Tag Archives: diary

How many notebooks does a writer need?

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Photo courtesy SXC.

The other day, when I stopped to think about it, I realized I have a bit of an office supply fetish. It’s not that I’m compulsively well organized; it’s more that, to me, file folders and new pens and notebooks–especially notebooks– symbolize the potential that exists within the articles, columns and other writing projects that I might use those very office supplies to create.
I often claim my root profession to be documentarian, so my profusion of notebooks, journals, blogs and other recording tools seems appropriate. I recently did an inventory of my notebooks/journaling tools, both past and present. Here are the varieties of notebooks, if I may use that term loosely, that I’ve found to be indispensable over the years…

My Notebook Inventory

Reporter’s Notebook—Distinguished by being bound at the top edge and (for the most part) being slim enough to fit in a shirt pocket. I use reporter’s notebooks (or memo pads, if nothing else is available) for all my interviews and never mix interview notes with notes unrelated to a specific story assignment. That makes locating notes from an interview years after the fact much easier, as does my habit of listing the article topics covered and the date range for the interviews on the cover of the notebook.

Writer’s Daybook—This notebook is for all writing-related notes that are NOT interviews, including story outlines, to-do lists, handwritten rough drafts, snippets of dialog overheard on the light rail, and (most importantly) the ideas that often come completely unannounced when I am focusing on something other than writing. I prefer hardbound notebooks with illustrated covers for my daybooks. My mind must be going places when I write, because I’m always drawn to notebooks decorated with map, postcard/letter or travel themes.

Food/Exercise journals—Many years before my current relationship with the food/exercise recording site SparkPeople.com, I kept richly detailed running logs as a teenager. I gave my regular running routes names and wrote evocative descriptions of the weather, my thoughts during the run, and the friends and neighbors I often saw along the way. In late 2006, as I was preparing for a move, I found my old running logs and cracked open a few. It was if I popped open a vintage bottle of wine—decades later, the content was still moving and took me back to a time when I viewed burning calories as an almost spiritual experience.
When I reviewed Julia Cameron’s book The Writing Diet last year, I learned that this type of notebook writing, whether done online or on paper, serves another purpose—keeping a food journal can help one lose or maintain weight.

Blogs—I’ve kept several blogs over the past 4 years—this blog on writing and editing nonfiction; my blog on the creative process, Creative Liberty; a short-lived personal blog and two private blogs that I set up to chart progress on various writing projects I’ve got going.
Using blogs as diaries or notebooks is pretty well documented (since the word blog was originally short for the term “web log”). While my two current blogs are more commercially/communally focused than the preceding ones, I like the digital capture possibilities of blogs for writing research and may start using WordPress as a content management system to corral notes for projects that will end up online in one format or another anyway.

Social media updatesA lot of people pooh-pooh the idea of one’s personal Twitter tweets or Facebook/LinkedIn status updates being anything more than narcissistic over-sharing, but I disagree. While I’m not ready to do full-on lifestreaming myself, I do find that dipping into the journal-like commentary of my friends and contacts has positive research value for me as a writer. When I upload personal observations via social media, I do feel as if I’m sharing some sort of “open notebook” with my social circle—much like a blog, only more limited in its distribution. Some of my non-blogging Facebook friends share their activities and observations through posting notes and links, and a few (I’m thinking of Rod and Bill K. in particular here) friends share their blog posts as notes on Facebook, bringing their content to friends who don’t typically visit blogs.
I’m cautious about my use of social media as an open notebook for now, but I am tantalized by the possibilities.

The questions to you…

  • How many notebooks or notebook-like online tools do you use on a regular basis?
  • Do you prefer to have your note-taking in some all-in-one sort of solution (one big notebook) or use task-specific tools (lots of little notebooks)?
  • Do you purchase/select your notebooks or journaling tools primarily based on functionality, aesthetics, or both?
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Begin at the Beginning: Thoughts on autobiographical material and story structure

30 years worth of diaries, 1979-2009

30 years of diaries, 1979-2009

A dear friend of mine, Rachel Hile, contributed a very insightful essay to the inaugural issue of The Revolving Floor last month—one that touches upon a number of issues that writers of nonfiction, particularly those who write about their own lives, deal with when working on a story.

The article, “Ab Ovo, or, How Not to Begin a Story,” is worth reading in full. Rachel has an interesting perspective on the personal-writing topic, as she works as an assistant professor in the Department of English & Linguistics at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne. She’s also has edited a collection of essays, Parenting and Professing: Balancing Family Work with an Academic Career, which, by their very nature, touch on autobiographical topics.

In her Revolving Floor essay, she begins by challenging the storytelling advice that first-century BCE poet Horace famously gave to begin in media res, in the middle of the action. For Rachel, this can present a problem, as she has a sharp interest in finding out what happened at the start (ab ovo, Latin for “from the egg”), or even before the start, a given story.

“Horace seems not even to consider that someone inquisitive like me, someone more interested in excavating beginnings than weaving an action-packed plot …

“I’m surely not alone in finding value in all this egg and pre-egg business, in believing that examining origins leads to worthwhile insights about motivations, people, as well as the ways people use religion to explain the inexplicable.”

She discusses the different literary formats and their structures in regards to how they view story beginnings.

“In what sort of alternate literary universe would starting at the beginning be prized, and what values would it express? … It didn’t take a new world, but a new genre, which Michel de Montaigne kindly invented for us at the very moment that some historians have dated as the genesis of the private self. The essai—an attempt, an effort at understanding that uses a different kind of thinking than plot-driven narratives, is well-suited to the practice of going back to the egg to try to understand oneself.”

I asked Rachel to share a couple of thoughts about autobiographical writing after the “Ab Ovo” story came out. Here’s the transcript of our (electronic) conversation.

Rachel Hile

Rachel Hile

Write Livelihood: You’ve kept your journals from the past 30 years and in your essay you address the concept of self-shame and its role in writers destroying their letters/journals. How does shame about past attempts at self-expression inhibit finding one’s narrative?
Hile: I distrust personal narratives with a triumphalist arc, and that’s what you get when you steer clear of the memories and events that give you that feeling of shame. On the other hand, I also distrust personal narratives that try to excise pride and always instead take an ironic, deprecatory stance toward the actions, thoughts, and motivations of the self.
I don’t think that the answer is for writers to attack moments of shame head-on, self-consciously and for their own sake, because memoir is not just about rehab, rock bottom, etc. I think that if you discover a memory that fills you with shame while you’re in the process of working out your ideas in writing, if you work around that memory, a note of falseness will enter the piece.
Easy to say, hard to do. This week I abandoned an essay I was writing because I remembered something that was key to the point I was trying to make, but that I am still not ready to write about publicly.

Write Livelihood: One of the things that I found interesting about “Ab Ovo” was that both your parents had a dream before you were born about who you would be. Do you think a parent’s prenatal dream about their child, if communicated to the child, shapes the young one’s narrative in the same way a culture’s “creation myth” shapes the way a society conceptualizes its beginnings?
Hile: Yes—not just dreams, but birth stories, stories from infancy, etc. My children love to hear the stories of their births, stories of how I knew (without sonograms) their genders before they were born (and I use the word “gender” advisedly, because it really was a sense of gender), stories of what I noticed first about them. I think children are hungry for details and stories that will make them feel that they know who they are. I think children need stories about identity from adults who love them. The power to shape a child’s sense of self is, of course, a responsibility that should inspire caution.

Write Livelihood: Any thoughts on the best way to mine one’s journals and letters for autobiographical  or memoir-related material to write about?
Hile:
I only sat down with my diaries one time with the idea of writing a memoir, and it was a non-starter. I was going to write about my experiences with depression, (yet) a little voice was asking me, “Don’t we have enough serious, introspective memoirs already about ‘Times When My Life Sucked’?”
I have found my diaries most helpful when I am writing about an idea, not an experience, and a memory or personal anecdote seems like it will be effective in illustrating that idea. Then I go back to read what I wrote at the time in order to strengthen my memory and create a more vivid impression.

Write Livelihood: What advice would you give to a writer interested in writing memoir?
Hile:
I myself feel more comfortable writing essays that draw upon autobiographical material than writing actual memoir, and that’s because of a basic distrust of self-revelation for the sake of self-revelation.
The memoirs I most enjoy reading are the ones in which I believe that self-revelation is in the service of illuminating important ideas that are broadly relevant: I’m thinking of Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat Pray Love and Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home as memoirs I’ve read recently that did a great job of finding this balance.

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10 reasons to keep a writer’s notebook

Photo courtesy SXC.

I’ve kept a writer’s notebook for about 3.5 years. In that time, I’ve written successful queries, created two new blogs (this one and Creative Liberty) and significantly expanded my writing and editing work. I’m a big advocate of every writer carrying a notebook with them that they write in daily, or nearly daily.

Here are 10 reasons starting a writer’s notebook can charge up your writing work.

1. You can capture ideas before they’re gone. How many times have you had a great idea for an article, film, play, whatever, only to have it slip away before you got it committed to paper?

2. You can record sensory impressions while they are fresh. Often, what separates functional writing from truly great writing is the verisimilitude of the details. With a notebook at hand, you can capture a scene as it unfolds and not worry later if you got the color of the sky, or the color of baggy pants the strange smelly guy on the bus was wearing, right.

3. Writing your ideas down by hand is different than typing them in on your laptop.

4. You can track the development of your ideas from start to finish (even if this takes several notebooks for “big ideas” such as books!).

5. Storage and transport can be easier than computer based methods (I’m still a little leery of taking my laptop on a hike over rocky terrain).

6. Having a notebook handy makes it easier to record brain-dumps and zero drafts–which results in less blocking when it’s time to hit the computer and type a rough draft.

7. You can add mind-maps, storyboards and clippings to your notebook easily, making a neat analog multimedia experience for your story development process (think scrapbooking).

8. You can conduct an impromptu interview or write down all those stray research leads that can get lost if you depend on memory or texting your e-mail or another one-off sort of digital method.

9. Writing daily, in your own handwriting, cultivates an intimacy with your writing voice. You can find, and then fine-tune, your authentic tone.

10. Writer’s notebooks are a great place to experiment with new ideas, approaches, divulge your secret thoughts (at least to yourself) or practice a new technique in a pressure-free, private arena.

Helpful links related to keeping a writer’s notebook:

Daybooks: From the site LiketoWrite.com. A meditation on the value of “daybooks,” a personalized writer’s notebook. The term was coined by the late great journalist and writing coach Don Murray.

1000 Journals and 1001 Journals: A fascinating collaborative journaling project that has made its way around the world and spawned a book and documentary. The websites feature scans and photos of the pages of many of the journals.

Moleskine: The favored brand of notebook for many a writer.

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