Death to the Scraps: The Importance of Keeping a Writer’s Notebook

The other day I found a note in my pocket.  I couldn’t quite make it out.  But it was my handwriting.  I could tell because it had my scrawny chicken scratches on it, the w that looks like an n – or is it an n that looks like a w?  One of those notes that you have to study for a long time before you can almost make out what it’s supposed to say, and even then, you’re still a little dubious as to your intent when you wrote it.

I’ve never been a big note-taker.  Quite often, I’m in such a hurry that any note I write for myself is some vague and cryptic impression jotted down on a scrap of paper.  For me, it is a common occurrence to empty my pockets at the end of the day only to find a jumble of scraps.  It never fails that they all have indecipherable scribbles or codes on them.  When an idea strikes, I am filled with such excitement that my handwriting becomes utterly atrocious.  Quite often, I feel like one of the code breakers who cracked Enigma during World War II.  And my reading list is so long that I really don’t have – or take – time to record my reflections.  Consequently, I’m sure that some great thoughts have been forever lost.

In my effort to combat my own cryptic notes of my inattention to my reflections, I have adopted the method of keeping a writer’s notebook.  I know, I know.  It’s not really a startling revelation when you think about it but with thirty to forty minutes set aside at the end of the day, the inherent potential of the notebook is staggering.

The first – and perhaps the most beneficial- perk about keeping a notebook is that it allows us as writers to stay present.  Stay present, you ask?  What exactly does that mean? A notebook provides the perfect opportunity for us as writers to keep a record of our personal histories.  Our histories have everything to do with the present.  How are we to know where we’re going if we never look back?

A lot of times when I’m struggling with a new theme or technique I’m exploring, I can look back to what I was thinking about on a certain day in my notebook and jog my memory for those additional details that can give my story life.  Having this ability invites me in turn to stay present with the rest of my everyday surroundings.

Likewise, I can look back on a particular theme I was riffing on and see where I had difficulties.  I’d say this ability helps us as developing writers recognize what we need – or want – to work on.  For instance, during an assignment for class – thanks to a notebook entry – realized that I had a stark lack of dialogue in previous assignments.  With that recognition in mind I listened to the people around me for a few days.  Carefully, I noted that subtle interactions and plays on words taking place around me for a few days.  The result:  my story contained a substantial increase in dialogue that exhibited tension between the two characters.  I was able to show rather than tell the tension.

In addition to noting and recording life, my current notebook practice demands that at the ends of each day – or more often, as creativity commands – I take a few minutes to transcribe my notes onto the back of an entry.  (Despite my newfound aversion to notes, it is not always feasible to lug around a clunky notebook).

I’ve found that when I transcribe my notes when convenient there are immediately two huge benefits.  First, transcribing my notes allows me to brainstorm ideas, or abandon or revive a particular idea.  Or secondly, if I can develop a story line adequately, at least my notes are less cryptic.  These better notes help me for the time when I do feel like I can do something with an idea.

Thanks to Notebook Know-How: Strategies for the Writer’s Notebook, by Aimee Buckner, I have adopted three simple, but very effective techniques for developing stories/articles from my notebook entries: making lists and writing about an item on one of them; lifting lines from a previous entry; and, looking for common thread that links an entry or two.

A list can be on any topic you want and any number of items.  On one of my lists (“The Top 10 Best Things That Happened to Me”) is the entry “exploring the city while skipping school.”  In a later entry I then wrote for about fifteen to twenty minutes on the general theme.

The result easily spanned 500 words.  This is a great way to spin a vivid narrative filled with the much-needed human element.

Another great technique I enjoyed using is to review my notebook entries and lift a line out of one of them.  Then in a new entry I’ll write until I have a good, lengthy piece.  The resulting piece doesn’t necessarily have to contain the pilfered line, in fact it can be taken out entirely.  It’s just nice to have a starting point.  For those of us that need a warm-up, this is a great exercise to get those creative juices flowing.

The last method I use is to review my entries, looking for a common thread or element that may link an entry with two or three others.  This is usually an indication that a particular problem is subconsciously manifesting itself in my notebook.  In other words, I now have a problem to explore.  For example, several of my entries have revolved around a couple of failed relationships.  When I recognized this I realized that those relationships had some communication issues that could be explored in an article.

Since this recognition, I’ve developed a few good slants for a small number of articles that are filled with solid, real-life examples.  Imagine that, and it’s all thanks to my notebook.

Finally, there is the benefit of just having a place to file all of those clippings and ideas that we don’t know what to do with yet.

A favorite activity of mine is to jot down some what – ifs on an item I saw in the paper, on television, or anywhere else that may have caught my attention.  Sometimes I’ll strike a chord and beauty will sing on the page.  Other times these experiments will fail, but that is the joy we all seek as writers.

I hope this inspires you to look at a notebook in a new light.  As writers we should all look towards improving our craft – improving on more than just our style.  I’ve learned that we need to also remember to include the human element in our writing.  One of the ways we can do that is by staying present and continually observing the human interactions going on all around us.  Also by paying attention to our own entries we can further our craft by developing stories/articles that have some basis in life.

Using the methods discussed here we can spin great narrative from real life simply by using our eyes, ears, and notebooks.  By using our notebooks we can finally declare Death to the Scraps!  And finally – if you’re at all like me – get rid of those pesky, cryptic notes that creep their way into our pockets.


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