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photo credit: Lisa Johnson Photography

  Lisa Catherine Harper is the author of A Double Life: Discovering Motherhood, which won the 2010 River Teeth Literary Nonfiction Prize and co-editor of The Cassoulet Saved Our Marriage: True Tales of Food, Family, and How We Learn to Eat. She taught in the MFA program at University of San Francisco for over a decade and is currently an instructor at the Stanford University Online Writing Program and a mentor at Creative Nonfiction. You can find her online at www.LisaCatherineHarper.com.
 
Using The Writer's Notebook: A Practical Guide Follow glimmertrain on Twitter

A writer's notebook is a specific thing. It's neither journal, nor diary, nor is it, Joan Didion writes, a place to remember what happened. Done well, it can be a place for inspiration and exercise, an important window into practical and mysterious aspects of the writer's mind. Writers' notebooks are a core component of our course, "Intention and Design in Prose." Studying notebooks shows students how writers get from first idea to finished story, and dutifully keeping their own reveals how the practice can deepen their craft and understanding of process. Notebooks illuminate the mysterious correspondence between a writer's particular vision of the world and their narrative art. Gordimer writes of fictional character, "Imagined: Yes. Taken from life: yes." Notebooks help reveal how this looting of life transpires. All my students have found the practice and study of notebooks revelatory. And because many of them begin notebooks as journals, and aren't sure how to get started, or why, below follows the more useful advice developed in seminar, inspired by our reading list and the students' own ideas about how notebooks work best for them.

Handwrite. Handwriting slows down your mind, gets you in touch with language, creates a private, silent space. It makes your notebook intimate and honest.

Be recursive. Don't write in your notebook and forget about it. Go back to read, underline, annotate, or dog-ear. Use Post-it notes to indicate important passages.

Keep lists. Many writers, including Katherine Mansfield, use notebooks to make lists of important things: interesting vocabulary, books, writers you love/hate, body parts, brainstorms, parts of speech, foreign words, places, story ideas…

Don't be precious. The notebook does not have to be a Sacred Writerly Space. It can be a messy, serendipitous amalgam. You can write your shopping list in it, or record your expenses once in a while, if you need to. Mansfield did.

Eavesdrop. Truman Capote trained himself to record conversations without a notebook by recreating from memory long passages read to him by friends. You can do the same with dialogue. Listening carefully to conversations will familiarize you with the idiosyncratic tics and rhythms of spoken language. Use your notebook to record, as faithfully as you can, conversations that you have, witness, or simply overhear. All those striking snippets of dialogue (real and invented) belong in the journal, too. Record those turns of phrase that so efficiently characterize your subject or her situation.

Observe. Rachel Carson, a nonfiction writer who took great advantage of fictional techniques, kept meticulous field notebooks. The depth and precision of her observation is instructive for all writers (pages of description about a single tidepool, for instance), and it's one of the ways that her work achieves its metaphorical significance. Set yourself the assignment of looking at one thing, closely. Don't let your gaze fall away or be distracted. Record everything you can about your subject, with a view toward uncovering its originality. Train yourself to look deeply at the thing-ness of things. You'll find meaning at the most concrete level.

Record. Didion thinks you keep a notebook to get to the heart of how it feels to be you, on a particular day, at a particular time, in a particular place or situation. Mansfield wrote one of her most powerful stories ("An Indiscreet Journey") based on detailed notebook entries about a trip to her lover on the front during WWI. The lesson here is not to enslave fiction to autobiography, but to use your notebook to record the significant scenes, facts, and details of experience in order to 1) understand an emotional truth and 2) harness the essential details that bring form and meaning to narrative. Studying how writers do this, by reading a notebook alongside a fiction, is (I'll write it again) revelatory.

Analyze. Writers often write analytically about their own work. Some of the best passages from Mansfield's letters discuss her ideas about what works and what doesn't in her stories. ("In Miss Brill I chose not only the length of every sentence, but even the sound of every sentence.") If you don't have the good fortune to be married to a famous editor, your notebook is a good place to turn your objective eye on your own aesthetic practices and goals.

Copy. Make your notebook a place to record important passages from your reading, lines of poetry, images, de-scriptions, writing about writing, etc. Eliot said, "Mature poets steal." Joan Didion taught herself to type with long passages of Hemingway, at which point the rhythm of his prose got inside her head. Others devote themselves to copying out Proust. Use your notebook to dig into the prose style of writers important to you.

Clip. Some writers sketch in their notebook, making for a rich interplay of text and image. Others have clipped images, inserted photographs, etc. Your notebook should inspire as well as record.

Draft. Above all, the notebook is your place to experiment, make mistakes, take false turns, write badly. Draft that opening paragraph over and over; imagine new conclusions; experiment with block description; explore alter-native scenes; expand dialogue. Bring to the surface the seven-eighths of the iceberg that will be submerged in your finished work. Sometimes even a short exercise can create the momentum necessary to take your story to the next level.

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