The writer’s notebook.

I know from conversations on social media that most writers have many notebooks. We love choosing or receiving notebooks with pretty covers to fill with scribbled thoughts. I currently have nine notebooks that are still ‘open’. Which means there are still empty pages to fill, and ideas I want to pursue. I kept journals long before I started writing, and could not count how many I filled over the past decades. Fortunately, most of these have been disposed of, or I would have to buy a bigger house. Although I did tear out a few important pages to keep because they still have meaning today.

Each notebook has a different purpose, although ideas spill over from one to another in a jumble of ideas and impressions. Doris Lessing famously kept five notebooks, which she wrote about in the 1962 feminist classic, The Golden Notebook. Each notebook was of a different colour: autobiographical, confessional, a writer’s observations, political musings, and a golden notebook that pulled all of the threads together. I read this book a long time ago and although I struggled with some sections it left an impression on me. It is perhaps time that I read it again now I am older and have a different perspective on life.

Courtesy of Gimp Workshop Pixabay


The pages I have kept are those which serve to remind me that all will be well if I go inwards to listen to what is in my heart; to find guidance from God, the universe, guardian angels, inner wisdom, whatever you choose to name that power. The journals that I filled in my thirties were full of angst about my career development and frustration that the path I had envisioned seemed closed to me. Years later when I read those journal pages I was filled with compassion for the younger me. Everything turned out perfectly, better than I could have imagined. I just needed to be patient and open to new opportunities. Using a different coloured pen, I wrote responses to my younger self between the lines and in the margins. I reassured myself that all would be well. These are the journal notes I have kept, because now if I pour my angst out on the page I imagine an older version of me responding in the margins – all will be well. 

‘In the diary you find proof that in situations which today would seem unbearable, you lived, looked around and wrote down observations, that this right hand moved then as it does today, when we may be wiser because we are able to look back upon our former condition, and for that very reason have got to admit the courage of our earlier striving in which we persisted even in sheer ignorance Franz Kafka.’ The Diaries 1910-1923
‘I am anxious, and it soothes me to express myself here. It is like whispering to one’s self and listening at the same time.’ Bram Stoker Dracula

courtesy of S.Hermann F. Ritcher Pixabay

Morning pages

Writer’s keep notebooks to jot down impressions, observations, and ideas. Inspirations for stories, snatches of dialogue, and interesting names. I always take a notebook on holiday with me to record the scents, sounds, and sights that make a place unique. I have one notebook especially for holidays so that I can dip into this if I am describing a location.

Julia Cameron introduced a writing exercise Morning pages in her book The Artist’s Way. She encourages writers to warm up each morning by writing freely for a few minutes. It is a way to relax into using the right side of the brain and to stimulate creativity. My morning pages are scattered throughout several notebooks. As these scribblings are intended to be disposable, they randomly fill gaps – but amongst those scribbles, there are a few ideas that one day maybe the seeds of a story.

‘Your subconscious mind is trying to help you all the time. That’s why I keep a journal – not for chatter but for mostly the images that flow into the mind or little ideas. I keep a running journal, and I have all of my life, so it’s like your gold mine when you start writing.’ Jim Harrison
I don’t journal to ‘be productive.’ I don’t do it to find great ideas or to put down prose I can later publish. The pages aren’t intended for anyone but me. It’s the most cost-effective therapy I’ve ever found.’ Tim Ferriss

Planning novels

Then, there are the special notebooks. The ones that I designate for each novel. All of my ideas, planning, character development, photographs, news clippings, notes from research visits, etc. are recorded here.

When I designate a notebook for a novel I know that I have committed to writing that story. I have a notebook for an unnamed novel that I have yet to write. Whilst I am writing, Misdirection, and preparing Just Bea for publication, I am also jotting notes and references in a notebook for this unnamed novel.

All of the ideas that seeded my novels came from scribbles in notebooks. Passing thoughts that I captured and pressed between the pages for safekeeping. Although I might flick through my notebooks looking for inspiration, there is no need. The unconscious mind is busy sifting and selecting the thoughts I have recorded. Overtime a story emerges, sometimes fully formed and it nags to be told. 

courtesy of Raphaël Jeanneret Pixabay

Acquiring a journaling practice

You don’t have to be a writer to keep a journal. It is a form of meditation and reflection. A way to make sense of the world, and to self-care. Don’t think about what to write, just write. It is when you are relaxed with no expectation that thoughts flow. 

The notebooks and diaries of many famous writers have been published: William Somerset Maughan, Coleridge, Virginia Woolf, Mark Twain, Sylvia Plath, and Thomas Mann, to name but a few. Anne Frank’s diary deserves a line of its own.

How do you use your notebooks?


8 thoughts on “The writer’s notebook.

  1. I used to keep diaries when I was a kid and then teenager. Reading back its funny what you write as a kid and then as a teenager all the frustrations and we think life is difficult because you don’t get your way. As a I became an adult I stopped writing my thoughts. Instead I speak out-loud in the shower, in the car or when I am alone to express my feelings. I feel this helps a lot lol but I keep journals for everyday to do lists, gift ideas, recipes, etc. my journals now serve a different purpose. I write down everything so I don’t forget to do it!

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  2. This was really interesting to read and compare your practices with my own. I was a keen diarist as a teenager, spilling out all that teen angst onto page after page of notebooks. I still have them somewhere, maybe I will read them someday just to find out exactly how many lines I wrote about being in love with my guitar teacher 😅
    When my babies were young I made notes and little stories about their development and our adventures together. Nowadays it’s all notes on my phone: first lines of poems, story ideas. My pen doesn’t seem fast enough to capture my thoughts as they flow…

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