People have kept diaries, journals, and personal notebooks for a very long time. Human beings are meaning seekers; we want to know why we’re here and what it all means. We want answers to unanswerable questions, and so we filter and fashion meaning from our personal experiences and reflections. In seeking meaning, we create it.
That’s what our diaries, journals, notebooks, bits of paper, and napkin scrawls are all about. We record and reflect to make sense of our inner and outer worlds. Some people are happy with the process of keeping the journal or notebook; others want to turn their entries into creative material.
There are many ways to do this recording and reflecting in written form. What I call the book that houses these entries depends on the form I’m using.
My journal (or diary) houses my stream of consciousness thoughts and emotions. I write in full sentences and write whatever is on my mind. It’s where I do my Morning Pages (from Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way).
My personal notebook is different from my journal. It travels with me everywhere I go and holds fragments of ideas, snippets of inspiration, quotes, observations, and descriptions – the pieces of what I hope will become creative material.
I like to keep the two separate. They both offer insight and inspiration, but I find I approach each one from a different headspace, so I give them different physical space. You must do what works for you.
The ideas in this post are for what I call my personal notebook, which is pretty much the same as what writers refer to as their writer’s notebook. It doesn’t matter what kind of creative you are, your personal notebook is an invaluable tool, and I hope to offer you some ideas for what to include in it.
Keep a notebook. Travel with it, eat with it, sleep with it. Slap into it every stray thought that flutters up into your brain. Cheap paper is less perishable than
gray matter, and lead pencil markings endure longer than memory.
Your notebook stores all the shiny, weird, and wonderful stuff you pickpocket from the world with the hopes of using it to create something of your own.
I was inspired to start keeping a personal notebook because of my writing. I began collecting ideas and observations. But I’m also a reader, and I wanted to keep track of my thoughts about the books I read, the quotes I liked, and notes on further reading. I wanted to make my reading work for me, which then extended to podcasts I listened to, blogs I read, and everything that offers information, inspiration, and growth. I wanted to collect it all in one place so that when I looked back through my notebook, I could draw from everything at once, find parallels, and maybe make new connections.
Keeping a notebook is important, but going back through your notebook is how you turn it into creative material. Austin Kleon writes in this post about the importance of having a system for going back through your notebooks and suggestions on how to do that.
“The point is, listen like a thief; keep a journal and enter into it what you steal from the world; read it over now and then, maybe every night; see what it makes of you; see what you can make of it.”
Mark Tredinnick, Writing Well
Your notebook is the ultimate tool for introspection, creative expression, and even personal growth. But it can only be as good as what you put in it.
Here are a few ideas for what to include in your notebook for writers, creatives, and everybody. Take what serves your purposes, leave out what doesn’t.
When you have great ideas, write them down. In fact, write down every idea that comes to mind; because, while it might not mean much to you at that moment, it could turn into a great idea later on in the context of new information.
My idea entries are often snippets: an abstract noun and a short explanation of a direction or line of thought to develop. Sometimes, I get a fully formed idea for a blog post, other times an idea for a topic to explore, a story angle, a theme to flesh out, or a subject for a creative project. You’ll be amazed how quickly these light bulb moments fade away if you don’t write them down, so don’t rely on your memory.
Sources of Inspiration
Keep note of all your sources of inspiration and references. Include the name of the person/book/blog/podcast, the idea that inspired you (this can be a quote, a topic, or a description), and where you found it (so you can share it with others or return to it yourself). Give it some context so that you remember why it inspired you, and if it triggered an idea of your own or a response, include that.
Nothing is original, all art is theft. But if we keep a note of where an idea came from, what it’s original form was, and build on or transform it, we avoid copying someone else’s work.
If you don’t plan to use it as a source of your own creative work, you can document it as the inspiration of insight or a reminder for further exploration.
I love collecting quotes. They are great for inspiration and motivation, and they add some extra magic to your writing. The right quote can be a powerful affirmation. If you come across quotes that really speak to you, record them and note the source. Reading back over quotes you’ve collected can inspire new ideas, motivate you, soothe you, or make you think.
Having a collection of quotes you’ve discovered through your reading or elsewhere is much more personal than googling quotes for a specific purpose. And the chances of you using the same quotes as everybody else are much lower this way.
Reading Reviews + Lists
As a developing writer, there came a moment where my reading turned into something more than a pleasant escape. It became an opportunity for learning. I started to write about how books made me feel, what I learned from them, and I recorded especially beautiful sentences. I’ve read many books that I know I enjoyed but can’t remember anything specific about why I liked them. Reading back over my reviews reminds me of what I learned, what worked (or didn’t) in the writing, and how I can use that to develop my craft. It’s what I like to think of as purposeful reading, and it’s an approach I took to my reading when I began taking writing more seriously but knew I would have to self-educate.
The purposeful reading approach is why I started creating reading lists. When you want to improve your writing, particularly in a specific genre, you want to read the very best. I began putting together reading lists with prize winning novels and recommended reading from literature graduate programs with that goal in mind. Now, I add the titles of any books that sound interesting or are recommended by someone I respect. Whether or not I’ll get to read everything on my reading lists is a whole other story, but they’re helpful when I’m struggling to figure out what to read next.
Observations + Details
What you see in the world around you are the details that bring your work to life and anchor it in reality. Your observations, the details of what you see, can help you set vivid scenes, breath life into characters, create layers in your work that give it depth and texture.
Growing up in Southern Africa, I’m no stranger to street performers. But, when I moved to Portugal I saw a completely different kind of street performer and it blew me away. The clothes, the props, the characterisation, the cultural details, every element was so vastly different from anything I had ever seen before that I had to write down every detail. I didn’t want to forget how it felt to witness this while it was still new to me.
It’s easier to notice these details when you’re new to a place, but if you make a habit of writing down interesting details, vignettes of people and scenes, I’m sure it’ll get easier.
Write down what you see, smell, hear, and taste. These are the details that bring writing to life. Sensory details set the imagination alight, so if you want people to journey with you, give them details that provoke their senses.
If you go somewhere new, try to focus on capturing the sensory details as soon as possible because your senses will quickly become accustomed to the smells and sounds around you. When I first arrived in Porto, there was an overwhelming smell of oranges for me. In fact, having come from Africa, the smells were the strongest indicator that I was somewhere completely new and it was powerful.
Record the bigger picture details of the world around you. Setting the scene and showing the passing of time is given an added layer with seasonal details of life and nature. I write about seasonal observations in greater depth in this post.
Dialogue, fashion, and mannerisms, write it all down. People are weird and wonderful creatures and I have seen things in real life that I never could have made up on my own. You’ve got to look to other people if you want to write different people, or you risk making everyone look like versions of yourself. Others also offer inspiration and get us asking questions about the world: why people do what they do, what society says about us and how it influences us, about culture, nature and the human condition – the meat of life.
Similar to sensory details, but about the places you travel to. Record what you see in the places you visit. Pay attention to how places feel, what they smell like, what people eat, how people live, the state of infrastructure and quality of life, how people get around, what they wear, and what the weather’s like. Don’t forget to look at your home in a similar way, because your home is unfamiliar to everyone but its inhabitants.
Facts + Research
Learn something new or obscure? Write it down. You never know when a good, verifiable fact will come in handy. Sometimes data tells us interesting things about the world that can inspire ideas or make you reconsider what you thought to be true. All good stuff for creative work and personal growth.
If you’re doing research on a topic you can include it in your notebook alongside any ideas or notes you have on the topic, source information, links, and further reading. Depending on your preferences, you might want to make a note of facts and research in a separate project notebook. This is completely up to you.
I prefer to keep research and information specific to a project or article I’m working on separate because the way I discover this information is different. If I discover or observe something in the course of my day organically, it goes in my personal notebook. If I’m working on something specific and actively looking for information, what I find goes in my project notebook (which is much bigger in size than my personal notebook and stays at my desk). For me, it’s about the difference between serendipitous vs. procured inspiration.
Useful Tools + Websites
Have you found a tool, program, or website you found particularly useful? You might want to make a list of them. When I started translating, I discovered a few valuable websites and tools. I made a list of them for future reference, and it turned out to be a lifesaver. Having that list to come back to when I needed help reminded me of resources that I often completely forgot about and which made the job much easier.
What do you keep track of in your personal notebook? I’d love to hear if you have other ideas for entries in a writing or creativity notebook.