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Reading Matters

Doug Wilhelm is a full-time writer and an independent publisher in Weybridge, Vemont. His newest book is the novel STREET OF STORYTELLERS (Rootstock, 2019). His 15 previous novels for young adults include THE REVEALERS (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003), which has been the focus of reading-and-discussion projects in well over 1,000 middle schools.

Making friends with my notebook again

I like an old-fashioned copybook, with the black-and-white marble covers, and I don’t like lines. You have to send away for those. Mine come from Roaring Spring Paper Products, of Roaring Spring, Pa., and I like how that sounds. But for a long time my notebooks sat in my closet, unwritten-in, untouched for months. Even as I urged middle schoolers who were interested in writing to “make friends with a notebook,” I had let my own relationship, a key one in my life, lapse and fade.

So last week I brought the last-used notebook back out.

The first page on it is from a brainstorming session I did with sixth graders at a school in Rochester, NY, my last school visit of spring 2013, that long ago. The page has a list of possible titles we came up with for the young-adult novel I was preparing to bring out last fall; and the first entry is The Prince of Denial, which is the title I wound up using. At the time the idea didn’t seem that great, but I wrote it down anyway.

So a writer’s notebook is where ideas can be seeded. But often you feel like you have no ideas, and you’re not observing much worth noting, and then what? What I’ve been discovering this week — really, rediscovering, really and why should I have forgotten this? — is that you can write in your notebook anyway. Stuff will come up. And even if it doesn’t, you can write about that.

My basic practice is to fill two to three pages. Not to be smart or creative or to write; just to fill 2-3 pages. I’ve been rereading Wild Mind, Natalie Goldberg’s second of two very popular books on what she calls “writing practice.” She recommends timed writings — say, 10 minutes each, which amounts to the same thing, basically, as filling 2-3 pages. You start and, for a certain space, you just keep writing. You can start each sentence with “I remember,” or “I wish” or whatever occurs. You can write about a topic, like drinking or dreams or Morocco. Or you can just start to write.

The key is, you start and don’t stop. For ten minutes, for three pages, you keep your hand moving. Natalie says to lose control, to be specific, you’re free to write junk, and this is great advice! I find myself sometimes complaining, sometimes cheerleading (you can do this) ... but then stuff will come through that I didn’t know was in there, or hadn’t remembered in years.

Just now, as a warmup to writing this, I filled two pages with sentences that each began, “I remember writing in my notebook.” What came up first was one of the first times, in my 20s, that I got into this — in a pocket notebook I wrote, to my own surprise: “It matters how I feel!”

Then, I wrote, I remember sitting in a tea shop on a carpeted floor in Peshawar, describing the pile of plastic sandals and cheap cracked slippers left at the entrance, while “men with the faces of shepherds” huddled on the carpet in very earnest conversation.

This week I wrote in my notebook for just one session each day — and I quickly found myself looking forward to the next time. Something starts to happen. You find yourself naturally looking for things to write about, things to write down; and when you’re writing, you can find yourself working things out. Seeing things with some new clarity, finding some insight, discovering what you need to do next. Or what’s important now, or what was in there that needed to come through.

Discovering. It just happens, and then it becomes a process. And that is, I’m remembering again, how a notebook can become a friend in your life.

First, as with any friendship, you have to give it something of yourself. You have to show up, and be there. But when you do, you can start to find that you like being here. The notebook becomes a presence you can turn to — that you can talk to, that you can trust. Things come up that needed to. Things get worked through. There is a sense of attention, not judgment.

Like a friend. Like a good relationship. Isn’t that something?

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