Tuesday, October 19, 2010

A Writer's Notebooks

Readers often ask if I keep a journal, and my answer is 'not exactly.'  Some writers use journaling to expand their thinking, to sketch and explore a character or a place or a plot in words.  Since I am working on a story nearly every day, that kind of exploration goes right into the rough draft, not into a journal.

What I keep are notebooks. The difference between these and journals are that most of my notebooks contain random fragments.  The notebooks on the above shelf, some of which go back twenty years, contain names and titles I might use one day; titles of books I wanted to read and books I liked; paragraphs from articles; cartoons; quotes--all sorts of random bits that felt worth noting.

What might seem odd is that I rarely open these once they are full.  They feel, instead, like 'insurance,' in case I ever run out of ideas!

I choose notebooks with nice paper, usually small:

The one ongoing 'big' notebook (like the 3-ring pink one above) is for the book in progress. I start a new one for each new book; it holds lists of characters, chapter summaries, ongoing questions to myself ("What does this MEAN??"), title possibilities, etc.  A few photos are tucked into that binder; these are from a place that appears in the story.

In the 'current' smaller notebooks go stray words, phrases, and titles that don't fit the current book but are probably zinging around for the next one.  Also in the current books are bits from dreams, random doodles, cartoons, travel notes.

I might save a favorite cartoon (usually by Harry Bliss) or a note about a camera someone has mentioned:

The drawings usually emerge when I'm on the phone but my mind is still 'in the book,' so maybe I am doodling a scene from it, or just letting colors realign my thoughts:

On the right-hand page above, I was in Switzerland, looking out the window, thinking of the angel in The Unfinished Angel, and what that angel might see from her/his tower. I am not an illustrator, obviously; I am a doodler.

If you were to trawl through all my notebooks, I think you would be puzzled. You might wonder how all those random thoughts and drawings could possibly represent the mind of a writer.  But here is how I think of them:  they show some of the flotsam that floats in and out of my head, but the books I write are my attempt to shape something meaningful from all of that 'stuff.'

Do you keep a notebook? A journal?


  1. I think your doodles are great! You sound very organized in the way you end up writing your books.

    I want to know when one of your "Finn" books come out so I can get it for my grandson.

    Many years ago I kept Journals...boy would they be interesting reading!!!! I have posted in my online "Skoog Farm Journal" everyday since February of 2008. It has become an addiction along with taking photographs! I'm so into it.

    I'll bet the colors around the lake are very beautiful about now...

  2. I wouldn't say that I really keep a notebook or a journal. However, I do have the habit of keeping odd quotes, notes, pictures, and writing down stray thoughts/ideas. I think maybe I should get more organized and keep them in something!

  3. Hilarious cartoon! I'm still smiling. New Yorker?

  4. I scribble notes on the margins of other things so that as soon as I've moved the paper, the note is lost. It doesn't matter, the notes are so cryptic that within a few days of making them I've forgotten what I meant when I scrawled them out. I sometimes use initials...like r&mbte. It took me awhile to remember what that one was about but eventually I got it. The question is, why did I think it was important to make a note of it in the first place? What a fun post this is, and what a tidy writer you are.

  5. I have many, many notebooks and it's good to see someone else does, too. I feel guilty (a tad) about not keeping a journal per se, but I can't be faithful to daily entries. Like you, my notebooks are full of my Maybes: a news clip, a fortune cookie fortune, a quote, a dried flower as well as my thoughts. When I am stuck on a piece, I randomly grab a notebook and revisit. Sometimes it helps.

  6. Lori: your online journals are amazing!
    Birdman: NYorker, yes.
    Farmchick: there are so many jazzy notebooks out there. . .once you get started, you'll probably fill one up fast.
    brattcat: Knowing your poetic postings, I bet your scribbled notes are fascinating. . .IF they could be deciphered.
    Linda: That sounds pretty much like my notebooks.

  7. I love your sketches! I keep notebooks much like you do. I have a little shelf in my bedroom for the shorter ones, and I keep a large one for my WIP. Because I don't journal, these are the only records I have of cute things my kids said, pregnancy nausea symptoms, phone numbers, doctor's appointments, quotes, advice, websites I like...and all my glimmers for plotting that aren't quite ideas yet. Oh, and the scribbling that kept my toddler busy at a long wedding. :)

  8. OMG...I think you and I are soul sisters. I love little notebooks with nice paper and pretty boxes. AND I have that New Yorker cartoon with the tumble weed. High five...

  9. Barbara: ho! Probably many more similarities. . .
    Faith: I wish I'd kept a record of things my kids said. . .

  10. What an important shelf! :) These notebooks are works of art in themselves. I was just recently writing about how I always seem to find ways to suddenly need a new notebook since I adore them so much. I, like you use them for fragments and rarely go back to ponder. Getting the idea is the hard part for me, but once I have an idea and fragment, the story is usually written in my head. Thanks for the post.

  11. Katie: I think you have a LOT in your head--neat stuff, too.

  12. Actually, I would expect a writer such as you to keep such journals and notebooks...

    I laughed when you said you don't often go back to the items you jot down...

    I don't have notebooks, but piles of paper and pieces of paper, some with my notes, others are articles from magazine, etc. I don't go back to the various piles often, either. Usually I end up tossing them out.

  13. Kitty, I oh so agree! My grand intentions are lost FOREVER! I envy the Creech!

  14. Just like you I too don't keep a journal. I tend to write when I want where I want. So I have about 10 notebooks that I keep around in case I feel the need to scribble something down. I am defiantly not as organized as you!

  15. I love this: "... letting colors realign my thoughts."

    My notebooks are scattered through various bookcases around the house. Thanks to you, I'm off to collect them so they can be together, at last.

  16. Greetings, Sharon! I wanted to say "Thank you!" for your comments on our blogs today. You are very kind!

    Have a wonderful weekend!

  17. I keep notebooks too! I tried journals, but just never kept them up. For some reason, notebooks are easier for me. Also, love these shots. something about photographs of book that i just really like.

  18. I always carry at least two notebooks with me every day. I use them whenever I stop someone on the street that I would like to photograph. Usually I will ask people a few questions before i take their portrait.

  19. i do- i'm a songwriter so i've always got a songwriting journal where i keep everything from the first draft, to the final product.

    i also keep just journals. use to be morning pages. when i went thru my julia cameron stage. but i run in the mornings, and that feels like brain drain enough. but i do write in it regularly and always have since i was a child.

    i love seeing what other people do with their journals, or in your case, notebooks.

    my first visit to your site. :)