Keeping a private journal or notebook is essential for many writers. Virginia Woolf, W.H. Auden, Madeleine L’Engle, Anais Nin, Susan Sontag, and many others wrote regularly in a notebook, journal, or diary. These private places allow writers to work through ideas, grow in their writing, muse on the world around them, and capture snippets of conversation, turns of phrase, and other bits and pieces they notice in daily life. Notebooks can also contain the outline for a new book or article, lists of words, themes in formation, and more.
Madeleine L’Engle wrote, I have advice for people who want to write. I don’t care whether they’re 5 or 500…if you want to write, you need to keep an honest, unpublishable journal that nobody reads, nobody but you. Where you just put down what you think about life, what you think about things, what you think is fair and what you think is unfair.”
A few ideas of what to your notebook can contain:
- Keep a record of your thoughts and ideas and life as they change and grow.
- Gather words, phrases, pictures, poems, images, quotes, articles, and more for your future writing.
- Reflect on things in a safe, private place.
- Record events, feelings, conversations, reactions, words, and more so that you don’t forget. We tend to rewrite our past thoughts and feelings in light of our current circumstances. I am often a bit shocked by what I was actually thinking and feeling in a past time, but I cannot deny those things if they are in my journal in black and white.
- Writing regularly with no thought of grammar or style keeps a writer’s creativity flowing and captures fleeting ideas that might have been lost if they were thinking too carefully about them.
But what is more to the point is my belief that the habit of writing thus for my own eye only is good practice. It loosens the ligaments. Never mind the misses and the stumbles. Going at such a pace as I do I must make the most direct and instant shots at my object, and thus have to lay hands on words, choose them and shoot them with no more pause than is needed to put my pen in the ink. I believe that during the past year I can trace some increase of ease in my professional writing which I attribute to my casual half hours after tea.Virginia Woolf
Whether you keep a digital or paper notebook, whether you write it in at a certain time of day or scribble in it sporadically, do find a way to capture the glimpses of life and love and thought and feeling before they are lost.
Here are a few books and an article for inspiration and help in keeping such a journal:
A Writer’s Diary by Virginia Woolf, excerpts about writing from her diaries, selected by her husband Leonard Woolf
A Circle of Quiet by Madeleine L’Engle
The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron
“On Keeping A Notebook”, Joan Didion’s essay in her book Slouching Towards Bethlehem
Do you keep a writer’s journal? Do you prefer a digital notebook or a paper notebook that you can stick in your pocket? I’d love to hear how you capture your ideas and noticings.
6 thoughts on “A Writer’s Notebook”
I love Madeline L’Engle’s Crosswick Diaries even though her children denounced them as “fiction.” I have re-read them a few times. Good post.
I didn’t know that about her children. Interesting. Thanks.
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If you google it, the article will come up. It may have been in New Yorker? I can’t remember, but I love her books in spite of it!
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I always start journals but never stay the course. It’s a matter of consistency, and partly apprehension about setting my thoughts free from the vault of my mind.
I’m reading through Life Path: Personal and Spiritual Growth through Journal Writing by Luci Shaw with a group this fall. She talks fears and blocks and using it as a spiritual aid. I recommend it to any Christian who wants to be more consistent in their journaling.