some notes on process: the writing notebook

Alas, mine do not look so beautiful or romantic... . (wikimedia)

Alas, mine do not look so beautiful or romantic… . (wikimedia)

Last week I wrote a bit about how I use a notebook while reading. Now we get to the heart of the matter: the writing notebook.

Each morning, after I’ve done a little reading, I turn to my writing notebook and spend some time writing. This writing can take many forms:

  • It is often free-writing — wherein one writes for a set period of time on whatever comes along.
  • I’ve found that use of a wordbank during a free-write will sometimes make me reach deeper and results in more interesting figurative language, so I’ll often choose 10 or so words at random from my reading notebook and use those at some point in the free-write.
  • Sometimes I’ll also use a line from another poet’s work, or one that arrives in my mind as a scrap of language, in the free-write, repeating that line if I get stuck.
  • Other times I’ll write according to a prompt or exercise, usually from The Practice of Poetry or Wingbeats.
  • If I’m feeling really stuck, I’ll write a reverse dictionary.
  • Or I’ll write the opposite of another poet’s poem, or according to the map of another poet’s poem.

I’ve found that writing for at least 15 minutes is most fruitful for me — there’s something I break through at about the 10-minute mark, after which the writing is free-er and more imaginative. While free-writing, I don’t censor, edit, or correct things. I often end with a one-word sentence: “Bleh.”

I always log whatever I’ve written in the notebook’s table of contents. I began this practice a few years ago and it has been a life-saver at times. I might remember something I was writing or working on in the future and rather than having to go through every page of a notebook looking for it, I can often narrow my search by the table of contents. To wit:


But then — and this is the key for my writing process — I go back.

About once a week, I go back through my morning writing and underline or highlight words, progressions, images, metaphors — whatever jumps out at me as the diamonds in the rough (and believe me, it is mostly the rough). Here is what it looks like:


Then I type these up and put them in a file called Fragments. These fragments often become the seeds of poems as I page through them on drafting days and find words and lines that seem to belong together. Or other times, one of the fragments will be just the line/image/metaphor I need for something I’m drafting or revising.

I do not consider all the things that don’t get pulled into the fragments folder wasted. It is all there somehow. And the only way I got to the diamonds in the rough was to also write the rough.

Other things I write in my notebook: scraps of language, titles that arrive unbidden, ideas for poems, something I’ve heard on the news or read that I want to learn more about, research for poems.

And drafts, of course. I still draft by hand, although occasionally I’ll switch over to my computer mid-draft if the language is flowing faster than my pen keep up with.

And for the record: my notebook is not neat or beautiful; it is not sacred. It is a beat-up, messy, chaotic workhorse of a notebook.

Last week, I quoted Cecilia Woloch saying: “No prompts, no strategies, no tricks. I work and I pray.” 

As you can see, I do use prompts, strategies, and tricks. All of these methods into writing help me get below the conscious process of writing, and into the subconscious river of language where my poems live. I think of it, in the words of Kay Ryan, as “breeding a needle.” In her essay “Specks” Ryan says, “rooting around in a haystack long and fruitlessly enough could conceivably breed a needle.” Yes. Breed, little needles, breed!

But I also work and pray. There is no substitute for working and praying. And especially no substitute for working.

And every writer finds her own process. Sometimes ideas from another person’s process can fold into one’s own writing practice, and sometimes not. The key is to have a writing practice, and to find the place where your poems live and go there often.

6 thoughts on “some notes on process: the writing notebook

  1. You are so organized! I admire that. I probably ought to catalog my notebooks somehow, maybe after I retire from my day job. (ha). Tricks can help; Ryan’s words are spot on! You have to get the brewing started somehow.

    • I don’t feel very organized but I try to do a few things to tame the chaos. Glad I’m not the only one who thinks tricks are sometimes helpful!

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