Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Taking out the Trash

I bought a new notebook this past weekend. A plain, spiral bound notebook with a few pockets for stashing things in. Its cover is black. There's a title idea scribbled on the first page. And a question. In about a year, I hope that it will contain the rantings and ravings of my writer self as I bushwhack my way through another novel.

New notebook

The notebook won't be the novel---nope, it's for holding all the debris that surrounds the making of any complicated object. Think of it like the dumpster parked outside a house under construction. Everything in that dumpster was once necessary to the building of that house, right down to the wrappings from the fast food that nourished the workers each day.

There will be a date on every entry. Some entries will be two words. Some will be four or five pages. In all of them, the handwriting will be unbelievably messy.

There will be lists. Many, many lists, many of them mostly questions. There will be questionings of those question lists. There will be lists of 20-30 concrete nouns---objects or people or places that occur over and over. My puzzle pieces. I will bump them all against each other, to see what fits.

Old notebook
(If you really want to see my ramblings,
click on the picture to enlarge it.)

I will draw arrows. I will doodle weird symbols in the margins. There will be word counts, jotted at random like graffiti. I will surprise myself with at least one real drawing, which will be labeled with helpful clues.

I will mention other books I'm reading, or TV shows/movies I'm watching, and what they help me see about my own narrative struggles. I will take notes when I need to research something, like "Jet-powered outhouse: Standard port-o-john w/ 1000 hp jet engine. Speeds of 70 mph. Flames spew from jet exhaust and potty vent." (No I'm not 'splaining this. Not yet.)

I will summarize the work I've done elsewhere, on the computer, to prove to myself that I am making progress. "Worked on opening scene." "Wrote 500 words." "Figured out where main character lives."

I will generally try to use only an encouraging tone of voice towards myself. I will write things like: "Focus on the pages you need to write today. Write them. Quit. Repeat." But some days I will come out with: "Trying to write, but my brain is not here."

I will, at some point, write the words: "This book is about... " I will probably write that phrase ten or fifteen times. I will get the answer wrong, oh so wrong, many, many times.

Honestly, when I look back over my last two novel notebooks, I'm not sure how I managed to write two books from such junk.

But then, if I looked in a construction dumpster, I might wonder about the grease-stained napkins and the little rubber doodads and the metal staples and--- oh, my! is that something growing in there???


  1. Love how your writer mind works --processing, listing, questioning, etc. I never thought to actually record all these random things in one notebook! I do have scribblings that go into manila folders, but a notebook might be good! Someday, your notebooks will be in a museum :).

  2. It's fun to go back and read your notebooks years later... sometimes I've found the germ of an idea that didn't come to fruition for years. (And my favorites are the cheapo ones from the grocery store... you can be messy and imperfect with them.) Fascinating, the process... enjoy!

  3. Do you know Paul Auster's "New York Trilogy"? I imagine a page of the Red Notebook might look something like yours.

    Or the Blue Notebook in "Oracle Night".

    Paul Auster freaks me out.

  4. Thanks for sharing this. I have had more formal "project books" that don't contain the actual project, but they usually get dumped halfway through. Maybe a more haphazard approach would work better.

    I love your posts that are like guided tours through your brain!

  5. Thanks for sharing this! Mine's somewhat similar, but I stick everything into a 3 ring binder, though not as regularly as you do. Best of luck in your new project!

  6. Clearing through the debris of my teenager's room this weekend I was astonished at the number of spirals filled with just the kind of random things you described. They were all over the place. I corralled them all onto one shelf. She says they are her "books in progress."

    I am feeling guilty now. I have probably destroyed some sort of creative organization by retrieving them from every corner of the universe and plunking them all in one place.

  7. Camille, as long as you didn't throw away any notebooks, you're blameless.

    Although, your comment about organizing does makes me wish that I had an assistant willing to scan or type all of my old journals and letters into a database. Part of the reason I keep ONE notebook for each novel is that I know where to find things. The same cannot be said of my other journals. I tried a system of Post-It flags, but I failed miserably.

  8. Was it Doris Lessing that said, "If you are a woman writer writing about a woman writer you have to keep a notebook to keep track of your own life"? For some reason I think I remember that from The Golden Notebook but maybe it was another notebook...

  9. Jet-powered outhouse?? I already want to read it! :)

    I love your description of your notebook as the "debris" surrounding a project. I've always wished I had an organized Leonardo-esque miscellany that would then be oohed and aahed over once I'm dead, but...nah.

  10. I do the exact same thing! I have little notebooks thaat end up just overflowing with randomness. Every once in a while I comb through them for jotted one-line ideas that I can't even remember forming (usually for good reason, but you never know when something will hit you just right).

  11. Oh I love love love seeing that this is how you pull your wonderful stories together. I missed it the first time around so thanks for the current link back to it.

    So many writers now do everything on the computer but I really need to put pen to page at various stages.


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