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WHAT IS A WRITE'S NOTEBOOK, ANYWAY?
Once, when I was a boy, a telephone repair truck pulled up in front of our house and two workers got out. They had come to lay a telephone cable. My brothers and sisters and I watched them work hard for almost three hours digging a long narrow ditch in our back yard. Finally, when it was starting to get dark, they left the ditch and went home, promising to return and finish the job the next morning.
Early the following morning I went outside and looked into that empty ditch. But it wasn't empty at all. I was amazed to find all sorts of small animals caught in there: four toads, two frogs, even a small box turtle. They must have wandered into the ditch, gotten stuck there and been unable to climb back out. I let all the animals go. The two workers returned, finished laying the telephone cable, and covered up the ditch.
That got me thinking. The next day I decided to dig my own ditch. I dug it at the edge of the woods (I didn't think Dad would have appreciated seeing another ditch in our lawn) and made it about a foot wide, ten feet long, and eight inches deep. Next morning I hurried outside and discovered that-yes!-the same thing had happened. A number of small creatures had been caught in there.
A writer's notebook is like that ditch-an empty space you dig in your busy life, a space that will fill up with all sorts of fascinating little creatures. If you dig it, they will come. You'll be amazed by what you catch there.
Writing is what I do for my job. I've written books for adults and books for young readers. I've published a novel, several books of poetry, short stories, and books for teachers onhow to teach writing. In this book I want to explore with you the most important tool I use: my writer's notebook. Keeping a writer's notebook is one of the best ways I know of living a writing kind of life.
What is a writer's notebook, anyway? Let's start by talking about what it's not. A writer's notebook is not a diary: "Today it is raining. We have a substitute teacher named Miss Pampanella. She seems very nice. We are going to have gym right before lunch." It's not a reading journal in which your teacher tells you to summarize the main idea of a book, or write a letter to a character. A writer's notebook is different from any journal you've ever kept before.
Writers are pretty ordinary people. They have favorite songs, favorite movies, favorite TV shows. Writers have Evil Big Sisters (and, occasionally, sweet ones). They get good or not so good grades, take vacations, paint their houses ...
Writers are like other people, except for at least one important difference. Other people have daily thoughts and feelings, notice this sky or that smell, but they don't do much about it. All those thoughts, feelings, sensations, and opinions pass through them like the air they breathe.
Not writers. Writers react. And writers need a place to record those reactions.
That's what a writer's notebook is for. It gives you a place to write down what makes you angry or sad or amazed, to write down what you noticed and don't want to forget, to record exactly what your grandmother whispered in your ear before she said goodbye for the last time.
A writer's notebook gives you a place to live like a writer, not just in school during writing time, but wherever you are, at any time of day.
A few years ago I was walking in Wheeling, Illinois, and I saw a rainbow so enormous it seemed to stretch from one horizon to the other. But there was something wrong with it-the topmost arch was missing. I came back to my hotel room, took out my notebook, and wrote:
The skies are so huge in the midwest! They just don't make skies like this back east. Today I saw a rainbow, beautiful and damaged, the top part washed away, gone. Never seen anything like it. Wonder what makes that happen. Had the winds swept away the highest clouds?
Months later I began writing a series of love poems. I reread my notebook and found that entry. The words-a rainbow, beautiful and damaged-seemed to jump off the page. I used that phrase like a piece of flint to spark this sad poem I wrote:
First FlightAll the way home
I tried to forget
how your lip twitched
how your face flinched
I walked alone
under a huge rainbow
beautiful and damaged
upper arch worn away
just two broken pieces
dangling from the sky
What does a writer's notebook look like? There's really no right answer for this except that your writer's notebook should reflect your personality. Some writers prefer a pad small enough to stick in a back pocket. Others have beautiful notebooks with wildflowers on their covers, and others with plain brown covers. My wife's notebook has unlined pages because she likes to sketch in it, as well as write. My notebook is really supposed to be a business ledger, with lined, numbered pages. It has a hard cover and a very sturdy binding, which is good because I drag it with me wherever I go and it gets banged up a lot.
A notebook doesn't even have to be made from paper, really. Often I work on my "notebook computer" while I'm flying from one city to the next. But a notebook doesn't have to be expensive or fancy-a plain notebook from the stationery store will do just fine.
I hope you'll get yourself some kind of notebook and begin to write in it on a ...