When I first read Walter Benjamin and his writings about Baudelaire, the whole notion of the flaneur was a revelation for me. That was one of the most important books of my life.

Philip Lopate

Until 1870, the carriage ruled the streets. On the narrow sidewalks, the pedestrian was extremely cramped, and so strolling took place principally in the arcades, which offered protection from bad weather and traffic. “Our larger streets and our wider sidewalks are suited to the sweet flanerie was impossible except in the arcades.” Flaneur, Edmond Beaurepaire, Paris d’hier et d’aujourd’hui: La Chronique de rues (Paris 1900), p.67.

– Quoted in Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, Harvard University Press

What is a writer actually doing? I put forward as a general proposition that any artist – and I include all creative thinkers – they are trying to make the viewer, the reader, the student aware of what he knows and doesn’t know that he knows.

– William S. Burroughs [1]

[1] Extract from :The William S. Burroughs Workshop – Jack Kerouac Conference, Naropa University, Bolder Colorado, July 23, 1982 – as Transcribed from the Original Audio Recording by Marcus D. Niski as found at https://archive.org/details/WilliamS.BurroughsOnWriting

How to Analyse a City: Part I…

By Marcus D. Niski

How to Analyse a City: Observation, Memory, Reflection and the Journal/Notebook as a Tool for Observing and Analysing Cities in Action

One of the most useful ways to engage with a city is to learn how to read it through the process of observation, memory and reflection.

To take time to be in the city, enjoy the city and to practice the ancient art of being a FLANEUR in the city.

The Flaneur: or, How to Read a City

 ‘…as Walter Benjamin explains, the flaneur is in search of experience, not knowledge…’

– Edmund White in The Flaneur: A Stroll Through the Paradoxes of Paris, Bloomsbury, London, 2008.

 Who, or What, is a Flaneur…?

The flâneur, or the notion of the flaneur, is a creation of the 19th century Parisian streets that offered an almost unlimited kaleidoscopic opportunity for social observation and experience.

The flaneur, by definition, is an ‘exemplary stroller’ who strolls through the streets at a pace in which observation becomes the centre point of his experience.

As Edmund White suggests in his stunningly observant account of the flaneur and the ‘paradoxes of Paris’, Walter Benjamin was probably one of the most acute observers of the idea of the flaneur and one of literature’s most important writers in documenting the activities of this unique Parisian creature.

The flaneur is not a tourist, shopper or pedestrian eager to rapidly consume the landscape, but one who is almost overwhelmed by the delectable possibilities of the urban landscape; so much so that he is not really sure where to start or where his journey will take him.

The Journal and the Notebook and How to Observe a City

One of the best ways to really learn to observe a city is to carry a notebook or a journal with you in your pocket or in your bag and to record the observations that you see and hear all around you.

This is one of the simplest and most powerful techniques that a writer can use in gathering material for their writing.

Some Observational Techniques for the Journey: Memory, Observation, Reflection – Writing or Slowing Down and Observing – The City as Art and Text

Next time as you wander through the streets and lanes in your city, you might like to consider the following creative ideas as the basis for making notes in your notebook which can later be used as the basis for reflection and writing in a wide range of genres:

Poemwrite a poem based on an observation you make…

Found poemconstruct and write down your found poem in your notebook…

Observationalrecord an observation/s you have made…

Overheard conversation – record and overheard conversation as dialogue…

Visual image  – record a visual image that you have seen as the basis for poem or starting point for a piece of writing…

Remembrance  – Record a remembrance that may have been triggered by something you have seen…

Smell – use your sense of smell and record some notes or reflections…

Reflection – use a visual image to reflect or to write a mediation about what you have just seen …

Colour – Taking the Colour Walk: William S. Burroughs and the ‘colour walk’ through Paris …

“I was taking a colour walk around Paris the other day … I was walking down the boulevard when I suddenly felt this cool wind on a warm day, and when I looked out I was seeing all the blues in the street in front of me… blue on a foulard…a girls’ blue sweater…blue neon…. the blue sky …all the blues. When I looked again, I saw nothing but all the reds…of traffic lights…car lights…a café sign…a man’s nose…”

Excerpt from The Beat Hotel, Barry Miles, Atlantic Books, London, 2000, p 157.

In the next two Journal entries, I’ll talk about one of my favorite creative and observational writing techniques which I call the The Camera Eye, as well as my two most favorite writers – Blaise Cendrars and John Dos Passos – who both used this technique as an important exploratory and experimental tool amongst their broad armory of creative writing techniques.

Marcus D. Niski,  June 2017

[1] Modernist Cultures 7.2 (2012)  180-204

Choosing and Using Your Writer’s Notebook

By Marcus D. Niski

Choosing Your Writer’s Notebook

The notebook is a crucial writing tool for recording observations of place, space, research notes, all of which are fundamental to the ascetic and practical activities of any writer.

Choosing your notebook is a very individual thing and there are no real guidelines for this other than choosing one that looks and feel right for you as an individual.

Believe it or not, I feel that this is a crucial part of the process in as much as that if your notebook does not feel right for you, then there is a good chance that it will sit on the shelf and not fulfill the special role that it is intended to fill.

Some hints and ideas that will help you choose a notebook that is right for you include attention paid to the following:


Try wherever possible to select a notebook that is made of acid free paper, as this paper will inevitably last much longer due to its proper archival quality.

Non-Acid free paper will tend to yellow and break down over the years, hence it is worth spending a little extra to get good long lasting paper on which to write.


Always choose a notebook that is solidly bound, as one which is poorly bound will quickly fall apart when the binding breaks down. The best forms of binding are those that use the traditional sewn paper interleaving and are then glued and finished along traditional classical binding lines.

Physical Feel + Touch:

Crucial: your notebook must have a feel that is right for you otherwise you won’t use it. Feel and touch are vital ingredients to a notebook that you will use


Size is important, as you must think about the maximum size that is satisfactory for you to carry around with you. Notebooks that are too heavy, bulky or awkward will not work well for you.


Don’t spend too little or too much. Remember that once you select a type of notebook that you want to use bear in mind the repeat cost each time you buy one once your old notebook one has been filled up.


Choose a notebook that you will be able to secure a regular supply of once you have settled on a particular type.


Overly ornate notebooks will often cause you to hesitate in using them.

The notebook is to the writer what the camera is to the photographer: an essential tool of observation and recording – so never forget to keep your notebook you at all times – inspiration often strikes randomly and its vital to capture your thoughts freshly and immediately which is the great value of the notebook.

Keeping writer’s notebooks has been one of my greatest enduring pleasures. At times an almost addictive pleasure, but one which is endlessly satisfying.

Marcus D. Niski,  14 May 2017

Why did I write it down? In order to remember, of course, but exactly what was it I wanted to remember? How much of it actually happened? Did any of it? Why do I keep a notebook at all? The impulse to write things down is a peculiarly compulsive one, inexplicable to those who do not share it …

But our notebooks give us away, for however dutifully we record what we see around us, the common denominator of all we see is always, transparently, shamelessly, the implacable “I”…

On Keeping a Notebook (1966) by Joan Didion in Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Penguin, 1974  (first published 1968).

“My intention… was to describe… that which is not taken note of, that which has no importance: what happens when nothing happens other than the weather, people, cars, and clouds.”

Georges Perec in An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris

“ In 1969, I chose, in Paris, twelve places (streets, squares, circuses, an arcade), where I had lived or else was attached by particular memories.

I have undertaken to write a description of two of these places each month. One of these descriptions is written on the spot and is meant to be as neutral as possible. Sitting in a café or walking in the street, notebook in hand, I do my best to describe…”

Georges Perec in Species of Space and Other Pieces

“ The people in the streets: where are they coming from? Where are they going to? Who are they?”

Georges Perec in Species of Space and Other Pieces