Do you have dozens of unfilled journals waiting for your amazing insights and ideas? If you’re like many writers, you buy a new notebook or journal and pen like others buy new clothes. You see something you like, and you buy it without a thought as to how you’ll use it.
But sometimes, those blank pages are intimidating. You buy a beautiful leather-bound journal and then are too afraid of ruining it, so you never write in it. But doesn’t it look great on your bookshelf?
Whether you call it a notebook, diary, or a journal, you need something to capture bits of overheard conversation or dialogue. Capture intriguing settings or that fascinating woman in the coffee shop who would make a brilliant main character. And you’ll be in great company; Virginia Woolf, Flannery O’Connor, Mark Twain, John Cheever, Jack Kerouac, Jennifer Egan, John Steinbeck, Herman Melville, Joan Didion, Franz Kafka, Sylvia Plath, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and others all kept notebooks. Virginia Woolf even wrote about her writer’s journal:
“What sort of diary should I like mine to be? Something loose knit and yet not slovenly, so elastic that it will embrace anything, solemn, slight or beautiful that comes into my mind.”
Doesn’t that make you want to crack open a new journal and write?
When you need a notebook
Inspiration hits at the oddest times, right? You’re on the train on your way home from work and you spy a couple arguing but trying to keep it quiet. You’re fascinated with their body language and physical reactions as each gets more incensed. And the only thing you have to write your thoughts is a used napkin. Had you carried a writer’s notebook, you could have captured this amazing scene for a future story.
But, you may counter, you always have your smartphone. And that can certainly function to help you capture thoughts, impressions, and ideas. But there’s something about a physical notebook and a trusty pen that makes you think more deeply and carefully about what you write.
Scientific evidence from both Princeton University and the University of California show that hand-written notes are better for long-term memory of ideas and conceptual information. If you really want your observations and impressions to stick, write it by hand in your notebook.
How many times have you thought of an amazing story premise as you’re drifting off to sleep, only to wake the next morning with no memory whatsoever? Don’t let those ideas slip away; keep a notebook handy.
How to use a notebook
It’s up to you to determine the best way to keep a notebook for your writing life. Here are a few to start the wheels turning.
1) Capture your novel’s progress
John Steinbeck faithfully chronicled his progress when writing The Grapes of Wrath in a notebook. He wrote about his thoughts, fears, hopes, and more. He wrote, "So many things to drive me nuts… I’m afraid this book is going to pieces." Sounds familiar, right?
One tactic is, at the end of your writing sessions, to capture your thoughts on what should come next. Then, the next time you sit down to write, you know what to write about. Voila—no more writer’s block.
2) Chronicle your inspiration
Ernest Hemingway carried his notebook with him always. He wrote in his memoir, A Moveable Feast, "I belong to this notebook and this pencil."
Use your notebook to help you clarify your thoughts. You get vivid pictures in your mind you need to capture before they float away like so much smoke. Some day, those pictures will be useful, and because you wrote them down, they’ll stick with you.
There’s so much to inspire us if we take the time to observe. But if you don’t write it, those inspirations are fleeting, mere ghosts of thoughts you’ll never grasp later when you need them.
3) Outline new ideas
Before those amazing ideas float away, outline your next story or novel. Even if you’re a pants-er, capture the essence of your next manuscript in your writer’s notebook. Then when it’s time to turn to the next project, you have a wire frame of your ideas. Whether you follow it, or change it completely, is your decision.
In the same vein, use your notebook to brainstorm new ideas. Mark Twain used his pocket notebook to brainstorm the names of characters for his latest story. And W. Somerset Maugham wrote about his notebook:
"As I grew older and more aware of my intentions, I used my notebooks less to record my private opinions, and more to put down while still fresh my impressions of such persons and places as seemed likely to be of service to me for the particular purpose I had in view at the moment."
4) Keep sketches handy
Some writers like to sketch out characters, scenes, timelines, story arcs, and more. If you’re a doodler, keep a notebook to capture the images your mind creates. Leonardo da Vinci was famous for his sketches, scientific diagrams, and images of inventions. He was the quintessential doodler.
And everyone has seen JK Rowling’s story arc detailing the various Harry Potter books. If you need a visual to help you keep a series in focus, use your writer’s notebook to capture it on paper. You’ll never regret your "field notes" full of observations, pictures, illustrations, and images like those Charles Darwin kept. Paste in pictures of potential characters or create a vision board of your novel’s trajectory. These visual representations help you instantly dive into place when it’s time to write.
Julia Cameron’s Morning Pages
If you haven’t read Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, get a copy and devour it. She details an amazing practice called Morning Pages. It’s cathartic, creative, inspiring, frustrating, and eye-opening. You don’t know what you really think until you practice Morning Pages consistently. And it teaches you that regardless if you feel like writing, you can always find something to say.
Cameron’s Morning Pages also teach you to empty your mind on paper every morning as soon as you wake up. You learn to silence your inner censor, that small, still voice that tells you your writing is drivel. It frees you to create by forcing you to hand-write three pages every single day. Once you start, you’ll never look back.
It’s your notebook; use it to feed your soul. Find writing prompts and fill your notebook to warm up your writing muscle. Use it to capture your research, background information, character or setting sketches, and more. What you include in your journal is personal. Use the ideas in this article as a springboard to create a writer’s notebook for your next novel that enriches and deepens the experience. In fact, treat yourself to a new notebook or journal today. Just make sure you use it.