Wednesday, January 15, 2014

The Pressures of a Really Good Notebook

When your family knows you're a writer you get notebooks for presents, especially when you are goddamn impossible to buy gifts for because you don't really want anything, except maybe books, but you work at a bookstore so it is folly to try to buy books for you. I still start a lot of projects by hand even though my penmanship is awful, so, it's pretty handy to get new notebooks roughly biannually. But notebooks are also very personal items. A notebook could be with me for years. I could be in physical contact with it for hundreds of hours over that time. When I'm writing in it, it is the most important object in my life. And if I think I have lost a particular notebook, the lexicon of my panic is equal parts “Ahhhhhhh! The words I have written!” and “Ahhhhh! The thing I have written my words in!” I've also been doing this long enough to develop habits, idiosyncrasies, and preferences, so that, though I always appreciate gifted notebooks, sometimes I get one and think “What the hell am I going to use this for?” (More on that later.)
This is a really good notebook.

But sometimes the opposite is just as difficult. When I get a really good notebook, I feel pressure to write something that uniquely fits into the physics of that notebook. For example, pictured is a notebook I got this past Christmas. It has a nice weight to it, the flexible soft leather cover that has give and durability, and the lines are wide enough to accommodate my apocalyptically bad handwriting. Even though I'd probably describe it as pocket-sized, it is a little too large for an actual pocket, but would fit nicely in pretty much any sized bag, satchel, purse, etc. To put this another way, this notebook is absolutely begging for its own project.

O! The line spacing!
But I have no idea what project belongs in it. I mean, I've always been a side-projects writer, making sure the planet of my main project is orbited by a whole bunch of moons, so that whatever writing mood I happen to be in, if I can't force myself to work on a primary project, I can work on a long poem that imagines Kurtz didn't die in Heart of Darkness, or a fictional neurotic reading of the Bodleian Library's German Invasion Plans for the British Isles 1941, or, even, a retelling of the Batman myth in an epic poem in the voice of a Medieval-esque writer who hates his patron and writes his hatred into the poem assuming the scribe won't copy those parts into the final manuscript. Or the project that is in the following notebook.

No fuckin' way, dude.
I, along with all the other attendees, got this notebook at Winter Institute 6, ostensibly for taking notes during the various workshops, panels, and presentations. My first thought, and I remember this quite clearly, was, “No fucking way am I wasting a really nice notebook on notes. Something special needs to go in this.” Besides, the hotel left all these cheap notebooks lying around for free as well, and it's not like I was planning on preserving my workshop notes in my archives. So I ended up starting a project.

Oh man, the keynote I will give if this becomes a real thing.
From the date on the inside cover, it looks like this was one of those ideas I'd been kicking around for a while and was just waiting for something, a break in my other projects, a flash of inspiration in the shower, a bottle of wine on a Thursday night, or the perfect notebook, to start, because I started it at the conference. It is now something I'm thinking of as “a big novel,” which worked out pretty well as I now have matching notebooks from the next three (and hoping for a fourth) Winter Institutes.

Was 1/2 the union on strike?
Of course, it doesn't always work out that well. This notebook was a bit of a conundrum. The problem is that every other page is lined (or every other page is unlined, depending on your perspective) and I really need lines. I mentioned that catastrophically bad penmanship earlier and it actually gets worse on blank pages. Without the lines acting as visual guides, well, chaos reigns. So, I first used it for a project (one of them long poem things) where I would just write notes about the project on the blank pages and the actual work on the lined pages. I'm now using it for another long poem project (tentatively titled “You Longed for the Hipsters After They Left”) in which the lined pages limit the stanza length, essentially each lined page is its own stanza. It's not a project I spend much time on at that moment, and I have no idea where it's going, what it might become, or whether I'll even finish it but at least I'm not wasting a notebook.

Of course, the problem with notebooks isn't always abundance. Sometimes, for absolutely rational reasons, none of the notebooks I have on hand are right for the project I want to start and I need, yes “need,” again for absolutely rational reasons, to buy one. Recently I started a project that had been in my head for ages, a collection of essays exploring The Maltese Falcon, and didn't have anything that made sense. Sometimes the search for a new notebook is stressful. Other times, my store sells dinosaur notebooks. And lo, the notebook envy did rain down upon me from all who beheld its splendor.
Dinosaur Notebook, bitches!

So the notebook that started this post is just sitting there on my desk, looking at me, describing to me the nature of the project that belongs in it. A novella maybe, crank out a pulp novella over a week or so, maybe, though until my novel is done I can't commit to anything like that, or maybe another long poem, as I've had success with those in the past, or maybe a journal for a long trip (it is an “Ecco World Traveler” after all), though I don't have one of those planned for a while, though it's not like it will decompose before my next one... So yes, right now, an object is talking to me.

We are emotional beings and we interact emotionally with, well, everything, including the objects in our world. The more emotions there are in whatever you are doing, and there are a lot of emotions in writing (and reading) the more likely you will form an emotional connection with the objects of that activity. (I'm pretty sure a few of my poems are sub-conscious odes to my USB Buckling Spring keyboard.) And the longer you have an object, the more it begins to take on an emotional character in your eyes. Essentially, the entire world is a container for out emotions. So, though in a very rational, practical, indisputable way, it is ridiculous to feel pressured by a particularly good notebook, in a human way, and in particular in a human writer way, it is perfectly natural.

1 comment:

  1. Brilliant! Yes I know about this conundrum, born out of notebook fetish, writerly work habits and the vibrant energy of material things (Jane Bennett).