Notebooks

by DRM

Over the past two years, I’ve worked my way out of a 20-year writer’s block. Or, less dramatically, I started writing regularly again after a 20-year hiatus.

Through this process, I’ve had to watch out for patterns of thought and activity that would take me back to the place where I would not write. I’m cautious because I am glad that I’m writing again, and I am relieved that I have not worked my way into a place that is bereft of imagination and insight and filled with self-doubt and solipsism.

I’m at a place where I could go sideways, though.

It’s all about the notebooks.

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I use a notebook to write in. The idea is to have a place to sort through ideas; to write about the things around me; to think and feel and capture it in as plain and precise language as I can.

This habit of keeping notebooks was a core part of my life as a writer when I was young. I’d been encouraged in it by Jaimy Gordon, a writer from Brown who taught an evening writer’s workshop that my dad and I went to in Bristol when I was in high school.

My dad took up the same habit at Jaimy’s prompting. She advocated the notebook as a place to be able to capture the lively images of the mind, to jump and whoop, to test words and images as they came to life.

For me, the notebook became a trap. I was trying to prove myself to some shadow, either a demon running around in my soul, or the over-weaning pressures of uncertain affection and love. Being in the notebooks turned into drudgery. I circled around and around the same sad, thin feelings.

When I was trying to figure out why I had stopped writing, I went back to the last notebooks from 30 years ago. It was like looking through blinders: the repetitiveness of the little I saw was monotonous. I could feel the sensation of being trapped in an unhealthy part of my mind; the only way that I knew how to get out was to break away forcibly, to leave that thing that was sapping my energy behind.

I’m at the point now where I have finished the current notebook and need to start another.

The feeling of the work I’m doing now in these notebooks is better, more liberated. I’m not afraid the same way I was 20 years ago: of what I might write and of my ability to sidestep detours and swampy spots that would take the good feeling away.

But I’m not past those dangers. I have to watch out for them. And, the strong feeling of being inside an imaginative life is too valuable to just give up again.

So, getting the notebook right is a big deal. At least, it feels like one. If I start working in the wrong kind of notebook, I think, I’ll loose the equilibrium I’ve gained and lose the feeling I value.

Why the concern?

I chafe at the rules in the notebook.

For work, I use a different notebook: a square lined notebook with larger pages.

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The absence of the steady rules down the page give me a different space to work in. The presence of the squares gives me an underlying foundation that I can use to structure different types of information, and a guideline for writing without tilting down the page.

[I’m left-handed and am always writing over the words, so it’s harder to keep the line in sight compared to a right-handed person.]

The squares ruin the beauty of the blank sheet, the limitless possibility and the satisfaction that comes with shaping that blank sheet with ideas, using words and images and lines to capture and then order the things that matter…or, as the case may be, turn out not to matter as you tease at them.

As this current ruled notebook comes to an end, I think that I want even more flexibility in the way the notebook can work.

I’m testing some alternatives right now.

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My first thought was to shift to the squared pocket notebook. The size is manageable, and the squares will open up the space so that I can more easily move between different ways of working.

I tested the squared notebook when I got to the last ten pages or so of the current notebook.

The results are above. See the way my writing works its way into the horizontal line of the squares? I could feel my muscles tighten and the vigor of each stroke get lost in the cramped space.

My next thought was to try a large blank notebook that I planned to use for work when the current notebook was finished.

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The absence of constraint was unsettling in its newness. The space didn’t feel as efficient; the use felt more temporary.

The way I was thinking made sense up to this point. I want to have a workbook that can accommodate different ways of thinking and creating. The current notebook that I am using is good, but it feels like it limits me too much to a dominant way of working.

The next logical step would be to try one of these options. The larger notebook with the blank pages offers more of the flexibility that I’m looking for. And it’s not a unique choice: I believe I’ve seen my brother use this sort of notebook, and a quick glimpse of the inside showed a wide array of images, words and work spaces.

The patterns that sent me away from writing, from an imaginative life, for 20 years are still buried inside me. I see them in this process, because I haven’t accepted the logical conclusion and felt free to move forward. The question of what workbook to use keeps circling around in my mind. It’s a distraction, hard to pin down but present. When I move to another path of thought, something that I need to approach with clarity and commitment, the question of the workbook flares up. I find myself wondering whether I am making the right choice by opening up to words, to writing, to sifting through the flashes that my imaginative sight illuminates. I wonder whether what I am writing is worth its time at all.

I consider different alternatives in a tight little circle of thought that ultimately is paralyzing.

I know what to do. Pick one, try it and if it doesn’t feel good, pick another. Understand what is good and what isn’t about each workbook. Don’t lose the momentum of the work. Don’t let the workbook become more than it is: a tool. Be flexible and use whatever tool works in the moment.

And above all, understand that each moment that you spend free and easy in your imagination is a moment of learning, of experience that helps you gain more understanding of what it means to live.