I’ve kept a notebook for 20 years, but the triumph of my year has been, for the first time, keeping not just a logbook, but a daily diary. (This is what it looks like.) I keep looking at the stack and thinking, “Okay, but where’s the book?”
Almost every writer will tell you how important it is to keep a daily diary or notebook, but very few emphasize how important it is, if you want to publish, to have a system for going back through those personal notebooks and diaries and turning them into public writing.
One of the things I like about Ryan Holiday’s notecard system, the one he learned from his mentor, Robert Greene, is its emphasis, not just on taking notes, but on going back and revisiting your notes: after you take notes in a book, you let the book sit for a week, and then you go back through the book and transfer your notes to notecards, and then you go back through your notecards and find themes, and then you go back through the themes and assemble a book, etc. There’s a kind of constant creative revisiting that goes on, one that leads to new ideas, and new writing. (Re-vision is re-seeing.)
This year, randomly, without planning it, I’ve become familiar with the notebooks of 3 different writers: Leonardo da Vinci, thanks to Walter Isaacson’s bio, Henry David Thoreau, thanks to Laura Walls’ terrific bio and NYRB’s beautiful reader edition, and David Sedaris, thanks to his newly published diaries. All three have much to teach.
It could be argued that Leonardo’s notebooks were his life’s masterpiece. Over and over again, Isaacson points out that Leonardo jotted down discoveries and hunches that other scientists wouldn’t confirm for hundreds of years. Unfortunately for the wider world, Leonardo’s notebook was all about exploration, and he didn’t put much, if any, effort into actually sharing his findings. If he had, he’d probably have changed the history of science.
It could be argued for Thoreau, too, that his true masterpiece was his journal, which he used, like Leonardo, to explore his world, his philosophy, and his amateur science. Unlike Leonardo, however, his journals were self-consciously journals, daily records of his life and thought tied to dates, and Thoreau mined his journals for books and lectures, then used his public lectures as a way of working up material for articles and books.
Though Sedaris might seem like the outlier here, he works in a Thoreau-like way (even though he despises the verb “journaling” and finds it “creepy”). I find him the most instructive and worth stealing from in the batch, if only because his process has been thoroughly documented, not just by others, but by himself. His essay, “Day In, Day Out,” from Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls, summarizes his method as “You jot things down during the day, then tomorrow morning you flesh them out.” That sounds simple, but he actually has a robust system for generating material. Here are the steps:
1) He carries around a little reporter’s notebook and is constantly jotting down funny things he notices and overhears. “Everybody’s got an eye for something,” he says. “The only difference is that I carry around a notebook in my front pocket. I write everything down, and it helps me recall.”
2) The next morning, he takes a look at his notes to refresh his memory, and then types out his diary on the computer. (In the old “embarrassing” days, he’d write on placemats, then in hardcover sketchbooks, in which he’d collage and draw, and then a typewriter, etc.)
3) He prints out his entries and binds them with special covers. In the recent “Visual Compendium” of his diaries, he notes: “I generally bind four volumes a year, so if at age 59, I have 153, by the time I’m my father’s age—should I live to be 93—I’ll have 289. If I die much earlier, at 75, say, I’ll still have 217, which isn’t bad.”
Maybe most importantly, he keeps a separate diary index, which numbers hundreds of pages by itself, in which he “lists only items that might come in handy someday.” A few entries:
Volume 87, 5/15: Lisa puts a used Kotex through the wash, and her husband mistakes it for a shoulder pad.
Volume 128, 1/23: Told by saleswoman that the coat I’m trying on is waterproof “if it only rains a little.”
“Over a given three-month period,” he writes, “there may be fifty bits worth noting, and six that, with a little work, I might consider reading out.” (It is not clear to me at what frequency he re-reads his diaries to keep this index. If I had to bet, I’d say he updates the index when he has a new book bound.)
4) He will then read selections from his diaries out-loud, live to his audiences. (This is actually how he got his start — he was reading from his diary in Chicago when he met Ira Glass, who gave him his break-out radio gig with “Santaland Diaries.”) He has a pencil and a marginalia system for recording audience reactions: Laughs get a check mark, silence gets a skull.
5) He’ll go back and rework the stories based on what he’s learned from reading live.
So far, I have stolen the first two steps. As for the third, I have no index for the notebooks (unless you count my logbook), and no way, really, of knowing what’s in them, a condition worsened by my terrible memory, and the fact that one of the reasons I like keeping a diary, as Henry Jones, Sr., said, is because I don’t have to remember what’s in it. I plan on starting an index in the coming weeks, and updating it for each new notebook.
As for steps 4 and 5, the live reading and revision, that’s what this blog is for. It’s the place where I take private thoughts and turn them public, see what the reaction is, if any, and then weave what I’ve learned back into the work.