Book Review: Writers and Their Notebooks

Don’t you love the cover of this book? How could that not make a notebook fan want to read it! It certainly sucked me in, and the publisher was kind enough to send me a review copy. (Which actually has a slightly different cover, with a much cooler old-school fountain pen instead of the purple one shown here!)

For Writers and Their Notebooks, Diana M. Raab asked a wide variety of writers to talk about how they use their notebooks and journals, whether it be to record things seen and overheard, or as a journal of daily life, or for drafts of fiction, non-fiction and poetry. As Philip Lopate says in the foreword to the book, “Freedom is a frequent theme in these pages. The freedom to try out things, to write clumsy sentences when no one is looking, to be unfair, immature, even to be stupid. No one can expect to write well who would not first take the risk of writing badly. The writer’s notebook is a safe place for such experiments to be undertaken.”

The book perhaps could have been titled “Writers and Their Journals,” as the contents are divided into the sections “The Journal as Tool,” “The Journal for Survival,” “The Journal for Travel,” “The Journal as Muse,” and “The Journal for Life.” Yet not all these writers keep journals in the usual sense of the word. Mark Pawlak talks about keeping a “poetic journal,” containing observations, place names, and words and phrases founds on signs and regional newspapers, among other things. He sees the poetic journal as analogous to an artist’s sketchbook, but rather than being merely a piece of preparation for a finished work, he sees the journal as “a literary genre, distinct from the journal as workbook.”

Interestingly, many of the female writers in this book mention that their journaling habit started when they were kids, with the typical lock-and-key pink diary given to little girls or other types of notebooks where they wrote all their secret thoughts. This is always dismissed as not being “serious” and the writers move on to other sorts of writing that seems more “real.” Why do male writers never seem to recount these sorts of early experiences? Written introspection just isn’t as encouraged for boys, for some reason, but what happens in the meantime to turn so many young men into writers?

Aside from recollections and advice about the habits of writers using notebooks, many of the contributors describe their favorite tools. Not surprisingly, many have strong preferences for certain types of notebooks and pens, and rituals for storing them:

Ilan Stevens: “They are usually Mead Composition books, 100 sheets or 200 pages, 9 3/4-by-7 1/2 inch / 24.7-by-9.0 cm, wide ruled…. Whenever a Mead Composition book is complete, I store it away in a special place…. I make sure to date the first page….”

Katherine Towler: “My journal notebooks are lined up on a shelf in a corner of my office, under the edge of my desk. There are more than fifty notebooks of all shapes and sizes collected over the years.”

Kathryn Wilkens: “…I bought another hardbound journal, which measures 12 1/4 by 7 1/4 inches and has the word Record written on the cover. Many journalers prefer to write in spiral notebooks, but I like the permanence of a bound book. A notebook would make it too tempting to rip out a page after making an error.”

Lori Van Pelt: “I use a simple spiral-bound, college-lined notebook, writing whatever comes to mind…. My pens vary, although my hand feels most comfortable with a felt-tip or gel-ink pen. Sometimes I sharpen a pencil or two and scribble away.”

Kyoko Mori: “An ideal notebook for a journal is a “blank book” with a pretty cover: marbled paper, art-deco designs, stenciled stars or flowers. A blank book is smaller than the speckled composition book and easier to carry around.”

However, the writing tools considered as “journals” in the book aren’t solely paper-based. Tony Trigilio talks about using a blog as a form of journaling and experimentation and rehearsal. Sue Grafton’s “journal” that she keeps for each of her novels is a “a document on my word processor that I call “Notes” or “Notes-1.” And Michael Steinberg says “As a rule, I’m not the kind of writer who records his thoughts or expresses his feelings in a journal. Only infrequently do I use a notebook to explore ideas for future writings. Usually, when a thought comes to me, I scribble notes on random scraps of paper or Post-its.” (But he has kept journals while traveling.)

There are so many different perspectives in this book, I think there is something for any writer or notebook-keeper to enjoy and be inspired by. There is also an appendix with some exercises designed to help spark creativity in your journaling, and a list of suggested further reading. My only regret is that there are no photographs of all these writers’ notebooks!

8 thoughts on “Book Review: Writers and Their Notebooks”

  1. Damn, you made me buy that right on the spot! I don’t usually do that.
    Great review, I’m looking foreward to receiving my copy …

  2. I actually received this is a Christmas gift this year, and I really enjoy the cover image and the texture of the outer cover (kind of like a smooth rubber). I like some contributions by the various authors more than others, but it is fun to read about all of the different ways these authors reflect on what notebooks mean to them and to learn of the different ways people choose to interact with their notebooks. At any rate, I think this is a good read for anyone who loves writing, journaling, and notebooks.

  3. Nifty,
    I was so glad to see such a thorough review of this book, which was on my Christmas wish list which I purchased in January. I haven’t read it yet, so this review was very helpful and informative. :) I like the way they divided it into sections; sounds very well organized. Perhaps this review will give folks the incentive to keep a journal of their own in whatever way works for them.

    I have chosen your post, Book Review: Writers and Their Notebooks, for the #JournalChat Pick of the Day for 2/23/11 for all things journaling on Twitter. I will post a link on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and my blog, Refresh with Dawn Herring.

    You’re welcome to follow my @JournalChat account for all things journaling on Twitter.

    Thanks again for such a thorough and informed review of Writer’s and Their Notebooks.

    Be refreshed,
    Dawn Herring
    JournalWriter Freelance
    @JournalChat on Twitter for all things journaling

  4. Got it, read it, will re-read soon.

    Love it.

    Instead of a translation into German a genuinely German version (featuring German / Austrian authors) would be nice. I’d love that, too.

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