I'm addicted to my writer's notebooks. Have been since college. My writer's notebook is where the ideas that matter (to my books and to my life) start percolating.
How I use the notebooks has changed over time. In fact, when I flip through them, I can tell a lot about where I am in the writing process based on my handwriting and how I use the page. Loose script dashed diagonally across the page? Definitely a sudden inspiration, probably jotted down while walking. Tight lists with page numbers? I'm trying to get unstuck by analyzing a novel I admire. Entry that begins, "why do I always forget how hard this is?" Self talk during a first draft. Crazy cartoons and doodles surrounded by quotations? Me, at a reading (probably after a glass of wine)...
Now that I've been doing it for almost 10 years, keeping a writer's notebook is kind of like clicking on the Time Machine function on my Mac. I can see all those different writing Ashleys--and how they led me to my current place.
I have changed through these notebooks, but the most crucual benefit they offer me hasn't changed. My writer's notebook lets me take my writing anywhere. It turns every park bench, bus seat, or cafe table into a workable writing space.
Even when I'm working with Scrivener on my Mac, my writer's notebook is open. I move back and forth between the two, using the physical notebook as a safe space to think out an idea (and question it) before or even as I draft a scene.
My notebooks also save my butt via the reading lists I tuck inside them, lists of (with secret notations) every book that I read or listen to. They save my butt because I'm one of those people who blanks when asked their favorite book (I have too many!). Having the lists makes it easier to track down the right recommendations when asked, too.
P.S. Just click on the "writersnotebook" tab for my blog to see bits from many different notebooks. One of my favorite posts is here.
It's a new year, and you are looking to start things off right. Set some goals, sure, but most of all, go write. Here's a tried-and-true idea you can use.
Take a break from structure and write blind (literally, if you can touch type). Set a timer for 10 minutes and write without stopping, not worrying about punctuation or even making sense. Repeat words if you get stuck; there’s no wrong way to do this.
Your goal is to get to a state where your internal editor can’t block anything (some people call this “automatic writing”). Just write—riding emotions, not worrying if anything is “okay” or not. When the timer goes off, look at what you’ve written. Most of it will be gibberish, but you may well have tricked yourself into writing a gem of an image or revealing a raw emotion that you can graft onto a character. If nothing jumps out as immediately useful, file it away and come back to it later. You might see something different then. If nothing else, you'll be surprised at just how weird your brain can be when unmonitored.
This may work best first thing in the morning when your brain is closest to that crazy underworld of dreams. For optimal results, try the exercise every day for a week.
Last night I stumbled across these entries written in one of my notebooks during a trip to Belfast in 2005. I've typed it up for you because I still feel the same way about skies. And gratitude. Turns out I'm still, more or less, the same person as I was back then. Pinch myself and command myself to look up.
By 6:00 a.m. the sun is already alive high in the sky. A real blue sky, few clouds. The tiny room I stay in is full to the ceiling with light. ALL THAT LIGHT remembered through one small window. Light burning to the heart of my sleep.
Later each day I marvel at the morning sun’s precocious brilliance. Oh I know it’s really a matter of latitudes, but in my mind the Belfast summer sun is simply ambitious, determined to get the work of the day started, and the sooner, the better.
If you want to see blue sky over here, you have to be equally ambitious. 6:30 a.m. ambitious. Because by 10:00, that giant blue chalkboard is hidden, and the sun is lost behind bank after bank of clouds. They blow in suddenly, blot everything out. Even I, daughter of Texas (don’t like the weather? Wait five minutes!) find this to be a fickle sky. You can never trust it. One minute it’s balmy. Next, thunderheads have rolled in, and they don’t spare you any wetness, neither. Raingear a must regardless of how the sky looks when you leave the house.
Today Julia and I went to Castle Hill, a high hill at the edge of town, a mountain by my Texas standards. The weather was foul when we got off our bus and started climbing toward the park path. The clouds flicked spiteful spit down on the pavement, dampening our hair, stilling hopes.
Then, suddenly: hot sun, blue sky. We sweat up the steep path. The perspiration rivers down my back, pools tellingly below my pack, dribbles down my arms.
Halfway up, Julia points out blueberry bushes she saw the last time she was here with Ralf. We check them out, and though the peak of the season has passed, we find perfect, late-formed jewels hanging amid the tiny juice-stained leaves. We pick and eat them until our hands are painted as well.
Julia tells me of her own berry-picking, mushroom-hunting childhood escapades. “Our dog was just the right height to graze straight from the bushes. Of course, you didn’t want him around when you were picking, such a slobberer, but he was so funny coming home with his big happy grin and lolling purple tongue.”
Some two heaving hours later, we arrive at the top, at the cliff’s edge. Wind so strong I fear it. Julia remembers a dell (think: crater in the hillside) where we find shelter from the wind. We plop down, lying on our jackets, and admire the green of the field and the blue of the sky. I squint up at the whipping seas of grasses. Also the heather, a lavender wonder. The real stuff of books. (Macbeth’s witches: “We shall meet upon the heath.”) I try to photograph the wild whipping of that grass, which puts me in mind of the celebrants of some ascetic sect for whom self-flagellation is a must. Photographed, though, it seems to say only, GRASS. Not “the grasses beating themselves under a broad blue sky.”
We are talking of past loves and fault lines in relationships. Our backs press into the earth as we eat the butter and cheese sandwiches we carried up in our packs.
And then it happens.
Our eyes are closed to let lids soak up the wonder of it all, but we can still feel the change. The sun vanishes from us. Just like that. Clouds whip across us fast, pitching raindrops in earnest. “Jesus,” I mutter, “from where…?”
Julia, ever the geographer’s wife, explains. Our nearness to the coast means that when the sun shines bright, it heats up the water of the sea. Said water rises in vapor, forming clouds. These clouds gather, then roll in on inland winds.
“But now it means we’ll get soaked,” I cry.
“Well, let’s hurry!”
Out of the dell we can see that half of the world is still holding strong under benevolent blue. The other half is in the storm. We run down a goat trail, sliding on the rocks. I laugh hysterically as I skid left and right across the steep path. Julia shouts caution. As we find a real footpath and run down the hill it becomes clear that we are on the dividing line.
We’re running at the edge of the weather, tracing its skirt.
The sky at sunrise: suddenly, mountains of orange and gold, a sea of pink. Rivers of light. A whole changing skyscape. Gone before I can raise anyone else in the house. But I saw it. Majestic.
Light flying toward heaven or space. Heaven—ascension—angels—words we must have invented for skies like this. A miracle of color and cloud. How could you look at this and not see BEAUTY? Beauty—a construct, yes. Beauty—subjective, yes. But... how could my heart not rise to that?
I try to send my gratitude in volleys heavenward. Then I look up and see SKY and am amazed again. Simply: I feel more thankfulness than I can give to other people. I have to do something with it, send it somewhere. Up feels right.