Writers use their notebooks for all sorts of things. Notebooks hold the raw material – startling images, snatches of overheard conversation, phrases jotted down before they are forgotten – stuff that may wind up in a poem or story tomorrow or two years from now. Sometimes, notebooks are used for journaling or free writing. A notebook can also be the place for a writer to chart her plans: doping out the intersecting plotlines of a novel, recording research notes or keeping a running list of possible book titles. Above all else, a writer’s notebook is a private place – no readers, no judgments – where theories get tested, dreams examined and secret voices given a confidential hearing.
In Writers and Their Notebooks, two dozen poets, novelists, playwrights and memoirists “pay homage,” in the words of Phillip Lopate, to their notebooks and the “intimate scribbles” they contain. In the anthology’s forward, Lopate points out the similarity between the words“musing” and “Muse” – and indeed these contributors describe how their notebooks are essential for the various kinds of musing they do to summon the Muse, that inspirer of artistic expression. They also open their notebooks to share excerpts that illustrate how this private writing leads to their published work. This is a book both about writers and mainly for writers; its appendices include a list of writing prompts to help those newly equipped with notebooks get started. As such, it’s more likely to elicit nods of recognition (“Dorianne Laux uses her notebook just like I do!”) than any lightning-flash insights into the writing process. While you are perhaps unlikely to read it cover to cover, this book is enjoyable to browse around in, given the brevity of the essays and the diverse group who penned them.
I love notebooks and have kept them and carried them around and written in them for years: Moleskines and little Japanese notebooks from Kinokuniya perfectly sized for a back pocket, or the cache of cheap funky notebooks I brought back from Shanghai school supply stores last fall. To read the rest of the review, pick up the new issue of Pleiades.