How to Spend the Spring Learning to be a Better Writer
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“Keep a notebook. Travel with it, eat with it, sleep with it. Slap into it every stray thought that flutters up in your brain. Cheap paper is less perishable than gray matter, and lead pencil markings endure longer than memory.” — Jack London
A notebook is a simple thing. Just paper between covers. But, to me, it’s the best kind of magic. Far more than the sum of it’s parts. My daughter, Ruby, is a huge Doctor Who fan and I always think that a notebook is like the TARDIS. Bigger on the inside than it is on the outside.
Until two years ago, I had a fairly haphazard notebook habit. I collected them, because they are irresistible. I’d add them to my pile. Beautiful notebooks, trendy notebooks, and dozens of composition and spiral-bound notebooks when they went on sale cheap every August.
And when I wanted something to write in, I’d just pick one up and write. A grocery list in one. A story idea in another. A plan for some big life change in another. And so on. I’d just write in whatever was handy.
But two years ago, during this exact week of 2016, I decided to try to cultivate a different notebook habit. One notebook for the whole year. One notebook for everything from to do lists to conference notes to handwritten fiction when I find myself inspired away from my computer. One notebook, period.
I expected, two years ago, that my one notebook would be like a Bullet Journal, only without the daily and weekly spreads. I meant to number the pages and keep a nice, organized index. I meant to only put my most important thoughts into my notebook and I wanted it to be beautiful.
Only, it didn’t happen that way. Instead of being an Instagram-ready aspirational expression of my thoughts, my notebook is more like my actual brain. Unindexed, messy, colorful, and it mostly only makes sense to me.
That year, I bought this notebook for 2017, and it worked so well that I just bought my third book for 2019. It’s thick enough to last a good long time (It was plenty for 2017 and 2018,) but fits easily into my favorite bag.
Keeping a single notebook required acquiring a couple of habits. The biggest and most obvious has been actually carrying my notebook with me. Having one notebook doesn’t do me any good if it’s not with me when I need it.
I also needed to build a habit of reviewing my notes. Once a week, I look back over my notebook. I mark each page to let myself know that I’ve taken care of it. Transcribed any notes that need to put into my work-in-progress. Added reading or conference notes to my Commonplace Book. Actually shopped my grocery list. Whatever.
My advice is to choose a notebook that’s big enough to hold a lot, but not too big to carry around. If you don’t want to carry a bag big enough to carry your notebook, buy a small pocket-sized notebook to carry with you and transcribe your notes into your one notebook when you get home. It’s an extra step, but I think you’ll find that having all of your ideas in one place is addictive.
Gorgeous notebooks are . . . well, they’re gorgeous. But they can be too precious, too. Choose a notebook you aren’t afraid to screw up. Choose one that you like to look at everyday, but that isn’t so pretty that you don’t want to write in it unless it’s something very important or beautiful.
If you have time today, read this essay by Joan Didion about keeping a notebook.
Austin Kleon has a whole Tumblr collection of incredible notebooks that I find mesmerizing and seriously inspiring.
Prince's handwritten lyrics and notes Most of these are from the Purple Rain era - collected from an auction website…
My notebook habit is evolving.
My 2017 notebook got wet when a Diet Pepsi leaked in my bag. I learned my lesson about keeping drinks in proximity to my notebook — and I have a colorful explosion of bleeding ink as a reminder. I lost my momentum for that year after that mishap.
My 2018 notebook remains intact, but not as full as I would like. I’ve found that when I get very, very busy and things get insane (say, like when I’m moving across country on the spur of the moment with seven people and a dog and a cat), instead of leaning into my notebook I turn so introspective that nothing makes it out of my head. I want to try to change that in 2019.
One day, after I’ve died (hopefully when I’m very old), I want my kids to come across my stack of notebooks. I want it to be like a sci-fi movie, where they can download me, only analog style. They will be able to open a notebook and know me. But even more important, my notebook helps me to know myself. Keeping one, just one all year, is a habit that I’m excited to carry on in 2019.
In 2019, I’m writing a weekly series about keeping an Everyday Notebook.
Shaunta Grimes is a writer and teacher. She lives in Reno with her husband, three superstar kids, and a yellow rescue dog named Maybelline Scout. She’s on Twitter @shauntagrimes and is the author of Viral Nation and Rebel Nation and the upcoming novel The Astonishing Maybe. She is the original Ninja Writer.