some notes on process: the reading notebook

An in-progress page of my reading notebook.

An in-progress page of my reading notebook.

A reader recently asked if I’d consider writing a post about how I use my notebook. Since then, I’ve been paying closer attention to how I use my notebook — or notebooks actually — and the answer is: pathologically.

Because I have too many of them. So I’m going to break this up a bit. Today: my reading notebook (there is also my writing notebook, and notebooks for lists, orphan lines, craft, lexicon, and… some other stuff).

The reading and writing notebooks are the ones I would take if the house were burning down, though I would hate to lose the rest of them. Really hate. Oh… I can’t even think about that.

Longtime readers know that reading is crucial to my generative process. As I read, I circle and underline, check and star, make notes on the poem’s architecture. I jot down words that seem important, complex, or rich in some way, or that are just beautiful. For many years, I wrote lists of words from what I was reading on a sheet of looseleaf, and then dropped it in my file folder called “Wordbanks.” Then the nature of my jottings grew. I began copying down lines that were especially interesting to me maybe because of their syntax, or because of a particularly stunning metaphor. I’d take little notes about themes, elements of craft, signature moves of the poet I was reading. After a while, I’d end up with all these looseleaf pages, and then my clipboard where I kept them while in-progress would disappear (ahem, children), and it all began to feel unwieldy, so I started keeping my jottings in a notebook instead. Thus: the reading notebook.

I still take the same kinds of “notes” — lists of words, lines that I want to pattern on or practice, points of craft, etc. — but now they’re all together. Genius (ha, ha). I use the lists of words for wordbanks — selecting 10 or so randomly and attempting to use them in a poem and/or freewrite. Or, I’ll look for a line that makes my small-lightning-zap-of-poetic-intuition light up, and do a freewrite on that line (more on freewrites in an upcoming post).

The reading notebook is also a resource for revision. Many times, when I need just the right word during revision, I’ll page through lists of words in my reading notebook (and/or the file of wordbanks) and find that word. Or I’ll go back to the jotted-down lines and look for a syntactical pattern that might help unstick a stuck poem.

Sometimes I feel silly writing down lists of words and copying lines. Except that it helps me write poems, so I keep doing it. For me there’s a mysterious power to writing something down on paper. It lodges in me in a way that it can’t if I’m just reading it. It becomes, I think, a seed. And not every seed grows into something, but as Thoreau says, “Convince me you have a seed there, and I am prepared to expect wonders” (thank you, little calendar I have on my kitchen counter, for the Thoreau quote).

So, that’s how I read poetry and use my reading notebook. Next up — maybe later this week, or maybe next week — the writing notebook. Happy reading and writing to you.

10 thoughts on “some notes on process: the reading notebook

  1. Wait, I’m not the only one who has a brazillion notebooks for different Literary Purposes? I have one for Things I Collect (lines, words, inspiration, etc.), for SFDs (very rudimentary not-quite-even-a-draft drafts), for actual first drafts (neater and more thought through but not yet ready for the Official Type-Up) and another for To Do Lists (an account of where I am in the writing/revision/submission process on a working, day-to-day basis. Not to be confused with actual computer-ized “Submissions” spreadsheet).

    There’s also a notebook in which non-literary items are permitted, like day job stuff and shopping lists and so on. And, of course, printed out poems with revisions scribbles all over the place.

  2. Pingback: Learning by heart Mary Oliver : Slow-Cooked Sentences

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