Building Your Notebook

Keeping a creative notebook may seem an unnatural act at first—either too juvenile, too pedestrian, or too demanding.  Trust me, acquiring this new habit is worth the effort

Most serious creatives carry a small notebook—or note cards or scraps of paper or an electronic gizmo or something—at all times.

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No matter your field or what you are working on, you’ll find that new connections, ideas, or directions will pop up at the oddest times and places.  Be ready.  You won’t remember.  Best-selling author Richard Bach warned, “I’ll never forget this is the devil’s whisper.  Catch everything that matters in your notebook.”

Why handwrite your notebook?

The first step is to get a notebook and a pen (or pencil).  You may later switch to typing your journal, but start by handwriting it.

I have a bias for keeping a handwritten journal for exploration, idea capture, or idle chit-chat with myself.  There is something organic about words flowing over the page.

Notebooks and pens are very portable, don’t have to be turned off for airplane take-offs and landings, and can even be used unobtrusively during sermons, meetings, or while waiting on the bus.

You can jot notes or talk to yourself on paper while waiting for a colleague or in the dentist’s waiting room.  No need to boot up.  Never a low battery.  You can even be discreetly working out an idea during a really boring meeting; just make sure you look up and nod at appropriate intervals, so it looks as though you are taking notes.

If your handwriting is as bad as mine, no one can read it over your shoulder.

Perhaps I also prefer a handwritten notebook because I associate my laptop with work, while my notebook is usually play, something I seek out because I want to, not because I have to

That said, use whatever method works for you.  Or methods.  At times, I switch to a keyboard because thoughts are coming quickly and are already well-formed.  At those times, I don’t need to think much, just transcribe.

Choosing your tools

Does a notebook have a certain form?  No, but tools in any creative endeavor are important.

Natalie Goldberg, author of Writing Down the Bones, likes cheap spiral-bound school theme books so she can scribble away and not feel constrained by the importance of expensive paper.

I usually carry a bound notebook—typically 5×7 or 6×8.  I learned to avoid notebooks with thin or rough paper or ones that don’t lay flat.  I love smooth, thick paper and generous lines, and I like variety.

You can buy a leather journal, plain or lined.  Bound book, loose-leaf paper, or legal pad.  Fountain pen, rollerball, or pencil.  You will probably change from time to time.

Good tools show respect for the process and for your ideas, but don’t get tools that are so dear you are afraid to use them.

Do think carefully about a couple of options, especially before you invest a lot of money in an expensive notebook.  What size page do you want?  Too small may feel too cramped; too large and it can’t be carried easily or surreptitiously pulled out in a meeting.

Decide if you want blank pages or lined.  Visual artists often like to sketch in their notebooks and prefer blank pages.  I prefer lines but discovered that my handwriting doesn’t fit well on narrow lines.

Be picky about your pens or pencils, too.

The most important test for your tools is whether you enjoy using them.  Pick the tools you enjoy, and be willing to experiment.

Journal-keepers often debate whether to keep separate work and personal notebooks, or a notebook for each project, or a separate book for quotes and ephemera and notes on books read.  Or should it just jumble all together in one notebook?  You can decide which you like, but you might want to start with the jumble.


What’s in a notebook?

You may find it helpful to think about your writing—and your notebook—in at least two stages or sections: daily writing or scribbling and project writing or idea capture.

In your notebook, talk to yourself about what you are learning in classes or training, what’s happening in the news, what you’d like to see happen in your life or career, what you’ve learned about yourself by watching others, what connections you can make between what you’re reading—fiction or nonfiction—and your work or life.  Again, it helps to see what you are thinking.

Use it as a commonplace book, where you keep quotations or anecdotes.  These can provide an inspiration for a presentation or simply reassurance when you thumb back through them later.

Ask yourself questions and answer them.  What results do I want from this report?  What opening would grab my boss’s attention?  Where do I want to be in five years?  Why does X keep popping into my head?  What are some wacky ways to attract more customers?  Asking questions will jump-start your writing—and your thinking.

A word of advice: Date the entries.  Include references or sources, in case you want to refer to or quote something later.

What works for you

Your notebook can have cats on the cover or can be a collection of scribbled napkins from McDonald’s that you stapled together.  Cheap spiral notebook, fine Italian leather journal, word processing file, sketch paper, Bic or MontBlanc, a mechanical pencil on a quadrille pad.  Whatever suits you.

The only thing that matters is that you use your notebook enough to learn what it can do, so it becomes a natural part of your creative process, one you rely on with ease.

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