Thursday, 29 July 2010

Notebooks are our friends

I have a lot of notebooks. Every birthday and Christmas it's the default gift that people give me. They're usually quite posh leather affairs with pre-worn covers sealed with magnetic clasps and filled with creamy premium bond paper. I receive each one with genuine delight, I marvel at the workmanship, I am properly touched by the sentiment, and I place the blank book on a shelf where it remains with its fellow blanks that remain so ever after.

The problem isn't that I don't like those gift notebooks. I do, very much so. In fact, I like them so much that I can't bring myself to write in them. The sort of people who give me notebooks don't realise that writing is a very messy business full of scribbles and doodles and weird lists that end up not meaning anything. The sort of notebooks filled with neat copperplate or crammed with all sorts of manly observations written in a bold fist interspersed with elaborate diagrams only exist in the movies or in bookshops on the remainder tables under ridiculous titles like "The Lost Journals of Dr Frankenstein".

A notebook of mine would be called "Scribblings of a nut case who must be living rough somewhere". Anyone opening my notebook wouldn't read "Today was the day when all of my apprehensions about the world came to fruition" They're more likely to find "Dust off green car" followed by "mortars", a crude picture of a duck, and a shopping list.

You might think from all of this that I don't care for notebooks. On the contrary. I'm rarely without one and "rarely" is only employed because I haven't yet figured out how to use one in the shower. Leaving Chez Szondy is a time-old ritual that involves slipping my phone in one pocket and my notebook in the other.

That's because a notebook is the most valuable tool that a writer has. It's a memory dump for every odd fact, fleeting thought, turn of phrase, observation, and idea that I come across in the course of the day. It's the reason why I always have something to do in odd moments and why I get honked at a lot at traffic lights. A notebook is my recorder of facts and the testing ground for ideas and bits of immature prose.

But you might think that you don't need a notebook because you have a good memory. Maybe, but the sort of things that go into a notebook are often so fleeting that you might not realise that it was worth remembering until you've already forgotten it. I know because I often forget something because I didn't get a chance to write it down and I'm cross for hours afterward. Indeed, the act of writing something down allows me to focus on an idea, bring it out in detail, and remember it well enough that I don't even need to read the note later.

Writing notes also helps to organise thoughts. Scenes that looked so perfect in the mind's eye come off half-backed and full of holes when put down on paper for the first time. I find it more productive to thrash out ideas in my notes first rather than stare at the screen and wondering why my keyboard isn't clicking away.


The important thing about a notebook is that it's portable. I always have it with me, so I can always write something down. It may be something important, like a record of an interview I'm conducting; it might be something absurd, like an observation on the shape of the barman's nose; or it might be something vital, like a well-caught simile. The notebook as intellectual catchall.

Choosing a notebook

What sort of notebook to use is a matter of circumstance and intellectual preference. Some people with pots of cash and a penchant for gadgets might favour ipads, netbooks, and other sorts of electronic jiggery pokery. They have their advantages, but I can't really see hauling one along to the dog park on a wet January morning. At the other end of the spectrum are cheap, pocket-sized spiral notebooks that you can pick up at the supermarket. Portable they are and cheap they are, but they fall apart something awful in the pocket.

For my part, I prefer to spend a couple of quid on Moleskines. They're well-bound, have rounded corners, a built-in page marker, and a little elastic strap to keep the covers closed tight. They even have a little pocket in the back for holding business cards and the like. Moleskine has even expanded into specialised notebooks, so, for example, if I'm storyboarding a screenplay I can get a book with the frames already sketched out. They even have thin, softcover books that can be slipped into a trouser pocket, though I find that they soon become so crumpled and bent that it's impossible to write in them.

Notes without a notebook

This brings up the biggest problem of the notebook, which is how to keep it with you when you need it. In the normal course of the day, there's no problem. Someone who lives a predictable office schedule and commutes by train may find that it's easy to use a laptop as notebook. At the other end of the scale is someone like me who finds himself on a blazing summer day wearing shorts and a polo shirt and, consequently, without a pocket large enough for the Moleskine. In that situation, I fall back on a digital recorder that slips into the little cargo pocket on my shorts. It's a pain because it means transcribing my dictation later, but it's better than nothing. I also can use my phone in a pinch now that even the most prosaic of models include audio and video recording.

One last thing

Which brings up one other vital point about notebooks. If you ever see rumpled, middle-aged Englishman on a street corner jumping and down while spouting in impotent frustration while waving a battered notebook above his head, that is me and I've forgotten to bring a pen.

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