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Writer’s Notebook: An Idea Gold Mine

Take any writing class or read any writing book, and the first thing you will learn is, “Keep a writer’s notebook.”  It sounds elementary, but so many writers today don’t keep that notebook tucked away for capturing random thoughts before they are lost.

I started keeping a diary at the age of nine or ten.  At the time, I was obsessed with unicorns, so receiving this diary was a dream for me:

Unfortunately, this isn’t the original diary. (I found the picture on Ebay.)  I haven’t seen mine in years, but I’m guessing it’s somewhere in my parents’ garage along with that popcorn tin that holds all of my carefully folded, hand-written notes from middle school.  Back then the idea of a diary was romantic.  I had very little real drama in my life, but it was fun to pretend that my boy crushes and straight-versus-curly haired days were traumatic and secretive.  I went in phases during which I wrote every day and other times where six months passed between entries.  But writing in that diary was always like coming back to an old friend.  Turning the wheel on the combination lock never lost its appeal because I knew that my secret thoughts waited inside.

In middle school and high school, I spent many years diary free, but I did write poetry.  Some were tormented poems about the boy who was in love with my best friend.  (They ended up getting married.  So I guess it wasn’t meant to be between us.)  Others were more esoteric poems about imagination, the industrial revolution or gargoyles in Paris. I just found a box of these in my own garage last weekend.  They are a treasure trove of embarrassment and a time capsule of my life.  I love the way these poems instantly transport me back to the 80s and 90s.  I can often picture the exact place I wrote the words.

In college, I continued with my writing, but it was more class-driven. Somewhere on that Brother word processor, which I so proudly carried to my freshman dorm room, live files filled with comparative literary papers and poems about Mott the Hoople, sunflower seeds and a sunset from a mosquito-filled dock.  These images became a diary of my life at a college in the middle of rural Indiana.

But many of these words and images are locked away in the bowels of technology.  Yes, I did refer to my antiquated Brother word processor and box filled with floppy disks as the bowels of technology.  And my thoughts are trapped in these bowels. Sure I can fire up the Brother, but I can’t open a dusty box, pull out a stack of notebooks and immediately connect with my most treasured images.

Today, it’s even easier for our fleeting thoughts to get lost in “the cloud.”  I’ll admit, I’m a technology junkie.  I record my thoughts in Evernote, Pinterest, Scrivener, Word documents, and the Notes app on my iPhone.  In spite of the convenience of technology, there are times when we need to simplify these recording mechanisms.  That’s why a few years ago, I finally wised up and decided to go old-school again.

The notebook!

This little gem is a Moleskine knock-off I found at Target.  At 5.5″ x 3.75″ it slides right into my purse and goes everywhere with me.  And at $5.99, you can’t beat the price.  This notebook is my savior.

When I was young and had few responsibilities, I could afford to linger for hours on a mosquito-filled dock and wax philosophical about beautiful images and life.  But as a writer, mom, wife and chronic over-committer, I rarely get to linger over anything.  Consequently, inspiration strikes at the most inopportune times.  Usually when I’m washing dishes or driving in the car.  Enter: The Notebook.

This little baby is filled with thoughts and images.  Here are some examples from a randomly-selected page.

  • A quote from an interview I heard with Anthony Hopkins: “As a child I wrote to escape the desert of my mental emptiness.”
  • A description of the woman accepting my donations at Goodwill. She appeared to have been badly burned at some point.  The smooth texture of the scar tissue on the side of her head was beautiful and heart wrenching at the same time.
  • Notes about the tattoo a friend’s brother just got – an Illinois license plate.  Why would someone want “the Land of Lincoln” tattooed on their arm?  Fascinating!
  • A quote from an interview on NPR about the new Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang Flies Again.  “You can take parts away, but Chitty is still Chitty.”  Something about the gestalt-ness of Chitty (the whole is greater than the sum of its parts) makes me love this childhood icon even more.  AND…
  • An entire conversation between my MC and her love interest about fish scales which came to me all at once while I was elbow-high in dishwashing suds.

Many of these images will never leave this notebook.  I’ll page through it now and then and find myself transported to a stuffy backroom at Goodwill, but that kind woman accepting my donations may never make it into the pages of a novel.  However, this notebook is my gold mine.  It is the place I go when I’m stuck.

Just yesterday, I discovered a note about the song “Danny, Dakota & The Wishing Well” by A Silent Film.  This song wafted through my car while I was waiting in line to drop my kids off at school.  I’m not sure why I wrote down a snippet of lyrics, but at the time the words struck a chord with me (no pun intended!) Reading over this note yesterday, it suddenly dawned on me how a climactic scene between my MC and her love interest can work.  That’s the magic of the writer’s notebook.  Disparate thoughts have a chance to stew together.  In the end that stew of thoughts becomes the Stone Soup of your writing.

Now it’s your turn.  Do you keep a writer’s notebook?  Scan the pages for a minute and tell me your favorite (or most random) snippet from the past week.

Here’s a great post on the pocket notebooks from 20 famous writers including Hemingway, Twain and Beethoven.

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8 Comments Post a comment
  1. I do! The last thing I wrote in it was a quote by Gandhi that showed up in a sermon at church and at a meeting at work….“Your beliefs become your thoughts,
    Your thoughts become your words,
    Your words become your actions,
    Your actions become your habits,
    Your habits become your values,
    Your values become your destiny.”

    September 4, 2012
  2. I love notebooks though it took me a while to develop this love. I also started to write down everything into my cell or my computer or elsewhere and somehow never really revisited it or at least I’d say, it didn’t appeal to me later as a written line does. So at a point I started to use notebooks again and by now I’m addicted to them and their easiness. I really don’t want to miss or replace them again.

    September 9, 2013
    • I agree, Hanni. I’m actually slightly addicted to buying and filling notebooks. Sometimes I feel like Harriet the Spy – trying to determine where I might store all of my notebooks. Thanks for stopping by my corner of the blogosphere.

      September 10, 2013
  3. julietwilson #

    I’m very bad at keeping a diary. I write in it regularly but that’s not the point, I don’t write interesting things in it. On and off I will write writerly observations in a separate writers notebook, but it;’s very on and off. I collect visual imagery and random newspaper articles in boxes both for my own inspiration and to use in classes I teach. But your article here is excellent and inspires me to try to keep a better, more writerly diary in the future. Thanks


    November 5, 2015
  4. Kirstie Earlene #

    This is fabulous! Thank you so much for reminding me about the importance of the notebook! I have them scattered around my room (and have always had a bit of an obsession with them) but having a designated notebook that is with me at all times…that is such a grand idea.

    I also kept a diary when I was young, mine had fairies instead of a unicorn, but it was also one of those lockable ones. 🙂 It is still buried somewhere in my childhood room, beneath my mom’s quilting fabrics I think. The room was repurposed for quilting when I moved out.

    Thank you for the great insight and the memories it evoked.

    Kirstie Earlene

    November 17, 2015
  5. Kristine m smith #

    I have found my clan, my family, my fellow note takers coven! I too love the old notebook! I have all sorts of fancy things to fill, but I return to the spiral bound binder! Home at last, this was a great read and personal! Now I have to figure out ; storage of them all! Have a spuper sparkles day! Kristine!

    February 22, 2016
  6. Shannon #

    I’m a paper snippet person. My pockets stuffed with random notes. Every so often, they make it into my notebook. My most recent scrap is a quote by who knows: “We read to know that we are not alone.”

    June 18, 2018

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  1. Writer’s Notebooks~Scribbles and Craft – Hatton's Hungry Minds

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