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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.

My notebooks, and how I don't fill them

Middle schoolers write more stuff in my notebooks than I do.

Honestly. I carry about these little blank books that are perfect for me — first, because they don’t have spiral bindings. I learned many years ago that spiral bindings in pocket notebooks tend, over time and use, to unspiral just enough to poke holes in your clothes. And anyway I don’t like them. So I get these pocket Moleskines, good-quality old-fashioned notebooks.
But left on my own with these things, I might never fill them up.

As I look back over the last one that got filled this year, I see that I entered just a few short scribbles, mostly during visits to middle schools. “The PA doesn’t turn off.” “The girl who is a bit of everything.” “Never Mia.”

I have no idea what that last one means — but the thing is, my near-total unproductiveness in the fertile and observant note-writing that a writer is supposed to do, and I don’t, tends to contrast in my notebooks with long, intense entries from seventh and eighth graders who have grabbed the book when they’ve had the chance.

For example:

My name is Thomas and a great story would be about how a freshman boy grows up with a stressful family. The older he gets in highschool more stress builds up and he is faced with fusterating people in his school. He has problems with the amount of stress he has. Soon in his end of his freshman year he becomes good friends with Zack. As his life goes on in high school more stress builds in his family where he can’t talk to his dad. His dad has been causing most of the issues in the family. In his softmore year he learns of what good things high school has to offer. He becomes friends with a group of people and is able to enjoy his softmore year. In the summer of his junior year his mom dies in an accident and he is to devastated to communicate with other. Many students who are his friends, devote themselves to help him cheer up. I would like to see this to be a series. The last part of the story is up to you to decide what happens.

It's a good thing he's left just the last part for me to figure out. At this rate, that might be all I'd have ideas for.

Like lots of writers, I am nerdy about equipment. I’m always looking, for example, for the perfect pen for note-taking. It has to write very fast and not smear, because I’m left-handed and the heel of my hand passes quickly over any note I’ve just written ... but I think the main idea is to actually write the notes, not just be well-equipped to do it.

Recently I decided the problem has been the notebooks themselves. I tend to fill them, obviously with help, then never look back inside. They fill up a box in my closet. What use is that? So it hit me that I could instead carry around a little folder or case that’s specialized to hold blank index cards. I could write on the cards (theoretically). Then I could go find one of those index-card files, the ones with little tabs for different sections; and instead of never looking back in old filled-up notebooks, I could sort and file these index cards, so right there on my desk, so that — can you see it? — I’d have this briskly useful compendium of all my great ideas and notes and observations, sorted for easy reference and instant inspiration.

So. I got one of those folders off Amazon. I've had it for about a month. Holds a bunch of blank cards. So far I’ve written on two cards. One has notes for a currently stalled book project; the other says, “need to reset banner web pin.” Whatever that means.

And how are middle schoolers supposed to fill up these index cards, if I’m not doing it myself? Should I just pass out blank cards, maybe next week when I’m in a school in Indiana? I could, but ... I don’t think it’ll have the same resonance as, “Here’s my wonderful writer’s notebook, where all my ideas and observations go. YOU fill it up.”

Maybe I need to think about this some more. Oh yeah ... that'll help.

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