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Book Review: Writers and Their Notebooks edited by Diana M. Raab

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Diana Raab, essayist, memoirist, and poet, offers this collection of insights and insecurities by writers about their journals and notebooks. As Philip Lopate states in the foreword to Writers and Their Notebooks: “No one can expect to write well who would not first take the risk of writing badly. The writer’s notebook is a safe place for such experiments to be undertaken.”

Indeed, reading the personal thoughts of 24 well-known writers in this collection, we learn one compulsive notebook user, Peter Selgin, “scribbled on, frantically, furiously, piling up notebooks like a bag person piling up magazines and newspapers, sure that all this piling on would add up to artistic triumph.”

The overall emotion in this collection is a love of writing, and a celebration of notebooks and journals as the place to embrace our beloved art. Most of the essays include a sentimental regard for the many years of notebooks the writers have amassed, a memory of their first journal, and the value of old journals for recalling experiences and details from the past. More often than not, these details work their way into new writing. Author Katherine Towler notes, “My years as a journal writer were essential to the work I am doing now, and to the work still to come.”

In Writers and Their Notebooks, Raab describes words on the pages of a journal as “the music and voice of one’s true emotions. Whether the writer is expressing deeply held beliefs, recording snippets of overheard dialog, making observations, listing ideas for future projects, or copying a favorite poem, the notebook should be a vital part of the creative tool kit.”

There is the rare reference to blogs as “simultaneously a diary and a piece of performance art,” and the need for the computer when “what’s waiting is not a thread but a flood. The pocket notebook is for the hint, the computer for the deluge.” Rare is the lucky writer who is so inspired by the notebook that it must pour forth as fast as one can type, “the resonant data impinging deliciously on the mind,” as poet Kim Stafford discovers.

Frequent journal writers know the feeling of loss when without a journal and pen. Having a journal at hand enhances our awareness. As Robin Hemley notes, “I find that when I carry my journal, things worthy of being recorded seem to pop up all around me, which leads me to suspect, of course, that these things are always happening around me. I’m just more observant when I have my journal with me.”

Journaling even plays a role in writing fiction. When Sue Grafton writes a detective novel, she finds the journal to be a testing ground where left-brain and right-brain can engage. “The most valuable tool I employ in the writing of a private eye novel is the working journal,” she says.

While some find words spill from their journal to their work, many admit to feeling a sense of automatic writing, with no censor, no editor, and no responsibility for what spills onto the pages. Others speak of the 5 or 25 drafts required to move from journal to publication.

Writers and Their Notebooks includes an interesting essay by Michael Steinberg, prolific author and editor of Fourth Genre. He looks back on travel journals from his years in Paris and London, and on the role of journaling in his writing routine and creative process. “As a memoirist, my charge is to examine the past in hopes of coming to a fuller understanding of which experiences, people, encounters, and relationships might have helped shape my choices and decisions.”

Because our journals know our history and recalls our past, they help us imagine the future. Rue McClanahan says, “We dream dreams and see visions. Our daylight self tells us these dreams are crazy, impractical, impossible to achieve, so why even bother? The journal says, 'Tell me more.'”

Perhaps the best lesson is from Lori Van Pelt who writes of her high school teacher’s requirement that students keep daily journals. From this experience she took away two important lessons: 1) write without inhibition, and 2) produce pages on a regular schedule. Van Pelt is now an award winning author.

Writers and Their Notebooks touches on some unusual insights as well, with writers who wonder what will happen to their journals when they die, or who are making plans for their disposition. Almost all the contributors give the exact dimensions, color and feel of their favorite journals as if the attachment to the precise form feeds their thought process more than any other notebook could. Committed writers feel bound to their journals as a memory aid, as non-fiction author Kyoko Mori says, “I keep a journal so I can forget everything and still remember it.”

Fiction writer John Dufresne suggests, “You know that you think differently when you have a pen in your hand. You think differently and you observe differently. You see what’s really there, not what’s supposed to be there. You keep a notebook to teach yourself to pay attention. You keep a notebook to encourage yourself to crest.”

If Writers and Their Notebooks inspires you to take up the pleasant habit of journal writing, consider doing so as Natalie Goldberg says, “Finish a notebook a month… Simply… fill it. That is the practice.” So, settle in, with pen in hand, to enjoy this journey through journals and notebook as tools for survival, as your muse, and for life.

-Review based on paperback 2010 edition, provided by publisher.

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About Helen Gallagher

  • http://viclana.blogspot.com/ Victor Lana

    I’ve been keeping a journal for a long time. Everything I have written (articles, stories, novels) starts in the journal.

    This book sounds wonderful and I look forward to reading it. Thank you.

  • http://www.releaseyourwriting.com Helen Gallagher

    Thank you Victor. You won’t be disappointed by the depth and motivation the book provides.
    Helen