“I sometimes delude myself about why I keep a notebook,” wrote Joan Didion. “Imagine that some thrifty virtue derives from preserving everything observed. See enough and write it down, I tell myself, and then some morning when the world seems drained of wonder, some day when I am only going through the motions of doing what I am supposed to do, which is write — on that bankrupt morning I will simply open my notebook and there it will all be, a forgotten account with accumulated interest, paid passage back to the world out there. . .”
I have kept a notebook regularly since I was about 14, at the advice of my writing teacher, who often cited Joan Didion’s essay on this matter. As a writer, it seemed like it would behoove me to keep one, as all the greats did. It’s a starting point for ideas and drafts, a receptacle for small details and occurrences that catch my attention.
But my notebook doesn’t just meet my needs as a writer – it is also deeply fulfilling to me as a human being to, as Didion says, “remember what it was to be me.” Maybe scribbling down some trivial detail about what I ordered at a restaurant one summer afternoon in 2013 seemed inconsequential as I wrote it, but when I look back at my old journal, after that restaurant has since been shut down, it’s a wonderful little detail that captures a part of my world at the time.
I’m so grateful that I’ve maintained a notebook for most of my teenage years, as I mentioned in my post last month. Not only has it helped me get into the habit of writing every day, but it also has helped me keep a record of sorts about my life and the world I live in. (My best friend and I like to reference recent events and current pop culture in our journal entries so that decades from now, if somebody finds our notebooks in a dusty attic or yard sale somewhere, they’ll get a clear image of the world of 201X. Yes, this is something I think about all the time.)
Keeping a notebook doesn’t necessarily entail keeping a composition book used primarily for writing; this appeals to me, and I’m sure to others, but to say that there’s only one way to keep a personal record would be silly. A notebook, within the context of my point, can be a blog, a sketchbook, a photo album, and Instagram account — really any space that you devote to preserving memories, thoughts, observations, and ideas. A notebook can be a shoebox full of flyers for events, or a folder on your computer where you save videos. Whatever creative habit you can cultivate and maintain for a long period of time works.
Below are some tips that I have found helpful.
Try to write something every day. Not only does this help you keep a momentum and deter you from giving up after a short period of time, but some of the entries that might seem the most mundane could turn out to be the most meaningful. Even if you only add a few lines, the act of revisiting your creative space is an important habit to develop. If I feel like I have nothing else to say, I write about the weather outside, or make a to-do list, or meticulously chronicle every part of my last meal, hoping that anthropologists and historians hundreds of years in the future will someday find my high school notebook and analyze it like the equivalent of cave paintings in the digital age. Is this narcissistic? Of course. Does my own sense of self importance motivate me to keep writing? Yes.
Don’t give up if you miss a few entries. There are probably going to be times when you’re too busy or tired to write something. It happens. I think the longest I’ve ever abandoned my notebook for was a month. It can be easy to give up and tell yourself that you don’t have the diligence to maintain this habit. This, I have found, is my reason for giving up on many things. Don’t let it stop you. Even if you forget to create anything new for a long, long time, you haven’t failed. Your notebook is for you, and ideally nobody else. If you want to get really pretentious about it, the absence of entries for a span of time in-and-of itself is a contribution to the work that is the record of your life, or something like that.
Online prompts are a good starting point. There are sooooooo many of these that can easily be Googled. Writing prompts for stories and poems are great, but for more personal entries, I like those really specific question prompts you see on Tumblr all the time. You know the ones I’m talking about — “Send me a number…. 1: Who was the last person you called? 2: If you could live anywhere in the world, where would it be? 3: Do you prefer calling or texting?” Some of the questions might seem cheesy, but it’s a nice way to beat writer’s block and fill up pages, takes very little time, and it’s really cool to answer the same set of questions at different times in your life to see how you change.
Incorporate different forms of media. Stickers, flyers, business cards, ticket stubs, labels, acceptance letters, wristbands, calligraphy, parking citations, stamps, cards, notes, newspaper clippings, wildflowers, receipts, nail polish swatches, and polaroids all make interesting additions to your notebook. Get creative with this. If it fits, and you can afford to cut it up and glue it down somewhere, it works. I have a dandelion from the park near my house in one of my notebooks, and a diary entry written on a postcard from the MoMA in another. I have a purple lipstick print from my first time going to a midnight showing of Rocky Horror, and a magazine sample of my mom’s favorite perfume. These might seem like strange things to keep, probably because they are. What can I say? I’m a bit obsessed with capturing small details.
I hope you find these ideas helpful. As you may have noticed, for the sake of clarity, many of these are phrased in language specific to keeping a physical, written notebook. Interpret these as you please, however they may apply to your preferred form of record keeping.