Writing Notebooks and When Daddy Died

Of all the tools I have as a writer, one of the most important is my notebook. And a pen, of course. I try not to write in blood. It’s messy and the police tend to look down on it. Handcuffs chafe. Even the bling kind.

But, honestly, all good writing is messy and bloody. That’s because good writing gets at essential truths. To get at those truths you have to dig. You have to work on your craft, and then do it some more.

When we talk about craft, we often talk about how to show and not tell, how to be sparing with the adverbs, how not to write “he felt,” “she saw,” and so on, and how to have gorgeous details and a plot with forward motion.

That’s all important.

But what is it that a writer can do to make her/his work really sing? What is it that makes her/his book different from all the other books about forbidden vampire love or struggling with an overbearing evil nemesis who is the head cheerleader?

It’s about the willingness to get messy.

It’s about finding the tools that allow you to delve into the messy area where you allow yourself to wonder: What is it to be human? What is it to have a story? What is it to be alive?

Those essential questions are the ones that make a really good story resonate. in your heart or mind.

They are the questions that bore into the work of Rita Williams-Garcia or a Sharon Darrow. They are the questions that make a writer a truth teller.

 And how do you get to those questions?

 One way is to have a notebook.

In her essay “On Keeping a Notebook”  (from The Writer’s Presence), Joan Didion writes about her own notebook writing, 

“It is a good idea, then to keep in touch, and I suppose that keeping in touch is what notebooks are all about. And we are all on our own when it comes to keeping those lines open to ourselves: your notebook will never help me, nor mine you.”

Didion

In my Judy Blume Diary, my first real notebook, there was an entry page at the end of each month. It listed things.

Favorite Book:

Best Thing that Happened:

Worst Thing that Happened:

At the end of June, I wrote under Worst Thing that Happened: 

Daddy died.

 
Those two words bring me back to trying to revive my stepdad who was collapsed on the white carpet of my Aunt Shirley’s Massachusetts living room. Those two words make my own chest tighten. Sirens get closer. People yell, “Carrie, back off. Get away.”

My mother screams and screams and runs to the other room, a panicked bird who has slammed into a glass picture window and she can’t understand why or what it is that is hurting her.

Daddy died

But those two words don’t bring those images to you. My notebook is not your notebook. Your notebook is not mine, but our notebooks are places where we as writers, as crafters of stories, can go back and remember. We can use these tools over and over again to recreate truth in form of story.

It’s a powerful tool… messy, yeah… but powerful. Kind of like life, right?

Elizabeth Berg wrote

When you are first starting to write, you don’t need to buy a whole lot of things. What you need most is a fierce desire to put things down on paper; and you need a certain sensibility, a way of seeing and feeling. These things cost nothing, and like many things that are free, are worth a lot – worth everything, in fact.”

Berg

Even if you haven’t just started to write, the desire, the sensibility, the notebook needs to be there. You have to be willing to turn the page, write down the words, delve deep, and get messy. Know your emotions. Know your characters’ emotions and put them on the page.

The notebook is a perfect tool for that. It might be a Judy Blume Diary, a spiral pad, a yellow binder, or post-it notes. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that it’s yours. It’s your place keeper so that you can remember the things that you can use later, messy or not.

Resources

The Writer’s Presence: A Pool of Readings. Ed. McQueade Donald and Atwan, Robert. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2003.
Escaping Into the Open: the Art of Writing True.
Berg, Elizabeth. New York: Perennial, 1999.


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