Writing notes

by Steve

Old Notebook Paper

I was catching up on my Instapaper reading this morning, working my way through articles I’ve chanced across on the internet and decided to ‘Read Later’. I know I’ve spoken of Instapaper before, but I think it is such a great tool for making the most of longer-form articles on the web. I kind of see it as an attempt to make my internet (where I’ll save it) and mobile phone (where I’ll read it) activity just a little more nourishing and worthwhile. Or to feel a little less like I waste my life staring at daft stuff.

Twitter and games and general brainless surfing certainly have their place, but they are quite clearly a time-drain. I’m all for unwinding and switching off from time to time, but I’m not sure any of the above makes me feel truly refreshed, or invigorated, or bettered.

So, reading Proper Actual Writing through Instapaper is a great way of reading quality content, for free and at often in those dead moments when there isn’t a whole lot else you can do (beyond the aforementioned brainless stuff), such as my commute this morning.

Anyway, I don’t do that enough, so I’m generally behind in my Instapaper reading (and as a pile of unread books attests, in my paper reading too). So, I read a fascinating and/or entertaining article, think “I’ll have to share that!” then realise it is a couple of months old and it probably isn’t worth it.

Well, I’m not going to let that reservation stop me today, as it’s my blog and I’ll share old links if I want to. So, as a bit of a stationery fiend, I really enjoyed Take Care of Your Little Notebook by Charles Simic on the New York Review Blog.

I agreed with plenty of the sentiments expressed in the piece. I think they are a wonderful tool and a wonderful record of our lives. I love notebooks and have far too many of them. I can’t enough of the Moleskine books. I yearn for those cool Field Notes books, if only I could find someone who stocked them. I think those orange Rhoda books are just plain lovely.

Perhaps because my job is so computer focused using a notebook feels like a real treat and a really nice departure. It doesn’t feel like work.

However, saying that, I loved notebooks long before I ever had a computer. I was happiest as a kid with a pad and pen, writing away. And I’ve always coveted the good stuff. I remember buying a glossy Disney exercise book on a day trip to France, when I was about 9 or 10 or so. It had fancy, complicated grids inside rather than standard lines. It looked and felt beautiful. I couldn’t bring myself to write in it!

And perhaps such a fetishisation of stationery means I subconsciously divide up my notebooks; those that are workmanlike and to be written in, and those that are so lovely that I’m paralysed into not writing, because I don’t want to waste the book, or spoil it, and think it should serve some kind of perfect purpose it’ll never fulfil.

Yes, I’m a bit sad.

But for all that notebook idolisation, I’m not sure if I agree with this comment from Simic:

If one has the urge to write down a complete thought, a handsome notebook gives it more class. Even a scrap of paper and a stub of a pencil are more preferable for philosophizing than typing the same words down, since writing a word out, letter by letter, is a more self-conscious process and one more likely to inspire further revisions and elaborations of that thought.

I think my Nice Notebook Paralysis can make me, if anything, too self-conscious with my writing, so nothing actually comes out. There is an underlying feeling that as writing longhand is essentially permanent, what is written should be worthy. Perhaps this is a good writing habit to have, but I think it is a little stifling, even in on the rare occasion I have a ‘complete thought’.

When I type on a computer I scan feel a lot more freedom. I just throw a load of words down and then see what happens. Obviously, sometimes it is rubbish. That is where some degree of editing comes in (although I fear not enough in this particular post). But at least by getting something down there is something to work with – generally something reasonable can be carved out. Or I may find I’ve headed in a completely different direction, or come to an unexpected conclusion.

This might not be the most elegant, or precise, or meaningful way of writing I know, but the results aren’t necessarily awful. I can still elaborate. I can still revise. And it can conjure up the odd nice surprise here and there.

I guess if I wanted to write more carefully, I would go for a notebook first. If nothing else, typing it up would force another editing stage into the process in order to hone and improve. But if I’m looking to write a piece with an immediacy and looseness and space, I’ll probably stick with my computer. I’ll often think through a piece of writing for ages before actually composing anything tangible anyway – so a stream of un-self-conscious typing is a welcome addition to the process.

It won’t stop me eyeing up lovely notebooks, though.

Image from Grunge Textures