My three notebooks. On the left: my logbook. On the right: my diary. And in the middle, my commonplace diary. (You can take a peek at it in the latest newsletter.)
My three notebooks. On the left: my logbook. On the right: my diary. And in the middle, my commonplace diary. (You can take a peek at it in the latest newsletter.)
When I was a kid, my mom and I would played “The Alphabet Game.” We’d pick a theme and then try to come up with words for each letter of the alphabet. My eight-year-old and I have started our own alphabet game, only we use it to make dada-ish nonsense poems together in the pool. (I jot them down in my waterproof notebook.)
“A good idea is not of any use if you can’t find it.”
When I was working on Keep Going, I wrote about “the importance of revisiting notebooks,” detailing the notebook method I’d learned from the Two Davids — David Thoreau and David Sedaris — how to get down daily thoughts and mine them for material for larger pieces. At the end of the piece, I wrote:
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.
Reader, I… never started that index. And four years later, here I am, my dumb ass, trying to write another book, staring at a crate of notebooks, literally thousands of pages, with no idea what’s in them, really:
I have filled pages, but I have missed a crucial step: indexing.
Ralph Waldo Emerson, the man who encouraged his friend Thoreau to start a journal and the man who had the most success with the journal > lecture > essay > book method, kept elaborate notebooks just for indexing his other notebooks. He even kept “indexes to indexes,” as Robert D. Richardson describes in his wonderful biography, Emerson: The Mind on Fire:
Indexing was a crucial method for Emerson because it allowed him to write first and organize later and because it gave him easy access to the enormous mass of specific materials in his ever-increasing pile of notebooks… Emerson spent a good deal of time methodically copying and recopying journal material, indexing, alphabetizing indexes, and eventually making indexes of indexes. When he came to write a lecture, he would work through his indexes, making a list of possible passages. He then assembled, ordered, and reordered these into the talk or lecture.
Emerson called his notebooks his “savings bank,” and over four decades, he spent an enormous amount of time in the vault, not just writing, but re-reading what he’d written and indexing.
The notebooks were in part his storehouse of original writing and in part a filing system, designed to store and give him access to the accumulating fruits of this reading on every topic that interested him throughout his life.
As time went on, it took Emerson longer and longer to put lectures and essays together, simply because he had this vast trove to work with. He had no typewriter, no word processor, no computer. Everything was done with ink and paper. His indexes were massive, running hundreds and hundreds of pages. “These indexes themselves, never printed—with one exception—represent many months and perhaps years of work all by themselves.” He wound up with 263 volumes on his shelf.
It could be dreary work, doing all this indexing, but it was crucial as he worked up to a new work. (Emerson’s creative process is so fascinating, Richardson wrote a wonderful slim volume about it, called First We Read, Then We Write.)
I am fascinated by the notebook and filing systems of other writers. In my experience, it’s very easy to write every day and get ideas down, but it’s not so easy to keep track of it all.
(A wild example, I’ll let you click through to read: In his excellent memoir, My Father, the Pornographer, Chris Offutt writes about his father’s elaborate system of notebooks that allowed him to write hundreds of erotic novels.)
Comedian Phyllis Diller had “gag file,” which is now housed at The Smithsonian:
Phyllis Diller’s groundbreaking career as a stand-up comic spanned almost 50 years. Throughout her career she used a gag file to organize her material. Diller’s gag file consists of a steel cabinet with 48 drawers (along with a 3 drawer expansion) containing over 52,000 3-by-5 inch index cards, each holding a typewritten joke or gag.
In the documentary Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, the comedian showed off a similar “joke bank”:
For the past thirty-some years, Rivers has been filing each and every joke she’s written (at this point she’s amassed over a million) in a library-esque card cabinet housed in her Upper East Side apartment. The jokes—most typed up on three-by-five cards—are meticulously arranged by subject, which Rivers admits is the hardest part of organizing: “Does this one go under ugly or does it go under dumb?”
These filing systems are all analog examples, but one of my heroes, George Carlin, embraced an analog/digital system:
I take a lot of single-page notes, little memo pad notes. I make a lot of notes on those things. For when I’m not near a little memo pad, I have a digital recorder… When I harvest the pieces of paper and I go through them and sort them, the one lucky thing I got in my genetic package was a great methodical left brain. I have a very orderly mind that wants to classify and index things and label them and store them according to that. I had a boss in radio when I was 18 years old, and my boss told me to write down every idea I get even if I can’t use it at the time, and then file it away and have a system for filing it away—because a good idea is of no use to you unless you can find it….[In my filing system there are files for all kinds of subjects] but then there are subfiles. Everything has subfiles….It’s like nested boxes, like the Russian dolls—it’s just folders within folders within folders. But I know how to navigate it very well, and I’m a Macintosh a guy and so Spotlight helps me a lot. I just get on Spotlight and say, let’s see, if I say “asshole” and “minister,” I then can find what I want find.
“A lot of this,” Carlin said, “is discovery. A lot of things are lying around waiting to be discovered and that’s our job is to just notice them and bring them to life.”
No matter what you make, if you produce a lot every day, you need some sort of system for going back and figuring out what you have.
On Twitter the other day I saw someone point out that the longer you listen to Song Exploder, the more you discover that the Voice Memos app on the iPhone has probably had more of an impact on songwriting than any other piece of software. But recording things in Voice Memos is just one step. The next is listening back to things, finding diamonds in the rough.
Chris Ballew, aka Caspar Babypants, aka the lead singer and songwriter for The Presidents of the United States of America, says he dumps all his raw song ideas into an iTunes playlist and then puts it on shuffle while he’s washing dishes. (I read that Brian Eno does something similar: he makes a tremendous amount of music, and then hits shuffle when he’s answering email, etc., and whatever catches his ear, he investigates.)
Like William Blake said, you either create your own system or get enslaved by another’s. In some sense, this very blog is a system for me to find out what I have: I take material from my notebooks and turn it into blog posts, and the posts become tags, which become book chapters, etc.
But I have a ton of material that never makes it online, and I need to get it out of my notebooks and into an indexed and fully searchable system. I think this will be easiest if I do it as I go, and keep it simple: the minute I finish a notebook, go back and type the whole thing into a .txt file and save it. (And back it up.)
I suspect that rather than being totally dreary, this transcribing step can also be a creative step, and I will see patterns of thought, generate new ideas…
Because yet another notebook is just what I needed in my life (I think that makes 4 daily notebooks), I ordered one of Tamara Shopsin’s lovely 5 year diaries (added to my gear page):
I’ve been using mine not as an actual diary, but as a kind of commonplace book, writing a favorite quote I read or line I hear in it every day, like so:
I love books like The Daily Thoreau and Tolstoy’s A Calendar of Wisdom, so this idea (stolen from Dan Pink) instantly appealed to me.
I like flipping back through my entries and seeing if there are any threads or themes that run through the week:
I’m curious to see whether the quotes in the following years will speak to others on the same page, and what kind of juxtapositions will pop up. I could easily see this becoming my most treasured notebook. (You can get one here.)
Here’s what a year of my notebooks looks like. This year I needed them more than ever.
The big ones are my diaries, the medium-sized one is my logbook, and the little ones are my pocket notebooks. (Before 100 people email me: Here’s a list of all my favorite gear.)
Yes, I keep three notebooks. A notebook turducken.
I carry the pocket notebook around all day and scribble every dumb thought I have as the day progresses.
I write or draw 3+ pages every morning in the diary. (Here’s an example of what it looks like inside and why I keep one.)
I usually start a notebook with a guardian spirit.
I have a silly ritual of weighing my notebook before and after I use it.
When I can’t write or draw, I make collages.
I’ve been keeping a notebook for almost 25 years now. And yes, I do re-read them — they’re where many things in my books begin.
If you’re looking for a New Year’s Resolution, keeping a daily notebook is a pretty solid one. It can be hard to get started, so a few years ago, I made The Steal Like An Artist Journal to help. Start with just one page a day and go from there. You might be surprised where your notebook takes you.
Filed under: Notebooks. (h/t to Mo Willems for the idea)
“Of all the self-help tools I’ve tested through the years,” Oliver Burkeman (author of The Antidote) writes in his latest issue of The Imperfectionist, “one has proved more enduring than the rest: Morning Pages.”
Julia Cameron writes about morning pages in The Artist’s Way and her shorter spin-off, The Miracle of Morning Pages. She says:
Morning Pages are three pages of longhand, stream of consciousness writing, done first thing in the morning. *There is no wrong way to do Morning Pages*– they are not high art. They are not even “writing.” They are about anything and everything that crosses your mind– and they are for your eyes only. Morning Pages provoke, clarify, comfort, cajole, prioritize and synchronize the day at hand. Do not over-think Morning Pages: just put three pages of anything on the page…and then do three more pages tomorrow.
Schoolhouse Rock (and De La Soul) taught us: 3 is a Magic Number.
Somewhere in the ancient mystic trinity
You get three as a magic number
The past and the present and the future
The faith and hope and charity
The heart and the brain and the body
Give you three as a magic number
Is this some Hippie Shit? Yes. But, as Oliver notes, it is Hippie Shit that seems to work!
I do three pages minimum in my diary every morning. It’s not exactly freewriting, more old-fashioned diary, mixed with the occasional comics and diagrams.
My method is cribbed from The Sedaris Method: write things down all day in a pocket notebook, then wake up the next morning, fill out my logbook, and then write longhand about yesterday.
When I don’t know what to write about I answer “The Best Thing” prompt or draw until I feel like writing. (This morning I wrote about banana bread and palm trees.)
I often do some combination of mind-mapping or what Janet Burroway in Writing Fiction calls “clustering”: starting in the middle of a page, writing a word, putting a box or circle around it, then writing another word, etc., until I have a tree or web. (Maps are magic, too.)
I do this very slowly, and let one thing sort of lead into the other. It’s like emptying out the junk in your brain. The reason I sometimes prefer it to straight prose on notebook paper is that you can more easily see the connections between all the weird crap on your mind. (There’s a blank “mind map” in The Steal Like An Artist Journal.)
I recently found out that the director Harmony Korine does a deranged version of this kind of non-linear map-writing to come up with ideas for his films. Watch the video above (if you dare) to see it in action.
In David Byrne’s book of tree drawings, Arboretum, he writes that diagrams like these are “an eclectic blend” of:
…faux science, automatic writing, satire, and an attempt to find connections where none were thought to exist — a sort of self-therapy, allowing the hand to say what the voice cannot. Irrational logic, it’s sometimes called. The application of logical scientific rigor and form to basically irrational premises. To proceed, carefully and deliberately, from nonsense, with a straight face, often arriving at a new kind of sense. The world keeps opening up, unfolding, and just when we expect it to be closed — to be a sealed, sensible box — it shows us something completely surprising.
Emphasis mine. (See: “The value of nonsense.”)
“There’s a general attitude here that’s well worth cultivating,” Oliver writes, “a healthy scepticism toward the part of your brain that’s so enthusiastic about controlling how things unfold. You just do the pages, and something else does the rest.”
Here, I think, is something else valuable to be uncovered from the morning pages: just as you let go and let the pages unfold, in some small way, you’re also training yourself to let your day unfold. To, hopefully, be as improvisational and playful in filling your day as you were about filling your notebook.
First, a link to what kind of notebook, because otherwise, dozens of people will ask.
Then, the weighing in:
This is a silly ritual, but sometimes silly rituals are all we have.
Next, the selection of a guardian spirit to look over the notebook. I picked Durër’s Saint Jerome in his Study for this notebook, which is aiming a little high, but that’s what guardian spirits are for:
And that’s that. All you have to do now is fill it.
Here is a peek inside the second diary I’ve completed since we went into lockdown in March. It runs from May 2nd to July 2nd, exactly two months long. (That rarely happens!)
If you follow along with this blog, many of these pages will be familiar, but I think it’s interesting to see pieces in their original context. People often ask me of what use is my diary. If you follow the links I’ve included under many of the posts, you can see just how much of this blog comes directly from my daily diary work.
Here is a closer look at this collage, which I made to set the tone.
I spent a good part of spring obsessed with the blossoming of our cactus plants out back.
This collage was the real beginning of my house collages for Meg. The drawing was part of my series of 100 blind self-portraits.
I wrote more about Sam’s piece in the post, “Advice from a Caterpillar,” and here are more Humpty Dumpty collages.
Printmaking… with vegetables!
Every time we make a thing, it’s a tiny triumph.
Another house for Meg. (I made two dozen of these in this notebook.)
And yet another, with thoughts on how important keeping a diary is to me.
Usually I put guardian spirits in the front of my notebook, but this nun (who I gave sunglasses and cool hair) hung out in the back, maybe to egg me on.
Now it’s time to hold a weigh in and start a new notebook.
“All good things must begin.”
—Octavia Butler, journal entry
Here is the inside cover of one of Octavia E. Butler’s commonplace books, from around 1988. She wrote herself many of these motivational notes, which can found in her archives at The Huntington.
That encouragement was probably essential: Butler faced a lot of challenges. She grew up black and poor in Pasadena, Calif., when legal segregation was dead, but de facto segregation was very much alive… In several interviews Butler said she wrote because she had two choices: write, or die. “If I hadn’t written, I probably would have done something stupid that would have led to my death,” she said cheerfully.
Looking at Butler’s notes I was reminded of the notebooks of another fiction writer, James Salter, who wrote all his novels by hand, but would start his notebooks with advice to himself on the inside flap:
This flap, from his notebook for his 1967 novel A Sport and a Pastime, has advice from André Gide:
Write as if this were your only book, your last book. Into it put everything you were saving—everything precious, every scrap of capital, every penny as it were. Don’t be afraid of being left with nothing.
His notebook from Light Years has the same advice: “SAVE NOTHING.”
“As always, you try to put everything you have in a book,” he said. “That is, don’t save anything for the next one. (The book of his uncollected writings is titled, Don’t Save Anything.)
(These images are from his collection in the Ransom Center.)
I always take comfort in the fact that even the great writers needed to pump themselves up to get to work.
Even if you don’t believe it or feel it 100%, it can be of great help to write down the things you want to be true about your life and work. (If you believe otherwise, why write?)
“Creative work is very hard,” wrote Sidney Lumet, in Making Movies, “and some sort of self-deception is necessary simply in order to start.”
I did a double take yesterday when I came across these images of the student notebooks of 16-year-old Oliver Sacks. (See more of his notebooks from later in his life.) They reminded me so much of one of Lynda Barry’s composition book pages, like, for example, this one she posted yesterday:
It’s Lynda herself who’s primed my eye for these kind of connections. She’s taught me over the years what thinking on the page looks like, when the thought is making the line and the line is making the thought…
My eye was also primed by their shared fondness for cephalopods. (The squid on the right hangs in our bathroom — I look into its eyes every time I take a pee!)
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