On Keeping a Notebook: A Reading List

“I can feel my brain changing.” Those were the first words I wrote in what would eventually become a continuous journal spanning thousands of pages and dozens of notebooks.

It was the middle of the night, and after I jotted the thought down, I added, “Is it permanent?”

I felt as if a tuning fork had been struck, its echo reverberating in my head. We were living in Atlanta then, and our house had one of those oversized master suites, inherited from the previous owner, so once out of bed, I was standing in a small sitting room that adjoined the bedroom. Next to me, a lamp I’d spirited away from my grandfather’s house cast a small glow, easing the insomnia I was experiencing. I kept repeating a phrase to myself, “The rough places made smooth.” I wasn’t sure if it was a biblical quote, or whether I had combined two different sayings (Atlanta is the birthplace of Martin Luther King, Jr., and I had the vague idea that Dr. King had said something to that effect). I only knew I felt relief at committing some of my inner turmoil to paper.

The next night, awake again at 3 a.m., I wrote about what I called “adventures in mind-expansion.” The journaling struck me as unusual. I was a reporter at an NPR station at the time and had been a news journalist for more than a decade. But this was different — akin to the writing I’d done when I was 9 and my teachers predicted I would be a writer.

I can partly chalk it up to something that happened a week later — my son’s birth. When I went into labor and headed off to the hospital that warm July day, I packed a notebook, a practice I’d abandoned years before when my expat days in Italy had concluded. One of the first photos I have with my newborn shows me writing in the maternity ward while nursing him. From there, a notebook became my constant companion. Some days in early motherhood, I couldn’t stop writing. I’d fill notebook pages at different intervals of the day, like an ongoing Twitter thread.

I was preparing for motherhood to change my life; it was the transformation I’d trained my eyes on entirely. But instead a parallel transformation involving writing also emerged.

Writing anchored me through my first year as a working mom. I’d pull off the road to write on my way home from work, or jot a few lines in the daycare parking lot. I found the twister of passing buildings, pedestrians, music on the radio, and the sounds of my son floating up from the backseat inspired me to experience new joys or simply savor old ones from a new vantage point. Sometimes I would even write while leaning the journal against the steering wheel, my eye moving between the page and the road.

Motherhood had reunited me with writing, which once again became my confidant, my forever friend. Another event could have been the trigger — a death, a divorce, a relocation. But either way, the pivotal instrument was a notebook — not a computer, not a tablet, not a phone.

Once I began writing again in earnest, I created computer files to record my ideas at greater length. But I wanted to be writing all the time, and one cannot write on a laptop all the time with a baby. A notebook is the solution. You can always write in a notebook — on a plane, in the car, even while out on a lake in a canoe. It’s almost never a breach of etiquette to pull out a notebook. I now teach, and I’ll often write in my notebook if I’ve arrived early for class. A notebook also never loses power and never has a glitch.

I keep lots of notebooks, but perhaps the most important is the small one I stash in my purse. It’s a baby notebook used for appointments and reminders that doubles as a “bits journal,” to steal a phrase from poet David Kirby, since I use it to record any image, phrase, or event that strikes my fancy and could contribute to a piece of writing later. I look at it obsessively throughout the day, re-reading my to-do list or jotting down ideas for stories, articles, poems, or gifts for my son. A typical day reads something like this:

Follow up on sleep pitch.
1 p.m. haircut.
Add “intimacy junkie” to the Di Lascia translation pitch cover letter.
Pick up birthday cake.
Finish book review for the Kenyon Review.
What about a piece called something like, “In Defense of Sleeplessness?”

On my way out of the house, I instinctively grab this daily notebook since I never know when I will think of lines I want to add to a piece in progress.

What’s more, it has given me a constant vocation that doesn’t allow much time for obsessing about other concerns. I’ll get a new phone if I lose the one I have but if my daily notebook goes missing? I’d lose my mind. In fact, it has such power — and provides such security — that I fear (somewhat ridiculously) for its safety.

I now take a notebook with me on every trip, which is fortuitous because I began writing the piece you’re reading while vacationing on a small, remote island in Vermont. The following longreads explore the joys of keeping a notebook and the art of writing longhand.

1. Are We Different Writers When We Move From Longhand to a Screen? (James Draney, August 2017, Literary Hub)

Like an intellectual historian, James Draney brings us a survey of how different authors and thinkers viewed developments in writing — specifically the instruments we use to write instead of writing longhand. He laments that “alas, the page that once contained the essence of the human voice has given way to a simulation of itself on the digital screen.” A simulation. Oh, that’s good. I feel as though I should call the fire brigade or yell, “Stop the presses!”

Draney cites a wide list of authors, including the philosopher Martin Heidegger, who viewed the typewriter as something “charged with an unthinkable crime.” Draney writes:

For him, this writing machine was no benign piece of secretarial equipment: it was actually destroying the very essence of the human, click by mechanical click.

Draney weighs the impact of “tapping out a word, perhaps backspacing, deleting, highlighting, copying and pasting,” asking, “how do these mechanical ways of writing change the way we think?”

It’s interesting to note that unlike the other authors or subjects of the links here, Draney is not necessarily pro-longhand. That’s because writing in longhand isn’t a skill he acquired long before learning to type on a computer.

It’s odd to think that writers born today will not have any paper in their archives. It’s even funnier to think that these future writers may never actually learn to write. This was what it was like for me, born in 1990. I learned to write by hand at the very same time I learned to type. But rather than focus on my penmanship, I learned to process words on a machine for which writing, typing and processing were one and the same functions. Before the swirl of the pen, there was the plastic click of the keyboard. Not one continuous movement but thousands of discrete ones: arachnid fingers on a plastic pad.

2. Woke Up This Morning (Louis Menard, December 2007, The New Yorker)

There are many ways to use a notebook: anything from journaling, brainstorming, note-taking, and writing in one’s diary. Louis Menand focuses on that last substratum of notebook use, probably the most common form until recently. He is appropriately skeptical about the average person’s ability to remain faithful to a diary, largely because it requires that one input all thoughts, not just the pretty ones or the ones that sound good. “Most people don’t confess; they repress,” he writes.

“Never discriminate, never omit” is one of the unstated rules of diary-keeping. The rule is perverse, because all writing is about control, and writing a diary is a way to control the day—to have, as it were, the last word. But diaries are composed under the fiction that the day is in control, that you are simply a passive recorder of circumstance, and so everything has to go in whether it mattered or not—as though deciding when it didn’t were somehow not your business.

He adds that if the journal in question doesn’t contain a lot of unimportant drivel (“dross”), it’s not a diary. “It’s something else — a journal, or a writer’s notebook, or a blog (blather is not the same as dross).”

3. Mostly True (Sarah Manguso, February 2015, T: The New York Times Style Magazine)

One of the more noted diarists of recent years is writer Sarah Manguso who, unlike Anaïs Nin, didn’t publish her diary but rather published a book about it called Ongoingness: The End of a Diary. Manguso kept her diary for several decades. In this article from the New York TimesT Magazine, she tells us about the impetus of her diary and its contents, but perhaps one of the most interesting snippets to my mind is that she does not fetishize the actual container of the diary, which is to say the “little black books” she’s used.

In my late teens, overburdened by an excess of life, I built a storage facility for it: a diary. After I wrote things down I could safely forget them. It was the only relief I ever found, and I kept at it. I don’t keep a routine, but the diary gets written daily — usually several times daily, even in transit, in hospitals and at parties. In little black books and, as of this year, on my phone. Since 1992 I’ve created a new text file on my computer every New Year’s Day. Whatever I have written gets transcribed into the file and I throw the draft away. A little black book is a beautiful object, but I don’t care about the objects; I care only about the words in them.

4. 8 Writing Tips from Jeff Vandemeer (Jeff Vandemeer, March 2018, Chicago Review of Books)

The impetus for this article was a single word buried amid some writing tips from blockbuster science fiction author Jeff Vandemeer. Specifically, the word “luddite.” It appears in a tip about recording bits of inspiration whenever they come to you. He writes:

There is an immediacy to writing it on paper that appeals to me, too. This doesn’t strike me as a luddite thing, but a thing about the human brain.

As a journeyman writer, I gained all kinds of useful info on his writing process and the story behind the huge success of his “Annihilation” series of books from the piece, but the killer line for me is the one about being (or not being, as the case may be) a luddite. He seems almost apologetic about suggesting that the offline, old-school technology world might be all right, too. Which is too bad because his ideas are fantastic.

I carry a pen and a small notebook or loose notecards with me at all times. I also keep them on the nightstand next to the bed. I have pieces of paper in the kitchen, too. Over the past twenty years especially, I have not lost or forgotten a single idea or scene fragment or character observation or bit of dialogue because I have always written it down immediately, no matter what situation I’m in (this includes when I had a day job).

Over time, my subconscious has rewarded me more and more for taking It seriously. If your subconscious brain “knows” you are going to write it all down and use what it gives you, a loop is created where, at times, and depending on other factors, the problem isn’t lack of ideas but having too many ideas.

Like Vandemeer, I feel as though similar accusations are coming my way when I think about how a notebook’s “technology” is actually superior to a phone or computer. I open it and voilà, my dear ones, my notebook is ON. Close it, then open it again, and I’ve “rebooted” it. When I want to transcribe a thought, an idea for a project or the next line of this piece, I want to do it instantaneously and a notebook is the only instrument that can meet that demand (excluding, of course, writing on my hand). If I were Vandemeer and had written multiple best-selling novels, I hope I wouldn’t be shy about saying what to me is obvious.

5. Messy Attics of the Mind: What’s Inside a Writer’s Notebook? (Philip Horne, Paul Theroux, Susie Boyt, and Amit Chaudhuri; April 2018; The Guardian)

The way the writers featured in this piece describe their notebooks, I know they are besotted with the practice. They are kindred spirits, and they write beautifully about it. This is especially so with Susie Boyt, who calls her notebooks “messy little attics of the mind.” It’s such a lovely, original description that I almost find it aspirational — do my notebooks really look like messy little attics of the mind? If not, I’ll be working on that today. The expression appears in an extended description of her notebook history:

I have always kept notebooks — messy little attics of the mind, an odd assortment of shapes and colours stuffed into drawers next to defunct phones and balls of string. They feel private and tender, a bit like night clothes; or embarrassing, like over-eager little sisters.

I admire writers who operate their notebooks rigorously, with mathematical co-ordinates of character and plot, in the fashion of the Euston Road School painters, but mine are filled with a jumble of poetry, prose and criticism, lists, plans, with occasional personal anecdotes in which I often emerge the slightee.

6. Joyce Carol Oates: The Art of Fiction, No. 72 (Robert Phillips, Fall-Winter 1978; The Paris Review)

OK, so many writers and artists keep notebooks — this we know. But some actually compose their first versions of their work in a notebook. In other words, they write longhand. In this wonderful interview from the Paris Review, prolific author Joyce Carol Oates includes a brief mention about writing longhand and how typing on a typewriter is now “an alien thing.” Arguably I could have just written “Joyce Carol Oates” and any argument about the potential virtues of writing longhand would cease. Joyce Carol Oates does it. Need I say more? It’s especially so since she has written about five dozen books. And she isn’t just using a notebook — she is composing entirely in longhand before ever touching a computer file. (I assume the practice began after Them, her 1969 novel, which won the National Book Award and runs 500 pages, but still).

“Childwold needed to be written in longhand, of course. And now everything finds its initial expression in longhand and the typewriter has become a rather alien thing—a thing of formality and impersonality. My first novels were all written on a typewriter: first draft straight through, then revisions, then final draft. But I can’t do that any longer.

The thought of dictating into a machine doesn’t appeal to me at all. Henry James’s later works would have been better had he resisted that curious sort of self-indulgence, dictating to a secretary. The roaming garrulousness of ordinary speech is usually corrected when it’s transcribed into written prose.

I love the way she says that “now everything finds its initial expression in longhand.” On a par with the way you might have changed your morning routine once you learned about coffee, or the way you might structure your life once you’ve understood the vagaries of unbridled love.

7. Mary Gordon on the Joy of Notebooks and How Writing By Hand Catalyzes Creativity (Maria Popova, February 2013; Brainpickings)

Mary Gordon, a novelist and memoirist from New York, is a true acolyte of writing longhand. And her essay on the topic, “Putting Pen to Paper, but Not Just Any Pen to Just Any Paper,” is excerpted generously in this piece from Brainpickings about a book of essays by writers on their writing processes. We learn about Gordon’s writing process, how she reads and listens to music before composing anything herself. We also see her deftly locate the essence of notebook use:

For related reading, here’s a piece from BookRiot on the finer points of writing in pencil.

Writing by hand is laborious, and that is why typewriters were invented. But I believe that the labor has virtue, because of its very physicality. For one thing it involves flesh, blood and the thingness of pen and paper, those anchors that remind us that, however thoroughly we lose ourselves in the vortex of our invention, we inhabit a corporeal world.

8. Why I’m Obsessed With Reading Books About Writing in Notebooks (Josephine Wolff, February 2019; The Washington Post)

There is an adjacent topic to writing in a notebook and that’s the publishing industry sector that’s grown up around the practice (or aspirational practice) of writing in a notebook (this is still America, after all). A delightful look into this phenomenon comes to us here by way of a professor not of writing but of cybersecurity. Here, we find notebook devotees — professional notebookers, you could say — trying to indoctrinate everyone by selling specific types of notebooks.

One reason I’m so transfixed by notebook experts is that their systems bring together free-form, individualized artistic expression and the structured formatting and rigid rules of computer science. This may be key to the appeal of notebooking: In an increasingly algorithmic world, these systems let us crack open the black boxes of our lives, allowing us to develop systems of our own and helping us figure out what matters to us along the way.

Selfishly, I’ll add that for me the best line in the piece is where it becomes clear she is truly as obsessed with notebooks as I am. She writes that at any moment, she keeps “one for daily to-do lists and appointments, one for notes and ideas, [and] one for teaching.” If she added a sleep diary (which I began keeping this year), we’d be about even.

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Jeanne Bonner is a writer, editor, and literary translator whose work has been published by the New York Times, Catapult, Marketplace, and CNN Travel. She won the 2018 PEN Grant for the English Translation of Italian Literature for her translation-in-progress of Mariateresa Di Lascia’s Passaggio in Ombra. She will be a short-term fellow at the New York Public Library in 2020.

Editor: Cheri Lucas Rowlands