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The writer’s notebook is one of the most powerful gifts you can give yourself as a writer.  It is personal, private, intimate, and real—pretty much the opposite of what social media asks of us.

That constant curated stream of social media prevents deep thought. Whether your poison is Instagram or SnapChat, Twitter or Pinterest or Facebook, the point is to create a clever or beautiful stream that shows how smart or tasteful we are.

Don’t get me wrong—I’m as addicted to social media as the next person. My particular downfalls are Instagram and Facebook, but I’ve been known to get lost in Pinterest, too.  I love food photography and will scurry down that rabbit hole for hours.  It’s relaxing, peaceful, restorative.

But only when used in small doses. More and more, I think of social media like wine. It’s great for a glass or two, but it’s less productive when you’re drinking a bottle over dinner and wishing for a little more as a nightcap.

The danger to writers is in the shallow nature of social media. That very shallowness is what makes it relaxing. The curated nature—the need to make things beautiful or smart or amazing to please a body of viewers—it what makes it dangerous to writers who need to pay attention to everything, good and bad, ugly and sweet and even politically incorrect. A writer writes best when she knows her own mind and viewpoint, and social media doesn’t facilitate that journey.

What does? A writer’s notebook.  This is a notebook that a writer carries much the same way as an artist carries a sketchbook.  It’s not meant for public consumption, only for capturing ideas, thoughts, titles, hopes, plot snippets, descriptions of landscapes, descriptions of people, overheard snatches of dialogue…any and everything.

A writer’s notebook is one of the cornerstones of good writerly habits, which I will discuss in another post.  As creative people, we need habits and routines a little more than other people, and this is the place to start.

How do you begin with your notebook? Easy.  Find something you like to write in.  Maybe it’s a Moleskine, which come in a zillion varieties and have great paper.  Maybe you just like a good spiral notebook, or a tiny Field Notes notebook that will fit easily in your pocket or purse.  Choose something that’s easy to carry around, something you like to write in, and if the first one doesn’t work, find another one.

You need something to write with, of course. A good pen, one that moves easily on the page. When I was a girl, I had to have blue Bic pens, the thick lined ones with a crystal barrel, not the fine-lined, more expensive ones. These days, I like fountain pens or a good solid Pilot gel pen, but I’m not as picky now as I was then. What do you like to make notes with? Pencil? That works, too.

The one thing you cannot do is make this about a keyboard. It has to be an actual, analogue notebook, with paper, and a pen or pencil.  No electronic note taking for this particular exercise.

The single most important thing to remember is that notebooks are personal, private, intimate, and real.  You are never going to share it with anyone. That gives you the freedom to write clearly about your world.

Get in the habit of carrying the notebook with you, and then use it. Instead of taking out your phone when you stop in a coffeehouse, sip your coffee and notice what’s happening in the room around you.  What does it sound like? Who is there with you? Can you overhear a conversation? What is the person at the next table wearing, top to bottom.

Try to be objective and just observe for now.

Maybe every morning or every evening, or at lunch at your day job, you can take out your notebook and write:

“In the moment, I am….”

And write for a couple of minutes on whatever is going on.

In the moment, I am sitting on my couch with a cat curled up on my left shoulder. My coffee has gone cold and I’d love another cup, but the cat would be disturbed and I don’t want to do it. There are lots of flies today—sprung up after the rain, I suppose, but they’re very noisy and irritating. My feet are bare, but in deference to October, I’m wearing long yoga pants to be warmer.

Go, get yourself a notebook and a good writing utensil and write a daily paragraph.  Start getting used to always having the notebook in reach.

And remember: personal, private, intimate, and real. Just you and the page, nothing else.

We’ve talked about this before, but what is your favorite writing notebook? Do you carry one?


About Barbara O'Neal

Barbara O'Neal has written a number of highly acclaimed novels, including 2012 RITA winner, How To Bake A Perfect Life, which landed her in the RWA Hall of Fame and was a Target Club Pick. She is a highly respected teacher who also publishes material for writers at Patreon.com/barbaraoneal. She is at work on her next novel to be published by Lake Union in July. A complete backlist is available here.


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