On Keeping a Writer’s Notebook
“The notebooks of a writer have a very special function: in them he builds up, piece by piece, the identity of a writer to himself . . .”
– Susan Sontag
“…the point of my keeping a notebook has never been, nor is it now, to have an accurate factual record of what I have been doing or thinking”
– Joan Didion in Slouching Towards Bethlehem
For many years now I have been keeping as series of writer’s notebooks that I often refer to at different times and for different purposes.
These steadily accumulating archives with their pure white acid-free pages contain a number of amusing, intriguing and sometimes mundane treasures. From lists of books and research references, to exotic insights drawn from the ancients, my notebooks provide the perfect device for accumulating so much usable material for both fiction and non-fiction writing projects alike.
In spite of their obvious lack of technological sophistication, the humble writer’s notebook provides one of the most simple and reliable devices for recording a vast range of potential literary treasures.
Quotations and other fragments from the works of Henry Miller, Jean Genet, Blaise Cendrars, Albert Camus and Antoine de Saint-Exupery as well as poems, scribbled notes, reflections, postcards and other objets d’art are but a few examples of the sorts of literary flotsam and jetsam that adorn my much treasured notebooks.
The beauty and importance of the notebook undoubtedly lays not so much in what is recorded, but in the very fact that we are attuned that there is so much that can be recorded.
Unlike the journal, notebooks are by their very nature random and spontaneous: the golden rule is that there are no firm rules about form or structure. Record what you like where and whenever you like. Notebooks are the ideal way of recording overheard conversations, observations, random thoughts and streams of consciousness – all of which may provide some inspiring and intriguing material to use either as a departure point for writing or as material in an existing writing project.
One my most favorite aspects of keeping a series of notebooks over the years has been the collecting of quotations. From Marcus Aurelius and Euripides, to Goethe and Shakespeare, my notebooks have become an important aide memoir to some of the world’s great literature. Whenever I read I am always with a notebook at hand waiting for some charming or captivating morsel to transcribe into to my collection.
Part of the challenge in keeping a writer’s notebook undoubtedly lies in utilising your powers of insight and imagination. Learning to see more acutely, read more critically and recording detail more effectively are undoubtedly important skills in any writers’ armoury. Use you notebook as a means of recording whenever and wherever possible.
My obsession with writer’s notebooks has lead me to a never-ending personal journey that has physically taken me from the literature archives in my former home city of Melbourne’s State Library, to New York Public Library’s Berg Collection and the Butler Library at Columbia University, not to mention countless hundreds hours of searching digital collections around the world.
I’ve held some of Kerouac’s most important notebooks in my very own hands in the New York Public Library’s Berg Collection, as well as perused the notebooks, scrapbooks and journals kept by William S. Burroughs at Butler Library’s archives where Herbert Huncke’s cache of notebooks are also held along with those of legendary American beat poet Gregory Corso.
Almost every day I turn to my own notebooks as a source of immense ongoing pleasure in recording thoughts, writing aphorisms, making observations and engaging in a secretive form of self-writing that has become part of an almost life-long ritual.
Your local bookshop or stationery supplier probably keeps any number of excellent notebooks. Choose one that has just the right form and feel for you and one that you will feel that you will use rather than leave on the shelf. Keep your notebook with you as often as practical and use it in particular when you are reading and/or doing research.
In the coming journal posts, I will flesh out some of the things that have intrigued me about the art and craft of choosing and using a writer’s notebook. Indeed, you would surprised like all things, that there is a kind of technique and art to choosing and using a notebook that hopefully will inspire you and instill in you a desire to keep your notebooks on a ongoing and intensive basis as an endless source of inspiration for your writing projects. I will also post some images from my notebooks that I’ve kept over the years as a source of inspiration in taking up the art form if you haven’t already!
In keeping a writer’s notebook you’ll be in the company of some of the world’s great writers. Indeed, the humble notebook has served as an important departure point for some of the most important works by such luminaries as George Orwell, Virginia Woolf, Bruce Chatwin, Bertolt Brecht, Albert Camus, Paul Auster to name but a few…
Marcus D. Niski, April 2017
* Sections of the above writing appeared in The Australian Writer, No.313 Feb/March 1999 as reprinted in Irina Dunn’s, The Writer’s Guide, Allen & Unwin, 1999.