M ost people live in a “white zone”... in a fog, on auto pilot, nearly unaware of what’s going on around them.
Not if you’re a writer.
Good writers are good observers. Good writers avoid the “white zone” fog and are well aware of what’s going on around them. Alert. Perceptive. Writers keep notes. One of mine reminds me to “Buy a notebook that is portable, not too big, not too small. Carry it with you all the time. Now look around with wonder, paying attention to everything. Eavesdrop on life...”
Eavesdropping implies listening, overhearing, nosing around (also lurking snooping, prying and spying...). The point is: observe and take notes on life. Carry a notebook and fill it up.
A well-kept notebook is a treasure trove, chock-full with experience rich in promise, both insightful and mundane. Intriguing. A safe place to collect, play, experiment, discover.
I know a writer whose notebooks fill a small shelf by his desk, well-thumbed from frequent “look-ups.” They harbor great memories, facts, random thoughts, and potent ideas. Things not to forget, he says. Full of life with eyes wide open. He uses them to scribble, sketch, and create, looking ahead to the day when something jotted down becomes a writing prompt. He takes notes on what fascinates him, as observations and insights for future essays. He starts every trek with a new one, pristine, unblemished, wrapped in plastic to keep it safe and dry. Always has, he says. Later, when he returns home with his notebook full-up, it’s inevitably watermarked and ink stained, with torn pages and broken bindings. Notebooks with character!
Think of your notebook as a spare drawer to drop in bits and pieces of knowledge randomly collected, to pull out later when you sit down to the serious business of putting thoughts to paper. A valued storehouse.
Whether you write fiction or non-fiction, stage plays or poems, your writer’s notebook is a vital tool in your craft and life. Use it to frame an opening scene or a climax, and to contemplate plot, character and setting. Jot down the clever turn of a phrase. Rumors spread. Facts confirmed. Dialogue overheard. Sketch people and places, in words. Ask questions. Make outlines. Capture some of the mystery of life.
Describe scenes that you might use later ― the sizzle of frying tarkari, the tingling taste of red-hot achhar, the forlorn expression of a lonely man, the intense beauty of an orchid in bloom or a butterfly in flight. Use it to put laughter to words when you see a comical expression on the face of a pet. With a little practice you may even portray the smell of a politician’s duplicity or greed, and the despair written all over a poor widow’s face. Fill your notebook with feeling ― with peoples’ joys, frustrations, accomplishments, sorrows. Slices of life.
Use it to focus on the world about you; where you’ve been, where you’re going, with whom, when, why and how, and what you learn along the way. Take note of what’s happening in that Jawalakhel café you like, or in your favorite Thamel coffee shop or bookstore, while walking to work or riding in a micro and, of course, from the books you read.
With so much happening, keep your notebook at hand in a pocket or in your backpack, on your desk as you write, and by your bed as you sleep for those brilliant ideas that come flash-in-the-night.
But don’t use it as a diary. A writer’s notebook is a journal, not a confessional. Be up front with it, not furtive. It should be more about the world around you and less about your inner yearnings. Fill it with potential, out in the open. (And yet..., while the intent and content of diaries and notebooks are different, more than one scorchingly good short story has been pulled off the pages of a scorchingly personal diary.)
Here’s another provocative note I’ve kept for a moment like this: “Make your writer’s notebook so integral to your life that you feel naked without it.”
Put it on, and wear it well.
The “white zone” quote is paraphrased from Beth Erickson’s ‘Writing Etc.’ blog (filbertpublishing.com). The other two quotations come from one of my notebooks, scribbled there one day while reading the writerly wisdom of Jessica Page Morrell in Writing out the Storm (1998, Collectors Press). See also Writers and Their Notebooks, edited by Diana Raab and Phillip Lopate (2010, University of South Carolina Press) and Notebook Know-How: Strategies for the Writer’s Notebook by Aimee Buckner & Ralph Fletcher (2005, Stenhouse Press).
Don Messerschmidt is a contributing editor to ECS Nepal magazine and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.