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Never Be Blocked: Keep a Writer's Notebook

Creativity notebooks are an old technique made new again.

When I was 11, I was given a little five-year diary with a lock and key. I wrote the usual pre-pubescent stuff in it, a few lines a day, most days. At 14, I began using steno notebooks, and over the next couple of decades I filled dozens with my tormented longings and occasional excited high points. Since I became a professional—and computerized—writer, I've been keeping a writer's notebook. Even as irregular as I am about the process, it's proven priceless for my creative output.

To free your creative self, suggests Janet Burroway in her popular textbook Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft, you must give yourself permission to fail. "The best place for permission is a private place," she adds, "and for that reason a writer's journal is an essential, likely to be the source of originality, ideas, experimentation, and growth."

Such a notebook may include observations, ideas, notes about projects, emotions, overheard dialogue, dreams, "what-I-did-today" accounts, notes kept during a trip or to record a particular harrowing experience such as a home renovation. Whereas in our pre-teens we might have written, "Today I went to the doctor," a writer's notebook may contain a description of the attendant at the parking lot, the medical assistant's odd questions, the doctor's attitude, physical details about the office itself, and/or an account of the discomfort of the procedure performed.

In my notebook, I have lists by category for use as idea-joggers, including times I felt shame and experiences of painful loss. Such intense emotional moments are potential springboards for powerful writing.

Then there are the meta-notebook entries. "If you are engaged in writing anything—a story, poem, essay, play, or paper for school or for work—make some entries about your writing process," suggests Sheila Bender (in "Keeping a Writer's Journal: 21 Ideas to Keep You Writing"). "Be sure to say what your feelings are as you begin, revise, and finish what you are working on. What questions do you ask yourself? What are you learning that helps you write? What do you think you are working against?"


W. Somerset Maugham (1874-1965), author of Of Human Bondage and The Moon and Sixpence, began keeping notebooks when he was 18. He filled 15 volumes, and in 1949 he published the bits that hadn't been used in his other works in A Writer's Notebook (1949, now out of print). From his Preface:

"By making a note of something that strikes you, you separate it from the incessant stream of impressions that crowd across the mental eye, and perhaps fix it in your memory. All of us have had good ideas or vivid sensations that we thought would one day come in useful, but which, because we were too lazy to write them down, have entirely escaped us. When you know you are going to make a note of something, you look at it more attentively than you otherwise would, and in the process of doing so the words are borne in upon you that will give it its private place in reality. ...

"As I grew older and more aware of my intentions, I used my note¬books 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.... I have never claimed to create anything out of nothing; I have always needed an incident or a character as a starting point, but I have exercised imagination, invention and a sense of the dramatic to make it something of my own."


Stationery stores offer dozens of notebook possibilities, and there is a whole community of Moleskin fanatics. This last tempted me, and I did buy one to carry to coffee shops. But I don't like the performance pressure I feel when I'm writing in something lovely enough to be preserved for posterity.

Burroway wrote that she prefers a loose-leaf notebook into which she can place printed pages from the computer, though, she adds, one can just as well paste in scribbled napkins. She also suggested writing regularly in your notebook to get in the habit of observation, which I'm sure is useful advice.

My own notebook habit is more catch-as-catch-can. I make entries directly into the computer, or I make notes on scraps when I'm away from home and then type them up. I used to print out the pages every few days as I made changes—it's not a static document—but that used a lot of paper. Soon I got more used to adding, revising, and shifting around entries right in the Word file. (I usually remember to back up daily.)


Not all entries will feel momentous. If they are epiphanies, they might well be trivial ones, such as this one from Maugham's notebook from 1941: "I often think how much easier life would have been for me and how much time I should have saved if I had known the alphabet. I can never tell where I and J stand without saying G, H to myself first. I don't know whether P comes before R or after, and where T comes in has to this day remained something that I have never been able to get into my head."

Here are two examples from my own notebook. I used a piece of the first, an exercise in visual observation (not my strong suit) in an early draft of my novel but later cut it.

  • Odd vehicle sighting: 1934 Louisiana prison bus, $4500, grey plastic crate for a seat, the gas pedal is missing, the windshield opens up and the clutch pedal is crooked. Got a kind of bed in back. Made of blue and white, wood roof. Has a UC Santa Cruz parking permit, expiration date 6/30/74 on back. No license, no headlights, the valve to fill the tires is in the wrong way. Information 213 etc or 213 etc. Featured at Auto Expo 818 etc.
  • Overheard from Seat 27, Flight 33: "Leaving was the right thing to do. You could see him sharpening the ax." AIt's like coming around the corner and seeing someone standing there with a baseball bat—you don't walk toward him, you walk away."

Finally, I like to start a new novel (so far, one finished and one fractionally so) right in my notebook. That way it feels, at first, more casual, as though it's just another unimportant entry, not a Novel! Very freeing.

Copyright (c) by Susan K. Perry

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