The Best Way to Keep a Writer’s Notebook

Why you may be doing it all wrong.

David W. Berner
Feb 26, 2019 · 4 min read
Photo: David W. Berner

I have little notebooks everywhere. In my bag, in my car, on my desks. Several are on my desks. Most of them are inside a little writing shed on my property but others are kept at my college office. I do not just keep one. And I do not consider it necessary to write in them, any of them, every day. None of them would be considered a journal or a strict daily diary. No, they are notebooks. Meant for notes. Fleeting thoughts of greatness and nothingness. Bursts of creativity and banal crap. And if you are keeping a notebook and not doing it in this scattered, haphazard way, I contend you may be doing it all wrong.

Notebooks have been part of the writing life forever. They have come in many forms from Virginia Woolf’s diary to Ernest Hemingway’s ever-present notebook, the one he wrote about in A Moveable Feast.

Mark Twain used his notebook to brainstorm. Ralph Waldo Emerson filled more than a dozen volumes with observations that were the foundations of bigger works. And John Steinbeck kept a diary of his writing progress while he worked on The Grapes of Wrath.

Too many times I’ve read articles and heard writing teachers and workshop facilitators talk about the notebook. Many tout its importance as some imperative. You must keep one and you must write in it every single day, they say, as if it is the path to good writing. I contend this is the absolute wrong way to approach the writer’s notebook.

The notebook should not be a chore. It should not be a duty. It should be freewheeling with its purpose shifting and changing to the delights of the writer. It should be a volume of dreams. Not a volume of tasks. It should be a place of fantasy, whimsy, and imagination. Write in it. Draw in it. Doodle in it. Use black ink and red and purple. Use a pencil. Use a crayon. The notebook should be a place to poke around in the dark or in the brightest light, a place to survey the brain, discover the deepest thoughts or the silliest realizations. Write in one notebook or write in dozens. Keep one there and one over there. By the bedside and in your pocket. Own them. Love them. Cherish them.

Philip Hoare is the author of three books about the sea. His latest is the travel /memoir/essay collection entitled RISINGTIDEFALLINGSTAR. Hoare says he’s kept some kind of notebook since 1974. He has not only changed notebooks over and over, he has changed from fountain pens to Uniballs to pencils stolen from hotels. He draws. He writes. He tapes photos inside. And when he looks at all those notebooks, as he explained in an edition of The Island Review, Hoare sees his life “marching across the shelves.” In one way the notebooks are documents of his travels, his life, his being and yet they are also acts of impulse and amusement. Hoare sees the notebook as a constant but not an anchor to his creative life.

If you are starting your creative life with notebooks, in order to keep it truly your own process, I suggest keeping only three things in mind: to-do list.

  1. Go to your notebook only when it feels right not when you think you are supposed to. Write, draw, scribble only when you can’t imagine doing anything else. Filling you notebook should never be part of a to-do list.
  2. Make what’s inside an individual endeavor. Don’t approach the notebook the way other writers have or according to some blog post about what a writer should or should not be doing with a notebook. Make the notebook wholly yours.
  3. Refuse the urge to be neat. The notebook should be the first draft of ideas. Scratch out words, circle and star things, spill coffee on its pages. Messiness has its merits. Ideas come from messiness.

Some writers insist you should never go anywhere without a notebook, believing it is a necessity to creativity.

But that should be up to you and you alone. If you try to force the notebook into your creative life instead of letting it become part of your creative life, you will reject it or fall out of favor with the process. Life with a notebook should not be in a writer’s job description, it should a love affair with ideas and the joy of creation. If you always consider the notebook in that light, you’ll fill them all with incredible things.


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The Writer Shed

Musings on the creative life from inside and out.

David W. Berner

Written by

Award-winning writer and teacher. Author of personal essays, memoir, and fiction. Editor of Medium publication: THE WRITER SHED.

The Writer Shed

Musings on the creative life from inside and out.

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