I received an email this morning with the subject line: “Austin, you’re invited to re-live the mid-90s.” In 1996 I was 13, living in the middle of a cornfield in Ohio, and my parents were getting a divorce, so as crummy as everything is now, HARD PASS. (Above: my middle school notebook, circa ’96.)
My notebook vs. my father-in-law’s, left out on the kitchen table.
Seeing the two side-by-side reminded me of a few months ago when I was visiting my dad and he pulled out a logbook — I had no idea he kept a notebook:
One thing I love about working on paper is that you literally end up with these gigantic piles of your effort. (Evidence of your days.) At some point, I started collecting photos of other people’s paper output.
It strikes me how much these paper stacks look like buildings or skyscrapers… paper monuments to human effort…
The art of contextomy: you cut some words off a pizza box, tape them to the cover of your diary, and they become an imperative. A commandment!
Speaking of diaries, the 5-year-old’s diary is becoming way cooler than mine:
A follower on Instagram asked me how they should get their kid to keep a diary. I think in most situations, the most important thing is to model for your kids what you’d like them to do, first. Owen sees me cutting things up and glueing them into my diary every morning, and he always wants to look at my notebook, so one day I (as casually as possible) asked him if he’d like his own special notebook to keep a diary in. That’s how he got started. So: model, see if there’s interest, and then offer up the time, space, and materials.
More inspiration came this morning, courtesy of my 5-year-old’s diary. (Everything on that page after the words “as usual” is invented.)
See also: Diary of a 5-year-old.
I was searching for some earbuds and found this notebook in my walking fleece that I haven’t used for months now, sadly, as we have entered the hell season in Texas.
It was my “scratch” notebook, the one I carry around all day, scribbling notes that I then either copy into my logbook or my diary, so it wasn’t that great of a catastrophe.
One interesting thing: I used two different pens and a pencil for these notes, and the water washed out all the felt-tip Flair pen (I didn’t realize they use water-based ink!), but the Pilot G2 ink and the Blackwing pencil remained mostly intact. So now I have this weird object in which some things are erased, some things survive.
Usually with notebooks what survives is the quality of the idea — in this case, it was about the quality of writing tool!
One of my favorite little Twitter bots is @year_progress, which tweets every 3.65 days when 1% of the year goes by:
I have my own analog version on the edges of my page-a-day logbook. One of the first things I do at the beginning of the year is make a little index system for the months. I like having another visual of how the year is progressing. (Here’s the notebook I use, and a similar index system.)
See also: How much of the year is left?
I posted this image on Instagram, quickly, mindlessly, simply because the stack caught my eye as I passed the kitchen table and I thought it was a pleasing image. (A commenter cleverly titled it “Notebook Turducken.”)
This morning I looked and it had several thousand hearts and dozens of comments, many of them questions about my process and what brand of notebook I use. I’ve written about this subject several times, but, as Andre Gide said, nobody was listening, so I guess I’ll say it again. Questions all from Instagram commenters:
What brand of notebook do you use?
Who the hell cares? Just kidding. The top two notebooks are Moleskines, an extra-small pocket one, and a daily planner . The bottom notebook, the one I use as my diary and sketchbook, is a brand I cannot recommend because they’re unreliable and I’ve had several fall apart on me, but I bought them in bulk, so I use them. The closest thing I could recommend is a flexible Miquelrius . Here’s a storefront with all the stuff I use.
How do you use them differently and how are they linked together? Do you migrate entries from one to the other?
I carry the pocket notebook all day, scribble stuff in it, take notes. It’s basically a scratch pad. Then, every morning after breakfast, I open up the pocket notebook, check my notes, then I fill out my logbook, which is sort of like an index of my days and a memory refresher. Then, I write and draw 3-10 pages in my diary, based on my notes and my log. I cross off things in my pocket notebook after I write about them. The diary then becomes a place I go to when I need new writing and blog posts. It might sound like a lot of work, but using this method I am never lost for something to write about. Also, my job is to write, so, there you have it. (By the way, I stole most of this method off David Sedaris.)
You need a bullet journal so you can combine everything into one.
Oh my lord shut up about bullet journaling already!
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.
Back in January, I decided that my new notebook needed a guardian spirit to watch over things. Emily Dickinson seemed right.
I felt like Emily D kept a good watch, so when I finished that notebook, I decided to continue the practice. I burned through 8 notebooks this year, so I had to pick 8 spirits…
For the next notebook, the collage artist Hannah Höch.
Then, since summer is a hateful season to me, I went with H.W. and Daniel Plainview from There Will Be Blood.
George Strait’s hat, swiped, again, from The New Yorker.
Walt Whitman, with my 2-year-old’s scribbles over his face.
A drawing of a robot by my 4-year-old.
Finally, for my last notebook of the year, here’s Jack Lemmon from The Apartment.