Jane Moss mulls over the value of the writer’s notebook.
More thoughts from our May retreat… Patrick Gale showed us his notebook, a handsome leather affair, slightly larger than A4, a giant wallet into which the paper notebook can be inserted. He talked about his process and the way he writes at the front of the book while keeping his notes in the back. Patrick writes his first drafts in long hand, using a fountain pen and distinctive brown ink. He writes freely, exploring the story, and makes notes in the back pages about anything he needs to research and random ideas as they occur to him. He makes character sketches and draws plot diagrams. It is a neat system and it works for him.
The writer’s notebook is an essential piece of kit. It can come in all shapes and sizes, be chosen from the wonderful array available in bookshops and stationers, or it can be a gift. One of my favourites was given to me as a leaving present by a writing group I worked with for several years. On the front cover it has the word ‘journal’ calligraphed in a style that makes it readable upside down, as well as the right way up. Genius.
People who paint don’t necessarily carry their brushes around with them. People who play a musical instrument won’t always be seen with the violin or trombone under their arm. But someone who writes should really have a notebook secreted about their person, in a back pocket or a bag. If you don’t, you can be sure that an idea, image or fragment of dialogue will pop into your thoughts at just the moment when you can’t write it down. I once begged the man at the supermarket fish counter for the pencil behind his ear, so that I could write something down. I knew that if I didn’t, it would evaporate by the time I got home. That was in the days before smartphones. Now, I use the notepad on my phone, or a text to myself, to record ideas as they come to me.
As your notebooks fill up, hang on to them. I have a shelf at home which, over the years, has become a long line of notebook spines. Mine are mostly A5, in an array of patterns and colours including a Liberty print, florals, stripes, spots, and one with a Union flag and the ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ slogan. I have a beautiful A4 one which I found in Mexico, Frida Kahlo emblazoned on the cover, edged with glitter. I’m keeping her for something special.
When they are full, I never throw them out; they become a store of random scribblings, character notes, journal entries and draft poems into which I delve from time to time for inspiration or to be reminded of something that once caught my attention. Over time the writer’s notebook becomes a valuable resource.
They have a use for non-writers too. If you are ever stuck for a birthday or Christmas gift for the writer in your life, give them a new notebook. Or if, as now, you find that some of the people you care for are feeling stressed about the EU referendum, give them a notebook and invite them to vent and rant on the page.
They will feel better for it.