I’m a real believer in having a notebook in a pocket or within reach at all times. I’ve found no more suitable way for catching thoughts and ideas on the fly than jotting them down in a notebook, and it’s a key to my productivity system (imagine air quotes around the previous two words, individually and together) I use–and am a fan of–Evernote (as a brain dump) and NoteShelf for capturing notes on the iPad, but I find them all less convenient to get to and slower when I am on the go and need the quickest method possible to capture that fleeting thought–or line or stanza or overheard bit of conversation–that catches my fancy.
What I look for physically in a notebook is paper quality and design in that order. See my recommendations for notebooks that have passed the test.
Now, some specifics…
Genus and Species
I carry three notebooks:
1. A pocket notebook , or what a friend has taken to calling my “clue book.”
The clue book is in my pocket at all times, including a back or front pocket of my pants, so they tend to take a beating. I used to offer students a $10 reward if they could catch me, anywhere, without a pocket notebook on me. None of them made any money. Every kind of note goes in here. Flipping through my current notebook I see, in order:
- thoughts for a letter to a friend I haven’t written to in a while,
- notes from a couple of Open Education conference sessions,
- two words with some context for my favorite words list (schizophrenogenic and hebephrenic),
- two “to read” entries (Steps to an Ecology of Mind by Gregory Bateson and Microstyle: the Art of Writing Little by Christopher Johnson),
- the Overhead Door Company phone and what they did to fix the garage door,
- another word for my favorite words list (cicatrized),
- a list of notebooks I want to buy,
- the word “vagazzle” with a question mark (I’m not sure I want to remember what inspired that one),
2. My “writer’s notebook.”
This is the notebook I use for intentional writing time. These are filled with:
- the fit and starts of birthing poems,
- rants at myself for not writing more, more often, and better,
- reflections on my reading,
- information about forms of poetry and authors,
- listography style lists,
Suggested notebooks: for this kind of writing I prefer thinner, soft cover notebooks…the are less intimidating and easier to lay flat(ter) and write in. My preferences: Apica, Kokuyo Campus Todai, Clairefontaine staple bound, Norcom and Bagasse composition books
3. My “commonplace book,” in which I copy writing that I find provocative or inspiring.
Suggested notebooks: my commonplace books are intended to be “archival,” in the sense that they are the only notebooks I can imagine anyone intentionally keeping for very long. My preferences: Leuchtterm 1917, Rhodia
4. My traditional diary/journal. This one rides everywhere in the pocket of my backpack, but I use it only intermittently…there are just too many more things to write about and too many overdue letters to write to spend much time writing about my days. And letter writing is, unfortunately for the battered recipients of my missives, a kind of journal writing for me.
Suggested notebooks: I’ve pretty much settled on the Midori Traveler’s notebook…the format fits my use (and my backpack side pocket) and even the thinnest refills work well with fountain pens. In the past I’ve used pretty much any and all kinds of notebook imaginable.
And I have one other notebook that sits on my desk in the alcove/study near the bedroom in which I very intermittently write down stuff of gratitude (at night) and dreams (in the morning)…and the very occasional free write (morning pages for you followers of Julia Cameron).
One thing you won’t find in any of these notebooks are drawings other than the occasional mind-map looking thing. I wish I could capture some of my thinking in forms other than text, but I have zero artistic ability and even less time to study and practice in hopes of finding some.
This might make it sound like I’m organized, but I’m not. That’s why you’ll find dozens of other notebooks in various places at home and in the office with a page or two of writing, product of those times I’ve needed to write something down in a less ephemeral form than my clue book.
What I Do with Them
I routinely mine the clue book to transfer information to other places (Evernote, Toodledo, a blog, a different notebook).
I occasionally trawl through the writer’s notebooks for parts and pieces that can be worked into “finished” work.
I eventually put Commonplace Book entries into my online Commonplace Book.
As I fill each notebook up, I toss the diaries into a box. I only very rarely revisit them…they’ll be my heirs’ problem.
A Note about Moleskines
I used to be a fan of Moleskine notebooks…then I realized that I was buying into the hype not the quality. Moleskines are decent, but the paper quality is poor (and getting poorer). If you write with pens that lay a thin line or pencils, they work fine. If you write with pens that lay a wide and/or wet line, the ink tends to spread on the paper and show through quite visibly on the opposite side of the paper. This is only a minor annoyance for me, as I have a thing about only writing on one side of the page, but it can be a problem for those who aren’t as weird as me about that. If you use fountain pens, Moleskines are mostly useless. And why bother when Leuchtterm and others make notebooks of the same design but significantly higher quality?
Some Notebook Links
- The Pocket Notebooks of 20 Famous Men
- The Manly Tradition of the Pocket Notebook
- A Peek Inside the Notebooks of Great Creators
- A Rare Look at Samuel Beckett’s Doodle-Filled Notebooks
- A Glimpse Inside Great Explorers’ Notebooks
- Notebook Stories
- Four Reasons You Should be Carrying a Notebook
- On Carrying a Notebook Around
- Four Reasons You Should be Carrying a Notebook