Where’s your notebook?

Writer John Gregory Dunne allegedly said that always having the means at hand to record an idea is what makes the difference between being a writer, and not.

I was amused (and impressed) to learn recently that poet Ross Clark keeps one notebook in the car, another by the bed, another in his back pocket… Wherever Ross is seized by a poetic urge or image, he has the means to write it down.

Some writers carry a voice recorder around for this purpose. Now that everyone has a Smart Phone, we all have that “means”.

My problem is that I never get round to downloading, or even listening to, the ideas I’ve “noted” on my voice recorder, re-reading the lines I’ve sent myself as texts, or reviewing those random jottings in the notebooks. New ideas are constantly taking their place. I fondly imagine that dedicated notebooks are a step in the right direction – I have boxes of old diaries, lecture books and scraps of paper which I’ve kept only for the phrases and fragments dotted through them in margins and on back pages. The odd napkin or beer coaster I’ve retained for the same reason. Have I ever revisited, let alone used, a single one of those fragments?

Not as far as I know. Not one.


I’d like to think what’s at work here is a process rather than a product. By writing the idea down, I process it. I articulate a concept, and explore it a little further than I might otherwise. Perhaps an idea that would have resumed swirling formlessly round my unconscious moves through to a more conscious place, to be reproduced later although I’ve forgotten I ever wrote it down.

I could test this plausible hypothesis by going back through those old notebooks to see whether the fragments have since made their way into my “formed” pieces of writing.

But who has the time? 🙂

*Yes, I do like ellipses, they are graceful and beautiful in their balanced and regular combination of dots and spaces, they express the way my mind works, and I will continue to use them until my publisher tells me not to, and then I will desist only for the duration of the particular book in which the publisher objects to their appearance, and this is my declaration and stated intention, so there.


1 Comment

Filed under Writing Process

One response to “Where’s your notebook?

  1. Nice post! I’ve had some great arguments with friends on that idea. Personally, I disagree with Dunne’s point, about always being ready to ‘catch’ your ideas. As I think you hint at in your post, there’s a suggestion of a strange category of ideas: ones important enough to catalyze great work, but not memorable enough to stick in your head until the next time you sit down to write. I don’t think that happens often.
    More broadly, I think productive writers are those who can move past being slaves to that moment of inspiration, and instead, learn how to put themselves to work when they need to. (With that said, I’ll confess to having heaps of notebooks lying around. But I think the notebook is where I go to *generate* ideas, not to capture them, if that makes sense.)

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