Perhaps you know someone like me, a person who cannot resist buying notebooks of all sizes. I buy pocket notebooks for doodles and quick journaling of brilliant ideas or pithy snippets of life, notebooks slightly bigger than pocket notebooks that are arguably big enough for writing a scene from a novel while sitting in a coffee shop and gazing out the window, large sketch pads big enough to spread out on a table and draw visual representations of ideas that will surely set the world on fire. I am on the Field Notes email list, and every time I receive an email announcing a new series of pocket notebooks, my subconscious quietly whispers, “Maybe this will be THE ONE.”
You know where they really get you? Bookstores. You walk around, staring up at hundreds of great ideas on the shelves, perhaps pulling a few out and reading the front and back covers, oh wow, apparently millions of people thought this one was great, and then this one was said to be great by another famous author, and this one has been around for 75 years and this bookstore still has eight copies of it on the shelves so they must sell a hundred copies of it every year, geez there are so many good ideas in this building. And then you see the spinning rack of $18.99 notebooks and you’re like Shit Yeah, that’s where all these great ideas started—a notebook.
And then suddenly, you are at the cash register, with one or two great books under your arm, and a fancy-ass notebook, on the pages of which you will no doubt write the novel of the century or something like that. Because obviously the main obstacle to you creating that masterpiece was not having *just* the right notebook. It was not the lack of an idea, or the dozens of hours of mulling it over in your head and molding it into something that actually makes sense, or the hundreds of hours sitting down and actually making the thing—no, it was the lack of a notebook.
When you do this exact same thing, and you get home with your fancy new notebook, you know what I’d advise you to do? Don’t look at all the other fancy notebooks that you’ve bought that have nary a fucking chicken scratch of writing in their pages. It’s like a sink of dirty dishes, or a pile of unread books, or an overflowing trash can that you’re going to get around to emptying sometime, maybe today.
When I die, someone will find my notebooks. Will they flip through them and start to piece together the chapters of an unpublished novel? Will they find a drawing that is so brilliant that it will sell for six figures, then be traded amongst collectors for decades, and then land in an art museum somewhere? Maybe the preliminary sketches and calculations for an invention that could change the world?
Fuck no, they will not.
They will find half-written grocery lists, pencil drawings of home-improvement projects, a few notes from a phone meeting that I thought would be useful later but I spent too much time actually listening instead of writing notes so now the notes make no sense, and collections of words that make no sense to me a week or two after I wrote them. (Is that the title of a movie my dad told me about, or an idea for an essay, or a phrase I thought would be a great book title if I could just write 60,000 words about it?) There are no dates on the notebooks or on the pages, no organization system, and to-do lists appear right next to hurried sketches of things that would be completely illegible to someone who was not provided any context to explain the drawing (and honestly also probably illegible to someone who was provided context to explain the drawing).
That person will also find, I am absolutely sure, several dozen blank notebooks. Will someone write a wonderful book about my blank notebooks, a la Terry Tempest Williams’ When Women Were Birds? They will not. I mean, I’m pretty sure they won’t, but I guess you never know.
You know how many of these notebooks I have with me when I have a quote, great idea, unquote? Zero. I am not a New York Times bestselling author, but I do technically make “a living” as a person who makes things that did not exist before, in various media like books, blogs, drawings, posters, films, and t-shirts. And I own many, many notebooks. Where are these notebooks when I get what I think is a “good idea*”? They are on a shelf in my house, a few feet away from vessels containing roughly 75 different writing utensils.
*Often to later be categorized as actually-not-that-great-of-an-idea, sometimes a really bad idea, sometimes completely forgotten, sometimes written down somewhere and misplaced, sometimes written down somewhere as an idea I will surely execute “someday” when I have more time.
Probably 95 percent of ideas I have are typed into the Notes app on my phone, a much less romantic method of jotting down something that may or may not be brilliant. You dream about being a writer who sits somewhere aesthetically pleasing or at least worthy of appearing in a scene in a biopic about you while frantically writing longhand because your hand can hardly keep up with your brain as the magic happens, but really when your actual ideas come to you, people see you tapping your phone and assume you’re just another person texting their spouse from the line at the grocery store asking if you should have picked up more garlic, tweeting inane shit as @Dave674359 while walking your dog, or replying to work emails instead of enjoying that slice of pizza on the patio.
I don’t know how it is for other people, but that’s how it works for me, a sloppy human who has nothing figured out. I’d love to tell you how I finally found a way to journal and how it changed my life for the better. I would love to tell you how I discovered a way to discipline myself to finally start using these notebooks in an organized yet artistic manner. I would love to show you the beginning notes of a book idea, handwritten by me in the pages of a pocket notebook while sitting on a train moving through the Alps, or next to an alpine lake where I went to Figure Some Shit Out, or in a cafe at the edge of a bustling market in a city far from my home. Alas, I can do none of those things.
I could, however, show you some really wobbly pencil diagrams I made last fall while assembling gutters to hang on my house. I mean, theoretically I could show you that, but at this point I have no idea which notebook that diagram is in. I think it’s here somewhere.