#5: On Notebooks And Notebooking

Note for new subscribers: this letter comes to you twice a week. Tuesday’s note is longer, Thursday’s note is short. The notebook discussion started last week with a look at Harriet The Spy.

Hi hi!

For the past five weeks I’ve been getting up early to write in a notebook first thing in the morning for a half-hour. Yesterday morning it was not so much early, as early-ish. This weekend, spring reached the point that marks my annual transformation into the Joe Pesci character in My Cousin Vinny who can’t sleep because of all the nature sounds outside his window. Daffodils are out here, so are some magnolias, and the birds are amped – they start up before there’s even any light outside, lots of trilling and cawing and strange excited gabbling tiny-dinosaur noises. (What follows is a transcript of one of the louder crows. I think I got it all down: “Cawwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwww.”) This year the bird surge™ coincided with Daylight Saving so, once up, I also was in full swing as a time truther: “It is not 7:15 a.m. IT IS REALLY 6:15!!” Repeat throughout the day. (I should be over it by next week.) So the scene in full: Outside, birds and dark grey morning light; inside, an indignant Joe Pesci clutching a notebook and a cup of coffee.

The Ghost In The Notebook

The bout of daily notebooking started because of an essay by Meaghan O’Connell about her experience with Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, a self-help book first published in 1992. The book outlines a 12-week program designed to help people who are creatively blocked. After reading O’Connell’s piece I checked it out of the library; I’m now on week 6, and it’s been helpful and great (“A+ would self-help again”). When I started, I didn’t feel especially blocked—my book‘s been ticking along lately—I just wanted a system to follow as I got Black Cardigan Edit started, to make sure that I didn’t lose focus. In the past the book’s been like a houseplant I have that goes into a full, dramatic plant swoon whenever you forget to water it. The book is farther along now and less swoon-y, but The Artist’s Way still seemed like a good back-up system to make sure I kept working/ watering/ going.

What Harriet The Spy Knew

In her essay, O’Connell notes that the parts of Cameron’s program she found most helpful were the Morning Pages and the Artist’s Dates. I’m having a similar experience. I think of the Morning Pages as ‘notebooking’ because that’s pleasantly Harriet The Spy-ish. You’re supposed to do it every day. Twenty to thirty minutes, or three pages or so. Whatever you’re thinking; no judgment; no circling back. Before this, I mostly used my notebook for the usual reasons: as a place to journal when more than usually saturated with morbid ruminations; at the New Year when bursting with Sylvia Plath levels of resolution; or as a back-up place to longhand out a tricky section of writing when I was getting nowhere in a Word file. There might be a flurry of entries in a week, then nothing for a few months, then another flurry of entries. I’ve been taken aback by how useful it’s been to go from that occasional flurrying to deliberate daily notebooking. Main benefit thus far: I’ve been slipping into the day’s work-writing much more quickly.

What Freud Knew

On a surface level, a notebook is a nice place to warm up, the writing equivalent of practicing scales or doing barre. After a bit of the daily routine (and this really didn’t take long), it started to feel both odder and better—like a weird mélange of meditation and talk therapy. Strange stuff started bubbling up! So I was struck when I came across a bit in Janet Malcolm’s book Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession a few weeks ago describing the advancement in Freud’s method that came when he began inviting his patients to free associate during sessions. Explaining the mechanism by which he thought the process worked, Freud cited a letter written by the poet Schiller. The letter was written, in 1788, by Schiller to a friend who—as Malcolm puts it—”had complained of meager literary production” (emphasis at the close is mine, not Schiller’s or Freud’s):

The ground for your complaint seems to me to lie in the constraint imposed by your reason upon your imagination. I will make my idea more concrete by a simile. It seems a bad thing and detrimental to the creative work of the mind if Reason makes too close an examination of the ideas as they come pouring in—at the very gateway, as it were. Looked at in isolation, a thought may seem very trivial or very fantastic; but it may be made important by another thought that comes after it, and, in conjunction with other thoughts that may seem equally absurd, it may turn out to form a most effective link. … You complain of your unfruitfulness because you reject too soon and discriminate too severely.

One way then that notebooking works is by keeping you from rejecting too soon and discriminating too severely. This is why books like The Artist’s Way and Writing Down The Bones so frequently suggest a version of the practice: It’s 100% good advice. You keep the pen and the thoughts moving, and soon you’re out of the weeds and jetsam and swimming in a clear channel again. Or borrowing Schiller’s imagery, you stop halting yourself while you’re still at the gate.

Advice For The Stuck And Anxious About It

All of which is to say: If you don’t have a notebook, or your old one feels funked with bad spirits, maybe get a new one this week! A new notebook is like clean sheets on the bed—it’s glorious. There is nothing wrong you can do with the new notebook except to not write in it. I’d urge you to go in right away, the same day you buy it. The notebook was not meant to stay shiny and new. It was meant to be ruined and filled with dumb shit. (“Just like you and I,” she hissed.) Go on, get it over with.

If you’d like to do daily notebooking too, I’d recommend choosing either first thing in the morning or at night before bed. The Artist’s Way suggests mornings, but I suspect the time of day is less important than picking one you can stick to daily and when you won’t have distractions flying around. It does not matter if what you write is flabby, mopey, poisonous, or banal. I repeat: It does not matter. The notebook is for you alone. Try to keep your attention on the page; try not to censor or politely veneer. I swear, if you keep this up, you will begin to feel less mopey, banal, and/or poisonous as you go. You will find better sentences available to you.

Your literary production will become less meager.

Until Thursday,
yours in the pay of the National Notebook Association,

Carrie Frye
Black Cardigan Edit