-out queue writing down what the woman in front is saying or wearing but on occasion I’ve found a coffee shop and had a quick scribble.

But now I’ve got these little gems in my notebook (and presumably over the months and years I will build up several of these books) – how do I find what I want when I want it? Unless it fits my current work in progress how do I catalogue it until I need it?

There is no order to my notebook, just odd words, sentences or sometimes a whole paragraph (if I’m lucky) on disjointed subjects. When I’m deep into my novel and need an old lady character, how will I know which notebook holds the description I’m looking for?

The writer, Caro Clarke, believes that few good writers will break their narrative flow to go rooting in notebooks for something they jotted down years ago (and will they even remember they wrote it?). She says “When you are really writing, the words you need come to you. The words the story needs arise from writing it.”

I tend to agree with Caro but because this notebook mantra is so widespread, I feel that I am missing something obvious.

The best idea I could find on the internet for organising a notebook was here. It suggests buying one of those books containing subject dividers and using the sections as you find appropriate e.g. titles, dialogue, characters etc. This makes sense until you’ve filled more than one notebook.

What about you – do you use a notebook? If so, how do you retrieve what you’ve written in the past? Or do you think they’re a waste of time?

Leave a comment and maybe between us we can find the best way of retaining those ideas, characters and flashes of inspiration that occur whilst we’re out and about.

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  1. #1 by Helen Yendall on December 11, 2010 - 3:10 pm

    I always recommend that my students carry a notebook with them – just because if you don’t write down that great idea or that line of conversation, when you think of it or hear it on the bus, you will definitely forget it! It’s also a good way of getting into ‘writerly habits’ of being, as someone famous (Henry James, I think), once said, ‘the kind of person on whom nothing is lost’. Ideas are everywhere and having a notebook can help you to capture them – and use them at some point. Some ideas or lines I’ve written down don’t get used for years, but in writing them down, somehow that helps me to remember them. And if I don’t remember them, a quick flick through my notebook brings them back to me. It’s great if I can put two or more of my ideas/lines together in a story, as often that makes for an unusual ‘link’ and therefore an original story/poem.

    • #2 by Sally Jenkins on December 12, 2010 - 11:15 am

      Thanks, Helen. You are right about things being forgotten it they’re not written down. I shall plough on with the notebook and just hope I can find what I want when I want it – unless anyone has any better ideas for organising our writers’s notebooks?

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