Sunday, February 19, 2006

Returning to My Notebook

In Raw Spirit: In Search of the Perfect Dram, Iain Banks adds an extra layer to the narrative by not just writing about his pilgrimage to distilleries all across Scotland, but also writing about writing about his pilgrimage. At the outset he notes that Raw Spirit is his first non-fiction book, and at intervals throughout the text he shares with the reader the process of putting the book together.

Here’s an excerpt from an aside on note taking:

Taking notes; this is not like me. I usually just remember stuff, or very occasionally jot briefly in my diary if I happen to have it on me, or scribble something in the margin of my telephone list or CD list. Long ago in my wallet I used to carry a tiny notebook which I’d made myself; it was smaller than some stamps I’ve seen -- I can write very small -- but that was back when I was about twenty or so and having loads of ideas all the time; now I’m officially a boring old bastard of nearly 50 I don’t have the same number of ideas these days and so have no pressing need to have a notebook always to hand (mind you, quality not quantity; a lot of those so-called ideas back then were just god-awful puns).

At present I fall somewhere in between Banks’s two poles, both in age and in note-taking practices.

I used to carry a notebook with me everywhere. I eased into it with the diaries that I kept intermittently beginning around the age of ten. These were small books with glossy covers and the words “My Diary” embossed on them in gold, curlicued letters. There were only a few lines allotted for each day’s entry which I invariably found to be either too much or not enough. I graduated to small, hardbound volumes with blank pages, but despite the increased freedom these afforded for skipping days or elaborating on particularly significant ones, I hadn’t yet moved from keeping a diary to keeping a notebook.

That shift occurred in my teens when I traded in those neat volumes for cheap, spiral-bound notebooks. I’d read somewhere that opting for cheap notebooks was a good way of banishing one’s inner censor. It worked. Writing in a book with pages that could easily be torn out and thrown away liberated me to write down whatever came into my head without regard for propriety or narrative coherence. It liberated me to write the crap that I had to write through to get to the good stuff. I’d still sometimes begin as if composing a diary entry, but then spin off into fiction. In retrospect, I think that this is how I learned to write fiction. It was an epiphany for me when I first recognized that I didn’t have to make it all up, that grounding my stories in real details gave them the sense of reality that I was striving to evoke.

Eventually I gravitated back to the hardbound books, this time in a larger size. They no longer have an intimidating aura of permanence for me. I like the heft of them and I find the wide, blank pages inviting. I choose ones with covers that inspire me: reproductions of paintings that I like, or simply colours, patterns, and textures that please me. Sometimes when I’m experiencing a block, a new notebook provides a fresh start and gets me rolling again. It’s a psychological game but it works. Once filled, these notebooks are eclectic compendiums of thoughts, ideas, lists, quotations, research notes, and partial first drafts, with the odd newspaper clipping or photograph stuck between the pages. They’re the raw material that I work from.

But last year, rather abruptly, I stopped carrying a notebook with me. It’s partly because the deadline for my short story manuscript was then looming and my focus was on doing final revisions on the computer rather than capturing wisps of ideas for future projects. I think that starting this blog also had something to do with it. Notes about what I’m reading and thinking that I once jotted down in my notebook now frequently go directly into the computer as fodder for blog posts.

I still live in fear of losing good ideas. But I walk everywhere and I got tired of lugging a heavy notebook around. I could have just substituted a smaller notebook, but instead I made the switch to index cards. I thought that they would do just as well. Indeed, I thought that they might do better. Rather than cramming all sorts of disparate things into a single notebook, I could use a fresh index card for each new idea and organize them into coherent bundles later.

Reflecting on it now, I’m sure that I was wrong. The index cards work beautifully for notes relating to discrete undertakings like book reviews and blog posts. But I miss my notebooks. Looking back over some of them, I see that one of the most interesting things about them is the way that apparently disparate ideas weave together over time in their pages. Sometimes it’s the odd juxtapositions that provide a spark for a story rather than the individual blocks of content. At best, my stacks of index cards are only a pale reflection of the depth and the chaos and the weirdness of my notebooks.

So I’m going back to carrying a notebook. The only question is whether I should pick up where I left off with the last one (a big book with a leather cover in a lovely shade of green) and see where that takes me, or make a fresh start with a new notebook. Perhaps a moleskine with a discrete black cover, unlined pages, and one of those accordion envelopes in the back where I can tuck away the index cards that I will continue to use to jot down ideas for book reviews and blog posts...

1 comment:

Booklad said...

What a lovely post, Kate. The quote from Banks is excellent. He's one of my favorite authors and I'm ordering "Raw" today. I happen to be one of those "boring old bastards" of 50 and had to chuckle at the phrase. No more whiskey for me, but I live vicariously.

Your ruminations about notes and notebooks got me to thinking that I do something of the same even though I'm not really a writer. Lisa Morton, my partner, is the professional. But I've always enjoyed putting things together on paper and have a collection that spans decades. Aesthetics were always part of the note-taking process. I laugh at the several years worth of odd, red blank books I got in chinatown.

I think I'll take up the theme in my blog this week. There are some authors notebooks that I think are worth mentioning. Kurt Cobain, Athol Fugard and Camus come to mind. I think I'll do some research at the bookstore as well. Oh, well..I'm wandering here. Thanks for the excellent blog!