I Would Be Lost As a Writer If It Weren’t For Notebooks ‹ Literary Hub


Once, when I was very stuck on a book I was writing, I went shopping for a pair of pants. I didn’t know it, but the store I went to was running a promotion: Buy a pair of pants and get a free notebook. Or maybe it was: Spend a certain amount of money and get a free notebook. Either way, when I went to pay, the woman who rang me up slipped a small white notebook into my bag.

I didn’t need the notebook necessarily—I had other notebooks at home, ones I had carefully picked out in gift shops and stationery stores, ones so beautiful or cool that I was afraid to write in any of them—but I needed the pants, so I walked out of the store that day with both.

When I got home I put the notebook on my nightstand until I figured out what to do with it. Maybe I would see if my husband wanted it, or I would give it away to a friend. That night, I was lying in bed, thinking about my then novel-in-progress, or novel-in-un-progress, as it were—it was truly going so badly—when a sentence wormed its way into my mind. I sat up, fumbled for a pen, and scribbled the sentence in the notebook that was next to me. Then I lay back down and went to sleep.

Sometimes that happens. You have a late-night moment of insight and you write something on whatever’s available. For me, by morning, what I thought was a brilliant moment of insight usually looks more like a moment of delusion. Strike it! Cross it out! Not useful in the least!

But that next morning, when I read the sentence I had written, it wasn’t…bad. It was even kind-of good. In fact, it was the first kind-of good thing I had written in months.

Instantly I decided: The notebook was magic.

Instantly I decided: The notebook was magic.

I started carrying that notebook with me everywhere. I sat on airplanes and wrote, I sat in hotel rooms and wrote, I waited in my car in the preschool pick-up line and wrote. The notebook was easy. It was portable, it didn’t need time to restart, it didn’t need to be charged, it didn’t need to be shut down in airport security lines and removed from my bag. I simply turned back the cover, and it was ready. I opened it, and somehow, immediately I was more open, too.

Maybe it mattered that it wasn’t a notebook I bought. It wasn’t precious to me in any way, I didn’t choose it lovingly, thinking it would be the place where I started a new book. And because of that, writing in it was free of pressure. The notebook was a place where I could experiment, cross things out, mess around. It was, in other words, gloriously unofficial, and it offered the sense that writing, instead of being work, was something more akin to play.

Maybe it mattered that writing by hand, in journals, is how I first discovered I loved writing, way back when I was in high school. I used to sit in my bedroom, recording the day or writing terrible poems or penning diatribes about the world, and I enjoyed it so much—trying to string words together in ways that seemed novel or true—that by the time I left for college, I thought I might have found what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.

Returning to both the same medium and method after so many years was a return to an original impulse. It was remembering why and how I fell in love with writing to begin with.

Maybe the notebook functioned like a trick. An important trick, it turned out. It was easy to convince myself that no one would ever read what I wrote in a notebook that I stored in a drawer next to my bed. It felt entirely private, not meant for consumption by anyone other than me. After all, what was I going to do? Send my editor a notebook full of handwritten thoughts? And if no one was going to read it, I could write anything—no matter how tangential or weird or out-and-out bad—without fear of judgement.

But the almost-losing of the notebook entire and the actual-losing of various phrases was far outweighed by what I had gained, which was a way back—to writing, to an inexpressible joy while writing.

Maybe it was that writing by hand, on paper, was slower than typing. My mind is outpaced by typing. With my fingers frenetically tap-dancing atop a keyboard, thoughts don’t have the same time to form, and I don’t have the same time to follow them. Writing by hand slows me down just enough that I can catch the smoke trails of ideas before they disappear, and if I follow them, they lead me down paths that otherwise might have gone unexplored.

Maybe it was that by writing by hand, on paper, I was physically closer to the words as they emerged. I could feel my hand on the paper alongside the words as I formed them. I tended to hunch over the notebook, my face hovering only inches above it, watching the ink bloom into letters, watching the characters bloom, watching the story bloom, and huddled close like that, the rest of the world fell away. There was no possible other world—no software, no websites—aside from my mind and the sound of the words as they slithered through it and my hand moving silently across the page.

And maybe it was that, too. The kinesthetics of the motion itself. Dragging my hand across the page had a curious effect. Stylistically, my sentences got longer, as if by my very movement, I was physically dragging the sentences out, too, pulling them longer like taffy.

And when I filled up that first notebook and started writing in another where the pages were blank, something changed again. No longer hemmed in by lines, I started writing sideways and diagonally and in tiny pockets of space. When I ran out of room, I drew a long, sinuous arrow to an empty patch—no matter where it was—and kept on. Nothing was deliberate or planned, nothing rigid or constrained. It was just an organic unfolding, a thicket of wild disorder, and in it I felt absolutely free.

Writing by hand in notebooks was not without its perils, of course. I left one notebook in the seatback pocket of an airplane and was halfway up the jet bridge before I realized it and ran back. A kind flight attendant retrieved it for me.

I was reminded again and again that a notebook unfortunately does not have a built-in search function, no command+F, and several times I knew, I just knew, that I had written something down, something completely perfect and utterly irreproducible of course, but beyond being able to visualize that it was in the bottom right corner of a left-facing page, among all the hundreds of bottom right corners of left-facing pages, I somehow could never find it again.

But the almost-losing of the notebook entire and the actual-losing of various phrases was far outweighed by what I had gained, which was a way back—to writing, to an inexpressible joy while writing. And because of that, the way back turned out to be the way forward, too.

For the next five years, I wrote in notebooks. What would become my third novel—The Great Divide—took form on ivory unlined pages, one after the other, pages occasionally littered with research notes (lists of flora and fauna, currency conversions, the cost of various foods), and small hand-drawn maps, and plot timelines, and reminders to self (everyone gets a heartbeat, you are not a tour guide, john wears glasses), but pages where the story of the characters came to life in a tangle of paragraphs and scenes, the sentences slantwise and askew, arrows everywhere.

Eventually, of course, I had to get everything into a computer: the flowing river running into the dam. But before I did, every morning as I huddled close to the paper, pen in hand, I was happy just to be swept up in the current at all.


The Great Divide - Henriquez, Cristina

The Great Divide by Cristina Henriquez is available via Ecco.

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