Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Self-Assignments and the Writer's Notebook

Years ago, I read Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg and got the idea of self-assignments, based on writing prompts or seed ideas. These "freewrites" are simply set-aside moments when you write about something, anything, and stir up the creative juices. In book-writing, freewrites are where the "inner story" comes from--the theme, meaning, subtler levels, unconscious connections that delight both reader and writer as they emerge onto the page.

My self-assigned daily freewrites came out a bit self-conscious when typed on the computer. When I read in another writing guide about having a writer's notebook to scribble notes and ideas, I decided to use it for my freewrites.

I lived in France, so I became addicted to Claire-Fontaine's graph-paper-paged notebooks, spiral bound and thick, with bright colored covers. At Prisunic in Paris they cost less than $2.00. I would buy them by the dozen and load my suitcase on the way home to the U.S. Now they're available on Claire-Fontaine's website, although they cost more than $2.00 each. I'd date the beginning page, paste in photos or sketches, make lists of topic/island ideas for my book, craft the openings of short stories or essays. Each week I read over my notes and typed the most interesting ones into the computer.

Begin a New Notebook for Each Book Project
I began a new notebook whenever I started writing a new book. When the notebook was filled, I combed through its pages once more, then shelved it. Often, months or years later, I'd remember something neglected in its pages and I could retrieve a passage I liked for a story or chapter that needed a hole filled.

My daily self-assignments came from the lists I kept going in the current notebook. When I finished the notebook, I photocopied the lists and pasted them into the new notebook. The lists became the front or end pages, easily located.

Why Have a Writer's Notebook?
The muse speaks at unexpected moments. How do you capture her ideas, which can disappear as fast as a dream on a busy morning? You take notes.

I'd love to take a survey of published writers, since I know many have these writer's notebooks. One colleague said it was the main way she scribes her interior landscape. If the muse begins to funnel ideas and there's no place to get them written down, over time the ideas stop coming.

I've learned that by making myself available to the muse, the inner vision, more ideas come. It's as if I'm forging an agreement. You give me the idea, I promise to pay attention.

This week's assignment: Get yourself a writing notebook. Claire-Fontaine or thrift store or local bookstore, small or large, spiral or perfect bound or loose-leaf pages, lined or plain. Enjoy the process of finding one. Write the date on the first page, then spend 10 minutes starting an "idea" list of topics you're interested in writing about someday. Create this list on the first or last page of your notebook. Practice this week carrying the notebook around and scribbling down ideas whenever they come.


  1. I'll 2nd everything you wrote! For me, the writer's notebook is a must. Only on the page, in my own personal scrawling can I find out what I truly want to say. The letters on a keyboard are too impersonal and the screen of a computer, too permanent or official. The notebook is where I play and take risks. I also have very small scratch pads in various places... in my car, on my nightstand for those rare moments of detail and insight. The pen and paper are still the tactile connection to story and will always rule in my writing life! Thanks for the post!

  2. Yeah! A new excuse to buy another notebook :-) Love the idea. Thank you.

  3. So glad it's helpful. It really helped me. And the notebook shopping is great fun.