Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The Indispensable Notebook

Martin Tupper has said, “A good book is the best of friends.” I might amend that quotation to say, “A good note-book is the best of friends” without altering the truth of the statement. If you are one of the many people who are enslaved to electronic devices and have never had the warmth and companionship of a true note-book that accompanied you nearly everywhere, enclosed your profoundest thoughts and your brightest sparks of genius, and grew so familiar that even with a worn cover (or perhaps no cover at all) it looked like an old friend—one doesn’t notice dilapidations in old acquaintances—you have yet to learn the appeal of a simple blank note-book.
My favourite section of any book-store remains the pen and note-book section. For quite awhile it has held an inestimable attraction for me; ever since I began writing, anyway. Although, writing aside, I’ve always loved note-books—especially when they are new and blank. Part of their magnetism is the staggering variety of note-books available. There are “memo” pads, “moleskins”, composition books, spiral-bound note-books, hard-cover, soft-cover, and paperback note-books, note-books with pictures or slogans on their covers, note-books that are held shut with a rubber band, note-books that lock with a key, note-books with ribbon place-markers, note-books with lined paper, graph paper, blank paper, coloured paper...
For all the millions of choices, there aren’t really that many characteristics necessary for a writer’s note-book. I myself prefer a simple leather-bound note-book, brown or black, with lined paper and a pocket to hold notes, newspaper clippings, and loose pages. Of course, the handiest is the pocket-sized kind, but I also like the thick tomes or multi-subject note-books with coloured-paper dividers. Your choice of note-book will probably vary with the type of note-book you intend to keep.
You may be surprised to learn how many uses there are for a simple note-book. Especially for the writer, a note-book performs a variety of useful functions. I list several in the hopes that fellow writers will be inspired in their note-book collecting.

*The Common-Place Book
In the nineteenth century, it was quite popular to keep a note-book of selected passages, either prose or poetry, called a common-place book. It not only displayed how well-read one was, but kept all his favourite quotations for future reference. I have kept a common-place book myself for several years and I now have a steadily burgeoning quotation collection gleaned from my favourite books. To go about it with the eye of a collector is a very good way to begin. I personally enjoy collecting things, especially anything that doesn’t cost me money. Magazine clippings, empty bottles, and business cards fall under that category, but quotations are the easiest to come by. Anyone’s collection generally begins to lean in favour of one or two authors—obviously the owner’s favourites. Judging by my book, my favourites are G. K. Chesterton and Winston Churchill. Not so long ago, quotations formed a great part of a person’s conversation, even when he wasn’t showing off his knowledge. If you read old books they will quite often quote lines in the story which everyone was familiar with when the book was written, but which few would recognise now. It is a useful and rewarding task to take down excerpts from one’s favourite books and review them often enough to be quite familiar with them. Your vocabulary will be broadened, your conversation enhanced, and your writing cannot fail to be benefited as well.

*The Reporter’s Note-Book
This is the kind with the binding at the top of the page that you hold in one hand with a pencil behind your ear and say, “Can we quote you on that, Mr. Vanderbilt?” Perhaps you have never practiced the interesting art of journalism. It is not only a way to earn a living, but excellent practice for more serious writing as well. If you are uncertain how to begin, take your note-book to the next social gathering and sit in clandestinely on someone else’s conversation. While maintaining an inconspicuous demeanour, write down whatever you hear, interesting or not. A rudimentary knowledge of shorthand would be helpful but is not necessary. Continue to do this every time you have an opportunity—waiting in line at the cash register while the person in front of you converses with the cashier, eavesdropping on one side of a telephone conversation, listening to the local wag tell one of his favourite stories, &c. I am a proponent of candid photography because when a person is caught unawares, he is not putting on a show and looks like his true self and not an uncomfortable statue. The same is true when you’re writing down someone’s conversation and I am unblushingly an advocate of eavesdropping (as long as it’s for a good cause, of course). As long as the person’s back is towards you and your note-book is under the table, your unconscious subject will communicate his true character (“Language most shows a man,” says Ben Jonson), but once the person finds out that you’re writing down everything he’s saying, he will shut up. This is an excellent study of character, and good practice in writing dialogue as well. Besides which, it teaches you to observe your surroundings, without which ability you will not progress far in your writing.

*The Portfolio
This is my own personal favourite for I have a great love of variety, especially when it is free from the confines of order. Here is where you may put anything and everything. Here you may put those splendid inspirations—for a story, or a character, or a plot, or simply a brilliant line for one of your characters to say—that are so full of promise that you must write them down for fear you’ll forget them. Here is where to keep writing tips you’ve found especially helpful. Here is a place for story out-lines, chapter titles, names for characters, and practice illustrations or sketches if you’re partial to drawing. Here you can practice your Greek or shorthand. Definitions, poetry, book lists, and secret codes fit here, as well as all those illustrious dedications, prefaces, forewords, and appendices that you hope to cumber your books with someday. Besides all this, it is an excellent place for keeping memorandums—such things as telephone numbers, recipes, jokes, and jobs your mother told you to do—where they will be kept handy and in material form, although finding them again in all the unorganised pages of miscellany is quite another matter, of course.

*The Journal
Journaling was once a very popular pastime. Such illustrious individuals as Columbus, George VI, and Goebbels kept journals but, sadly, it is a habit not commonly practiced today. This is regrettable for, besides its usefulness to historians, a journal can be a great help to a writer as well. Of course, it helps him to remember things that have happened and so provides him with material to write about, but also it gets him to write, practicing the delicate trick of converting his metaphysical thoughts into tangible form. Journaling is a discipline but, like all disciplines, it brings its reward.

*The Reference Book
A reference book is very much like a portfolio, but I list them separately because this type is generally more organised and to-the-point. It also holds very little of your own writings, mainly consisting of newspaper clippings, photographs, poems, songs, concert programs, railroad tickets, and other flat, paste-able memorabilia. A reference book is usually kept by artists to keep subject material, but there is no reason why a writer cannot keep one as well. Whenever you come across something that inspires you and gets your creative genius humming, cut it out (if possible) and put it in your reference book. If the item is associated with a particular project you’re writing, make a section of your note-book devoted to that project. When it is time to illustrate your book, or when you want to remember how a journalist begins a news article, or what the king wore in his coronation pictures, or if you merely want to be inspired, open up your reference book and enjoy a leisurely inspection.

*The Log Book
A log book is for keeping records of things—bank accounts, dreams, flying hours, books read, plants identified, or how many times you’ve taken out the garbage, to name only a few of the many possibilities. For a writer, it can be used to keep a log of how many hours he spends writing per week, or how many pages of a project he has completed in a month. It can be very easy, particularly when involved in an interesting project, to spend too much time writing and a log book can help you to manage your time wisely, spending a consistent amount of time each day on your writing. It can also be of help to you to see how much time it takes you to complete a certain quantity of work and to predict when a project will be completed. Admittedly, a log book is a discipline to keep, especially if you are not scientifically-minded, and it is not essential to a writer, but it is another useful type of note-book all the same, which is why I include it.

*The Story Note-Book
This type of note-book is specific to the writer of fiction. It is a collection of the various parts of a particular story he is writing, such as the plot, characters, setting, themes, etc. There is more than one way of keeping this type. You may choose to have a section of your note-book devoted to characters in which you collect names, character sketches, and relationships; a section for settings where you keep names of made-up places, historical events, or cultural references; a plot section where you compose basic outlines; and so on down the list. Or, you may prefer to organise your note-book into sections for each of your stories and keep all the different parts in one section. Although it takes a great deal of time to list everything about the story in this way, it can be very helpful to have it all set out in one place for reference when writing the story. Characters are so important that you may even wish to have a note-book full of criminal profiles, such as they have in the FBI, in which to keep pictures and descriptions of possible characters for your stories, or perhaps of a friend or two.

*The Composition Book
This is the note-book in which you draft stories, essays, or other writing projects. Although you may prefer to do the bulk of your writing on the computer (as I do myself), a nice, unpretentious note-book certainly comes in handy when you are travelling, or the power has gone out, or you are in bed and don’t feel like getting up. In the last instance, the night-stand is the best place for keeping your note-book, or the pocket of your bath-robe. It is certainly wise to keep your note-books and writing implements wherever you spend the most time. For this sort of writing, I find the multi-subject note-book especially useful because I can keep several different projects in one place, and as I am always working on at least three or four projects at once, this is a great help. If you are such a good writer that you are able to turn out a reasonably good piece without any revision, you may wish to write it down in a nice, hard-cover journal and keep it for posterity or present it to a friend. At any rate, I think this type the most indispensable of any note-book for the writer. Whether you prefer the computer—or perhaps a typewriter—or not, you ought always to have a back-up, and the pleasure of reading through an old note-book of this sort and coming across all your amateur and sometimes humorously poor works is ample compensation for your trouble.

* * *

Nothing will persuade me that a new, fresh, unspoilt note-book is not one of life’s great pleasures. There is something inviolable about the first page of a new note-book: somehow I can rarely bring myself to write on it. As long as that page is blank, it is a clean, brand-new note-book; but the minute I begin writing on it, it loses a thousand glorious possibilities and, as I think, begins to look rather messy. There are two different ways to deal with this problem: the first is to leave it blank and begin on the next page (this saves it for writing on when the rest of the book is full), and the second is to write only a dedication or a scrap of poetry on it, the latter being a preference of my own. There are quite a few quotations conducive to placement on the frontispiece of a note-book. For instance, a poem suited to a journalist’s note-book might be Robert Burns’s verse,

Hear, Land o’ Cakes and brither Scots,
Frae Maidenkirk to Johnny Groat’s,
If there’s a hole in a’ your coats,
I read ye tent it;
A chiel’s amang you takin’ notes,
An’ faith, he’ll prent it!

Equally suitable for either a journalist’s note-book or a portfolio, would be Juvenal’s lines,

Quidquid agunt homines, votum, timor, ira, voluptas,
Gaudia, discursus, nostri farrago libelli est.
All the doings of mankind, their wishes, fears, anger, pleasures,
Joys, and varied pursuits, form the motley subject of my book.

Or perhaps for a journal, Anna Wickham’s poem,

Oh God, no more Thy miracle withhold,
To us in tents give palaces of gold;
And while we stumble among things that are,
Give us the solace of a guiding star.

Or some equally sentimental motto one would wish to live by.
But however you choose to keep your note-book and whichever type (or types) you settle upon, I think it highly likely that you will end by being of my own opinion, that a note-book can very easily become one’s best friend.