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Agony Editor: Does a writer need a notebook?

Dear Agony Editor,

I don’t keep a writer’s notebook. Sometimes, this bothers me. Do you think keeping one is beneficial?



Dear Noted,

Every writer works differently, so I’m not sure it should bother you so long as you feel your writing isn’t suffering. That said, it never hurts to pick up habits that could improve your craft. I spoke to writer Michael Winter, who keeps a notebook. When I asked why he started keeping one, he said, “I probably saw an older writer I admired use a notebook and thought, Okay, that’s what writers do. I used to wonder what older writers talked about when they were in bars or readings. Now I know they all talk about things like dental care and colonoscopies.” (I usually only talk about fibre.)

In terms of what he jots down, Winter said, “I saw a man at a convenience store waiting to buy a few items. There was no one at the cash. He rolled up a $20 bill and tapped the end of it on the glass counter. ‘Does anybody want my money?’ he called out. I wrote that down, otherwise I’d forget the specifics of it. And if I don’t write it down as it occurs, in my novel someone will buy things at a store and the transaction will follow tired, conventional lines.”

I also asked Winter how he thinks keeping a notebook benefits his writing. “I watch myself watching the world,” he said. “I try to catch myself in the act of being interested in something. If I can write down those moments of discovering what has piqued my own curiosity, then I’m training myself when it comes to filling a novel with scenes that mirror my own sensibility.”

That said, I always remember when my family moved my grandmother’s belongings out of her house. When asked why he didn’t want any souvenirs, my dad tapped his head and said, “It’s all up here.” That could be the same for you, Noted, but why not give the notebook a shot? There’s absolutely nothing to lose and, like Michael Winter, you could improve your writing by capturing the specifics of those convenience-store moments.