About the notebook, as a tool for works in process

In the second session of minilectures proposed for our Pedagogical Conference in Paris (November, 2012), Catherine Stahly-Mougin (France) inagurated the discussion by reflecting about the role of notebooks in the creative process and placing it as a vital source to nourish the literary ground of a work in progress


About the notebook, as a tool for works in process 

Catherine Stahly-Mougin (France)

Diary? Notebook? Which tool to accompany a work in progress?

Telling you in such a short time about “how to teach” the use of the notebook is quite an acrobatic exercise! For this little object is everything but something to be taught! It is the paradox I had to face during the last twenty years each time a new workshop started. During this time we have explored the field of this odd creative tool and shared the inventive way of using it with some hundreds students: as many people as many singular way of conceiving the notebook!

“Diary, notebook: what is the difference?” In fact this question arises around the table on the very first day of the workshop: “I have a diary, it is personal writing which I don’t want to share. On the other hand, I have a lot of notebooks but I don’t know what to write in them: private and personal things? Or readable material for others? I come to discover what it can change in my writing habits.”

To be short and a bit radical, I like to say that the word “carnet” (notebook) comes from the Latin word “quaterni” itself derived from “quattuor” > quatre (four): a sheet folded in four pages. It is the barest definition of the notebook as an object. And the most explicit!

A small bound notebook or a sheet of paper folded in four, because it is so informal and slim, one can put it anywhere: in a pocket, a bag or on a bedside table. The only fact of having it available at any time enables to catch unexpected events, to formulate what suddenly strikes you in the middle of a walk or at dawn when not yet completely awake.

Driven by a spontaneous movement in answer to an urgent necessity, one uses this object, light and flexible, like a butterfly net, mixing together fleeting thoughts and very important matters. One has to do it without delay throwing the words in haste on the paper so that they don’t fly away. One can’t say “I will write that later”, it must be caught on the spot. Taking notes on the spot is an attempt to capture an instant in the net – a vision, a flash, allowing nothing to interfere. One picks up words or bits of phrases in the yet unformulated thought and throws it quickly on the paper as to see the words so they make sense.

Writing afterwards would already be the memory of it. The time in between the two actions being covered by other events, this particular thing one wanted to grab would already be transformed and have another meaning. It would be a recollection. In some ways, it would be something closer to the diary: written afterwards, after the event. Jack London used to tell the people who asked him for some advises: “Have a notebook with you. Go everywhere with it, sleep with it. Note whatever comes upon your mind. Cheap paper is less perishable than memory and notes written with a black pencil last longer than memory”.

The user of a notebook is like an explorer, a searcher and as such, he observes things and experiments the way of saying them. His/her notebook is a laboratory: accustomed to note what he/she sees – hears – thinks or feels, he/she exercises the way of finding the right words. Lists, inventories, constellations are some of his tools, handy and simple enough to put down a rapid idea of what he wants to express. A sudden thought, an epiphany, an apparition can just be pinned with one or two words.

And over all, when aware about this meticulous exploration, he/she gets more attentive about what’s around; his/her way of looking at things is sharpened. He/she tries to shake up writing habits and to get rid of clichés ambushed in the common language.

A tool of freedom

What is written on the spot does not have to be completely clear. The handwriting, the way it’s thrown on the small pages, leaving here and there some letters completely unreadable, is a mark of the writing in movement. It sometimes is quite illegible for an outside lector! It doesn’t matter, “you understand yourself”: you know the sense of it. What is written does not have to be definitive: you’ll come back onto the subject later on or not at all! It’ll be used or not: what is important is the route accomplished throughout the successive attempts.

It is a suspended writing, unachieved. It can be quite uncomfortable to write a note in the middle of a street, or while looking at something which strikes you! You might be looked at as a fool whispering between your teeth something you don’t want to forget until you’ve found a place to write it on a piece of paper! You are on your way when suddenly something occurs: the shock, the sudden emotion has to be written down right away: it was so ephemeral! And though so intense!

For the writer or anyone who questions the meaning of things, it is a way of breathing: bring the outside inside, renew the look on things, search for a wider vocabulary, get rid of automatisms. Gain some freedom towards what repeats itself. Getting a bit naive, naked…The small dimension of the notebook makes it difficult to let the pen flow away and what we catch is just the essential.

It is not necessary to sit in front of a table to write in a notebook. One just takes it whenever needed. One exercises forms or ideas, one plays with words. What it looks like doesn’t matter: it is a tool, a workshop by itself. Picasso said about his notebooks that they were “a mobile workshop” or “a pocket workshop”!

It allows for a different way of writing, less intimidating than on a plain white sheet of paper. One doesn’t have to write nicely, one can even leave mistakes or neglect to finish a word or a phrase: one knows that it is not the matter. One can write in a telegraphic style leaving blanks, or like in stenography: some signs thrown on the page are enough to recall what is around.

Walking in the countryside, the painter Pierre Bonnard makes very quick draughts in his tiny agenda and puts some words about the weather: “A fresh day with vermilion in the orange shades and violet in the greys”. Then, back in his atelier, he looks at his notes on the sketches and says about them: “It reminds me of the light and it’s enough to evoke all the events of the day”.

In some ways, the choice of the notebook’s size seems to be kind of a game: the smaller and the more impersonal it is, the more freedom one may feel. Some are so small that they can be held in the palm of the hand! One maybe remembers the famous François Truffaut’s film: “Jules and Jim”. It is a love story about two friends and a woman whom they both love and who is in love with both of them. What is less known is the author of the book: Henri-Pierre Roché. He wasn’t a writer when at seventy six he took back his tiny little notebooks in which, thirty years earlier he had written the whole frame of the story. He then rewrote it in larger notebooks and eventually made a novel out of those different stages! The telegraphic style attracted very much the movie-director for it was already like a script: very short phrases and sequences which nowadays would be quite a modern literary tendency. The book did not have much success when it was published in 1956. Today, after more than fifty years, it is quite a best-seller! That is just to say that writing in a notebook can be the beginning of a long life story: one never knows!

Something else happens in the bounded sheets of the notebook: the juxtaposition of the notes, the multiplication of the signs, their insistence, their similitude, the variety draw a network in witch something starts to appear progressively. What happens inside this small object, one cannot presume: one must wait some time before knowing it.

When students ask: “Why should I write all these small events, for whom? It’s hard to make it interesting”… I say: “WAIT!!! Do it and wait. If nothing is written nothing will appear. It’s only when you write that something will come out. It’s quite obvious you will say? Well, it has to become a personal experience to show its efficiency.” And slowly, one course after the other, each one using it their own way will discover the effects of this weird little object. One might slip all kinds of information: a telephone number, the name of people you’ve met in the day, a note about a lecture, a sketch, a list of things to do, a reflexion about what someone said, many prosaic subjects but precious for their author as well as for the lector who follows the writer like a butterfly around a flower!

It is generally not a work to be published but a tool to accompany his owner: a vade me cum (come with me)! But if the notebook should eventually be published, the author would have formally rewritten the notes, at least put them in a readable shape. It seems that it gives a great pleasure to read back the notebooks. The author glances through the pages and then realises the path which has been covered. Although there has been a publishing work one can still feel the work in progress by the approach of the subjects, by the very concise style, by the attention put in the use of words and by the fact that the author regularly comes back towards what he is seeking.

Then comes the second question: “I have plenty of notebooks, some are really nice, the person who gave it to me is a dear friend…, though they remain desperately empty, I can’t write anything in them!”. Ernest Hemingway’s Moleskin notebook doesn’t make us genius! This small sheet of paper is cheaper and less attractive to indiscrete eyes. So, too bad for the nice Moleskin!

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