Growing Essay Ideas In Notebooks

At the top of Shock Rock in Frederick, Md., 23 students gathered this summer to write. They were 50 miles away from their homes and schools in Baltimore City, but they might as well have been in another world. Looking out from a birds-eye perch at farmland and treetops, waterways—even blue-gray mountains—they breathed in the day’s air, and noted hints of sarsaparilla. They traversed the rocky planks and soaked in the sun. Some talked amongst themselves—about their favorite storybook-turned-movie characters, about patriarchal societies, standardized testing and nature. Others sat quietly alone, thinking of music and love, memories old and new—words, words and more words.

This is just what Patrice Hutton imagined three years ago when she built into her successful after-school writers’ program a sleep-away summer camp for middle and high schoolers. She wanted to get her students out of the city and immersed in their writing.  She wanted to give them simultaneously the power of solitude and the nourishment of being in a writers’ community.

“There’s something special about taking them to this remote environment outside of Baltimore,” says Hutton, who started Writers in Baltimore Schools in 2008, with the help of an OSI-Baltimore Community Fellowship, and has grown the program from one school to four. “It shows them how your brain can function in other ways—outside of the hubbub of the city and school—that are more conducive to concentration and creativity.”

The writers spend a week at Mar-Lu-Ridge Summer Camp and Education and Conference Center, doing things that campers do—hiking, telling ghost stories, roasting marshmallows, swimming. But they also spend intense time in workshops learning about imagery, metaphors, narration and points of view. And then more time still sprawled out on sofas, or curled up on Adirondack chairs, writing, revising, and writing some more.

“Because of Ms. Hutton, I’ve been able to experience a lot of things,” says Terrell Kellam, one of Patrice Hutton’s first students who came back this summer as a junior camper. “She gave me a chance to be around people who thought like me. Once or twice a week I had something to look forward to. And it made a difference.”

With Hutton’s help, Terrell was accepted into both the Iowa Young Writers’ Studio and the Kenyon Review Young Writers Workshop, experiences he calls “amazing.”

“Iowa and Kenyon would’ve never happened if it weren’t for her,” he says. “She’s just always there for me.”

Read more from Hutton’s Writers in Baltimore Schools—who are working on a project called “Black Words Matter” here:

Ever have one of those days?

You need to write a new blog post, but you can’t think of any interesting ideas. Or maybe you’re trying to write a short story but can’t get past the first line.

What do you do when you run up against a creative block?

Many famous writers would have reached for their writing notebooks. W. Somerset Maugham, Mark Twain, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Joan Didion, John Steinbeck, and Damon Knight are among the famous writers who kept a notebook to collect ideas and help them out of creative ruts.

Today, let’s take a peek into the notebooks of famous writers and thinkers to see the many different ways we can use a physical notebook or a note taking app on a computer or smartphone to boost creativity and beat writer’s block.

1. Use a Writing Notebook Whenever Inspiration Hits

It’s probably happened to you at some point. You’re far away from your computer, maybe shopping at the store or riding the train home from work, when suddenly you think up a new blog post idea or idea for a short story.

Rather than losing the idea forever (the short-term memory only retains information for three minutes unless reinforced), you can jot it down in your notebook.

A small notebook can be easily slipped into a purse or a jacket pocket. Alternatively, you can use a note taking app on your smartphone (I love Evernote) that will sync with your computer.

If you’re driving a car when inspiration hits, you can get even more creative and use a voice recording app to capture your ideas without taking your hands off the wheel. An iPhone, for example, can be voice activated using Siri.

Ernest Hemingway carried a notebook with him constantly. In A Moveable Feast, he wrote, “I belong to this notebook and this pencil.”

In Damon Knight’s book Creating Short Fiction, he wrote, “Keep a notebook handy or carry it with you so that you can jot down thoughts that occur to you at odd moments.”

In his book A Writer’s Notebook, W. Somerset Maugham observed how keeping a notebook forced him to clarify his thoughts. He wrote,

By making a note of something that strikes you, you separate it from the incessant stream of impressions that crowd across the mental eye, and perhaps fix it in your memory. All of us have had good ideas or vivid sensations that we thought would one day come in useful, but which, because we were too lazy to write them down, have entirely escaped us.

When you know you are going to make a note of something, you look at it more attentively than you otherwise would, and in the process of doing so the words are borne in upon you that will give it its private place in reality.

Keeping this kind of a notebook encourages you to be curious, ask questions about the world, think innovatively, and find creative solutions to the problems you encounter.

2. Use a Writing Notebook to Brainstorm

Mark Twain was a big fan of pocket notebooks as well. In the picture below, you can see two pages in his notebook where he wrote up a list of potential names for characters in a story.

Ralph Waldo Emerson was another prolific note taker; his journals ended up reaching sixteen volumes. They are filled with many observations that later served as the foundation for his other literary works.

W. Somerset Maugham used his notebook in this way as well. He wrote,

As I grew older and more aware of my intentions, I used my notebooks less to record my private opinions, and more to put down while still fresh my impressions of such persons and places as seemed likely to be of service to me for the particular purpose I had in view at the moment…

I have never claimed to create anything out of nothing; I have always needed an incident or a character as a starting point, but I have exercised imagination, invention and a sense of the dramatic to make it something of my own.

Essentially, the notebook exists as a private place to plant your ideas and watch them grow. It’s the perfect place to work on plotting a novel or writing up a rough outline of a blog post.

3. Use a Writing Notebook to Collect Research

Leonardo da Vinci was another one of the most famous note keepers in history. He filled hundreds of pages with sketches, scientific diagrams, ideas for new inventions, and reflections on art. These pages weren’t bound together as books until after his death.

Because da Vinci was left-handed, he found it easier to write from right to left. That means his notes can only be read in a mirror. To make his writings even more private, he often employed a kind of shorthand and didn’t worry about perfect penmanship or proper punctuation.

What he did care about was carefully recording his lab notes and his many ideas for new inventions: everything from a flying machine to a submarine prototype.

Similarly, during Charles Darwin’s voyage on the HMS Beagle, he kept a series of field notebooks that he filled with his scientific observations. Below is a page from one of the books:

The philosopher Blaise Pascal also carefully wrote down his research and observations. The Pensées, published after his death, is a collection of the many thoughts on philosophy and theology that he jotted down on scraps of paper as he prepared a defense of Christianity.

Whether you’re researching an article or a novel, you need a place where you can organize all of that material.

When I’m working on a blog post, I use Evernote. I have found this app to be the perfect place to store the many articles and quotes I collect. Evernote has a feature that allows you to save anything you see online—including text, links, and images—into your Evernote account with a single click.

Alternatively, if you are working on a novel or any kind of book-length manuscript, you can use Scrivener. I love this app as it allows you to outline and structure your ideas, take notes, and view research alongside your writing.

4. Use a Writing Notebook to Warm Up Your Writing Muscle

The below photo shows a page from one of Thomas Edison’s many notebooks.

He writes at the top of the page: things doing and to be done. His to-do list runs for several pages and includes an amazing number of ideas, including an electrical piano, “unflammable” insulating material, ink for the blind, and an apparatus to help the deaf.

Thomas Edison may not have written any significant literary works, but he was one of the most prolific inventors in American history. He held 1,093 different patents. Edison’s to-do list shows how we can use our own notebooks to warm up our creative muscle.

Here’s what I do. Each morning before diving into my writing projects, I spend some time free writing. Usually, I free write about the writing project I am about to tackle. This helps me get myself into writing mode and avoid procrastination. I list my goals and start working towards them.

You can free write in a Word Document or use a program like Draftin, an easy to use and distraction-free web-based writing interface that allows you to use folders to organize your writing.

5. Use a Writing Notebook to Journal Your Writing Project

John Steinbeck began writing The Grapes of Wrath in 1938. He thought it would be helpful to keep a daily diary to record his progress.

He wrote, “I shall try simply to keep a record of working days and the amount done in each and the success (as far as I can know it) of the day. Just now the work goes well.”

The diary helped him spill out his self doubt on paper so he could turn his full attention to his novel.

At one point, he wrote,

So many things to drive me nuts… I’m afraid this book is going to pieces. If it does, I do too… If only I wouldn’t take this book so seriously. It is just a book after all, and a book is very dead in a very short time. And I’ll be dead in a very short time too. So the hell with it. Let’s slow down, not in pace or wordage but in nerves.

You can take a peek into the diary below:

The Morgan Library also has a fascinating podcast of an actor reading portions of the diary.

When Steinbeck wrote East of Eden, he continued his practice of recording his novel’s progress, though this time he did not keep a diary but sent letters to his editor instead.

Elizabeth George copied Steinbeck’s practice of journaling his novel.

In her book Write Away, she observes,

For the last three or four novels, I’ve copied John Steinbeck’s activity from East of Eden, and I’ve begun every day by writing in a journal, sometimes about the writing I’m doing, sometimes about what’s on my mind at the moment.

So for each novel I now write, I create a new journal entry, but before I do that, I read a day in the last Journal of a Novel for the previous novel. This allows me to see that, whatever I might be experiencing at the moment, I have experienced it and survived it before.

I have adopted Steinbeck’s and George’s practice as well.  Although I used to love keeping a physical journal, my days are much busier now, and I find that I can write much faster when I am typing. I journal using an app called Day One that has a simple and elegant interface.

My novel is still in the plotting stages, but journaling each day helps me see that I am making progress. Like Steinbeck, it allows me to rid myself of negative thoughts, and as Elizabeth George wrote, it will be a helpful record when I start working on a second novel.

You can journal any writing project: a novel, a nonfiction book, a new blog. This kind of a notebook helps you avoid repeating mistakes in the future. Reading through your past experiences allows you to see all the steps you took towards accomplishing your goals.

The Takeaway

In Joan Didion’s essay on why she keeps a notebook, she writes, “How it felt to me: that is getting closer to the truth about a notebook…Remember what it was to be me: that is always the point.”

Ultimately, a notebook is a portable laboratory where we can record our own unique perspective on the world, jot down the things in our lives that awaken our Muse, and experiment with new ideas.

As Ray Bradbury observed in his book Zen in the Art of Writing, “We never sit anything out. We are cups, quietly and constantly being filled. The trick is knowing how to tip ourselves over and let the beautiful stuff out.”

Keeping notebooks helps us collect all of the beautiful stuff that we experience in our lives so we can share it with the world.

What is your writing notebook like? Do you keep a physical notebook or use apps on your smartphone and computer? Leave your thoughts in the comments and share this post with someone you would like to inspire.


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