Nov 06 2019
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4 ways a writer’s notebook is a recipe for success

Shawna Ayoub Ainslie urges you to keep a notebook of writing ideas so you always have something cooking.

My first graduate writing workshop opened with the professor assigning all students to obtain a journal in which we would record writing topics, lines and phrases and sensory observations of the world for future use.

The task was not to master a craft tip, acquire a certain critical text, or commit to writing a formidable number of words per day, and yet, this practice of keeping a writer’s notebook has proven indispensable in my writing life. See, this educator not only wanted us to start writing; he wanted us to keep writing. If we always had a list of ideas, it would not be so easy to throw our hands in the air and claim writer’s block. It is easy to get stuck while crafting.

My writer’s notebook gets me un-stuck in a snap, much as my cookbooks steer me when I am at a loss in the kitchen. Here’s how:

It’s full of ingredients. 

Okay, that’s a given, but have you ever woken from a dream you knew would be a good story, thought, “I should write this down,” did not, and later could not recall enough of the dream to record it? The loss of a good story is so disappointing! The same is true of excellent turns of phrase—the ingredients make the flavor. When I don’t know where to go in a piece I’m writing, a quick flip through my writer’s notebook provides inspiration to keep cooking.

It takes the pressure off by allowing you to fix it and forget it.

Remembering is hard work. When writing, we can hyper-focus on the need to get every detail right. Having a place to store whatever details I’m not writing in the moment allows me to stay present on the page. I know that when I’m ready to develop the next theme, character, or plot point, a brief outline of my goals is aleady recorded and waiting for me. Let your notebook be your slow cooker. Trust the process.

It allows you to keep simmering your writing outside the piece you’re crafting.

I’m a big fan of having multiple works in progress, like relief projects. When I get stuck with one, I bounce to the other. My subconscious does the work of unsticking the first story while I delve into the second (or third). By making a quick note of where I’m stuck and allowing myself to step away from my building frustration at not being able to write what or how I want, I end up with more than one piece for the same amount of effort.

It tracks your staple ingredients. 

All writers have themes they return to again and again. All cooks have preferred ingredients. It’s the writer’s/chef’s nature. Whether we intend to or not, we write both what we know and what we are trying to figure out or perfect. Having a notebook you can flip through and scan ideas can quickly show you what’s most important to you by revealing what you come back to most. That will support you in choosing what to write and when. In fact, some writers use this list of “staple ingredients” as the template for their next writing recipe. A small variation on seasoning can go a long way in a dish AND on the page.

If for no other reason than not losing that perfect phrasing you overheard or image you conjured, a writer’s notebook is worth the effort. It doesn’t have to be fancy, bound in leather or sporting a lock. You can re-purpose an old binder, grab a spiral-bound notebook at nearly any store, or make due with a stack of post-its. It should be whatever looks and feels right to you, whatever is most convenient for you to maintain. The point is to keep your writing ingredients in a central location for easy composition of future writing dishes.

You have a lot on your plate. If you want to write more and better, spend your valuable time writing instead of hungering for new ideas.

Do you or will you keep a writer’s notebook? Share with us in the comments!

Related reading: Steer around writing blocks with relief projects

3 reasons not to fear your writing haunts

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