Back in January, the awesome blog Notebook Stories posted my notebook collection as part of their Notebook Addict of the Week feature. (At first I wasn’t sure how I’d missed their tweet about it, but then I realized that was the same time as a four-day Internet outage and me subsequently working like crazy for the week after that, trying to make up all those hours.)
Needless to say, when I read June Thomas’ Slate piece on the subject this week, I understood it completely, on an almost embarrassingly profound emotional level.
I know there are writers who don’t keep notebooks. Intellectually, I understand that composing on the computer has a lot of benefits that paper can never match — for starters, not having to retype things, the ease of making backup copies, and simple searchability. I’m not against composing with a keyboard when that’s more convenient (full disclosure: I’m typing the first draft of this blog post on my Alphasmart Neo) or when the mood strikes me to change materials and methods to break through a block.
I also get what Stephen King was talking about when he once advised writers not to keep a notebook, that if an idea is good enough to be written, if it connects with you enough and is important enough, you’ll remember it, and the things you’ve forgotten weren’t worth pursuing anyway. (Though I counter that with the notion that there’s a certain psychological comfort in knowing that even if that idea that just came to you is crap, it’s at least written down, so you won’t forget it and then have that annoying nagging sense of having forgotten something even though you know you’re probably remembering the notion of it as better than it actually was.)
That said — to me, a writer without some kind of notebook is like an artist without a sketchbook. (Though there are probably those now, too, given digital media.) It’s a place to experiment, fool around with materials, catch stray thoughts and try to fit them together like puzzle pieces. For me there’s a definite tactile pleasure in writing longhand that a keyboard can’t match, especially since my job requires me to spend full-time hours at this computer as it is. And oddly, I find that writing on a keyboard feels public (probably from all those LiveJournal posts and emails and so on over the years), while writing on paper feels inherently private (maybe because of all those paper journals I kept off and on growing up). Even if I’m writing out a story that I hope others will read later, when I’m writing it in a journal, it feels like it’s only meant for me, and that feels safe. And when I feel safe, the writing is easier and, I think, better.
Aside from a diary or two as a child and various stories written in composition books and on notebook paper, I first started keeping what I then called a notebook when I was in high school. In hindsight, I was pretty fetishistic about it — I used only one brand (Mead Five Star, 5 subjects) and only one at a time. And it wasn’t meant to be a real what-I-did-today journal, so that stuff was out. Instead, those notebooks became, to borrow from Emily Dickinson, my letter to the world. They were my way of talking back, to everything. I made lists, asked random quasi-philosophical questions, systematically rated every Saturday Night Live sketch during those years using a point system, wrote tons of scenes of Star Trek: The Next Generation fanfiction (before I had ever heard the term), and on rare occasions even wrote a completed piece of fiction. Several years later, when I made a project of re-reading all those Five Stars, I realized that, though I hadn’t gotten much finished work out of them, I had unknowingly been keeping an incredible emotional record of those years.
I kept up the Five Star habit (though at some point I cut down to 3-subjects) for a few years after graduating high school. At the time, I felt like I couldn’t write in anything else; as much as I loved gilt pages and such, fancy leather journals felt paralyzing. Though it seems strange to me now, back then I could use blank books for diary-type journals, but not for the kind of freewheeling creativity that, to my mind, needed cheaper, more common materials. Gradually, as years passed, I branched out. I’ve used expensive journals and cheap ones, spiral and perfect-bound, lined and unlined, small and large. I’ve paid as little as 10 cents (one-subject spiral notebooks in back-to-school season) and as much as around $80 (a leather journal from a craft show), though for financial reasons, I try to keep myself pretty firmly in the $20-and-under region these days.
These are my three current journals. The leather one on the left, from Barnes & Noble, is nicknamed my “Stephen King” journal, because it has his signature on the flyleaf (see this post for the details). The pages are unlined, and it’s by far my “safe place” for experimenting and writing down random lines and images. The red one on the right is a Miro notebook (won in a Notebook Stories giveaway) that I started because the Stephen King journal was decidedly not portable (at almost 2-1/2 inches thick and nearly 2 pounds), and at the time I needed something to write in that would fit in my purse. The one in the middle – that I affectionally call my “nerdcat” notebook – is kind of my big-picture workbook, the one I pull out when I need to outline, brainstorm, knuckle down and finish the last few connecting scenes of a draft, or do something else that feels like it needs more room, physically and emotionally. (Target, last back-to-school season. How I love back-to-school season now that I don’t actually have to go back to school and can instead just buy discounted writing supplies.)
I haven’t done a precise count of how many unused journals I currently own, but the number is probably somewhere between 30 and 40 right now, not counting another half-dozen or so that I’m either currently using or that are sitting partially filled for some reason or other and haven’t been put on the completed-journal shelf in my library. Even though I feel a slight bit of guilt about the stack on my closet shelf — mostly because I feel like I should be more productive, filling them faster — I’m constantly tempted every time I walk into… well, nearly anywhere. (My last journal purchase was at Dollar Tree, a pocket-size leather-look notebook that caught my eye because the green vinyl/plastic/whatever had a slight iridescence that made me think of dragon skin. Yes, dragon skin — I’m that far gone. Bonus points if you can guess how much that one cost.) I don’t get into Barnes & Noble much for geographic reasons, but whenever I do, my first stop is to go fondle all the journals. (I remember reading once how people who touch an object in a store are far more likely to purchase it, because the act of holding something starts to form a connection with the object that isn’t present just based on sight. I think I may well be more susceptible to that than the average person, especially with journals — if it “feels right,” the right size and weight and paper texture, it’s probably coming home with me.)
From a practical standpoint, I’ve wound up with this hoard simply because I like way more journals than I have time and ability to fill, but I’ve read comments from other devotees that talk about a kind of Anne Frank-like (or perhaps more Life As We Knew It) sense that somehow our world is going to collapse and we won’t be able to go to Staples and Barnes & Noble anymore, and all we’re going to have to chronicle our society’s turmoil with will be the physical materials we have on hand – so we’d better have plenty. I think another comment I remember reading was more on the mark — that “as long as I have notebooks to fill, I can never die.” It was a joke — mostly.
In some ways, there’s definitely a romantic aspect of the physical journal that appeals to me. I love Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and in some ways what I’m always striving for is that Henry Jones Grail diary feeling, that sense of a little book crammed to bursting with detailed, varied discoveries gleaned painstakingly over a lifetime. So I paste in magazine clippings and ticket stubs and canceled stamps, and copy over quotes and poems and the URL for that website I saw a TV commercial for that I want to check out, and a list of the books I want to re-read, and that odd image that came to mind as I was waking up this morning, that could be a poem or maybe a story. I find myself wishing to be a field researcher in some far-flung area of the world not because I want to research anything meticulously, but because I just want to take pages of detailed notes and observations and make little intricate drawings. (Though I’m betting most of them use laptops now too.)
And I look at those completed journals on the shelf and can remember where I was when I was writing in them, or I remember a short story and can recall what sort of paper I wrote the first draft on, and where I was, and sometimes how I felt. It’s not convenient, it’s not easily searchable, and there are no backups. But there’s a deep personal satisfaction in looking at a shelf of journals that doesn’t compare to noting the number of files in a computer folder or how many megabytes are involved. They’re my Grail diaries. They’re my life, and not just my creative life, but all of it, expressed in my own handwriting. Is it any wonder, then, that I’m always looking for a new blank page?