Wednesday, December 14, 2011


I started using Field Notes as a carry-everywhere capture tool a few months ago. I had been following some iPhone/Elements/GTD workflow stuff that I had learned of through Merlin Mann's work. However, the process of pulling out my phone, typing in the password, and then opening Elements eventually began to feel far more laborious then pulling out a notebook and writing something down with pen and ink.

At the same time, I've also had a growing interest in creative writing. So as handy as the Field Notes may be, I also had a need for a notebook that would be more comfortable for writing longer pieces and for longer periods.

Natalie Goldberg's Writing Down the Bones, recommended on many an episode of Back to Work, says the following about notebooks:

Sometimes people buy expensive hardcover journals. They are bulky and heavy, and because they are fancy, you are compelled to write something good. Instead you should feel that you have permission to write the worst junk in the world and it would be okay ... A cheap spiral notebook lets you feel that you can fill it quickly and afford another.

From about sixth through eighth grades, in addition to the required textbooks and notebooks, I carried a marble composition book wrapped in brown paper, and that was my drawing book. Well, drawing and writing and just about anything else. I recall how in one such book, I wrote a science fiction story. I started it, and kept adding to it whenever I felt like it, with no predetermined plot. It had no end, aside from where it stopped.

This seemed to be in the spirit that Goldberg was suggesting, so I picked one up in the stationery section of the supermarket.

Both of these tools, little Field Notes books, and the larger composition book, have served their purposes well, and I must admit that part of the fun has been not only the writing, but also seeing these physical objects accumulate a healthy and pleasant looking amount of everyday wear and tear.

The covers of the Field Notes books get bent and wrinkled over the course of their 3 - 4 week tenures in my left front pants' pockets, and the composition book's pages develop this great crinkling sound as they get indented with ballpoint pen.

On a purely aesthetic level, it's nice to watch a tool age with grace, like the cast iron skillet described in Khoi Vinh's great post Designed Deterioration.

In this case, the fun is also the physical reminder that I've done something, performed at least the bare minimum that is the activity of writing that Goldberg, as well as Anne LaMont, advocate as very nearly an end it itself.

There's more to go- consciously orchestrating plot, story, structure, characters. But these are all areas that I've spent lots of time on in the past, resulting in some decently structured, but otherwise pretty hollow feeling pieces. What I haven't done is mess around, write on impulse, jot down ideas, and in the end, try to push through to come out with something that has guts attached to it.

That's a disgusting image.

Anyway, the closest thing that I can think of is the difference between how I would read a part during a first readthrough of a play, with conscious confidence and strong choices. Then in the midst of rehearsal, I'd get lost amidst trying to peg the character. And then hopefully, in the end, I came out ok, with the conscious acting choices melding together with the stuff in between.

With writing, I'm trying to similarly put these left and right brain pieces together, because I don't think I've ever put quite enough work into it to get past the "first readthrough" stage. At the present, this is happening through muddling about with pen and paper every day and filling up notebooks.

I have to admit that there are likely dozens, if not hundreds, if not thousands of posts online about writing and notebooks, and I've read at least a handful of them. As they've likely influenced my thoughts on the matter a good deal, here are a few links to posts that I've found particularly insightful:

  1. The aforementioned Designed Deterioration post by Khoi Vinh
  2. Objectified, film by Gary Hustwit about industrial design
  3. Sweet Decay, at randsinrepose, by Michael Lopp. In the post, Lopp does a thorough comparison of various notebook types, from Moleskine to Field Notes, and eloquently describes the appeal of a notebook that "decays gracefully".