Great writers keep a notebook and you should too

Do you take notes? I’m not just talking about grocery lists or napkins you’re going to throw away, although these are both great things.

No, I’m talking about a dedicated notebook. Notebooks are great. It doesn’t matter what yours looks like, whether it’s a quaint leather-bound gem or a cheap spiral pad or an iPhone app — the fact is, you need a place to scribble all your random thoughts as they come to you. Almost all successful writers keep a notebook handy and filled with miscellany. Some notebooks are highly organized and geared toward a specific writing project. Others are more personal, along the lines of a diary or a binding of various scrap paper.

With regards to noveling, we primarily have in mind notebooks dedicated to specific projects. This allows you to jot things down and have them available so that you don’t become defeated by the blank page. In the overview below of famous writers with notebooks, you’ll discover how writers like Guillermo del Toro (director of Pan’s Laberynth and Hellboy) keep sketches and descriptions that become signatures across disparate films connected only by the vivid mind behind them, while other writers like Fyodor Dostoevsky kept notebooks for specific novels at specific times.

The point is that there is no wrong way to keep a notebook, other than not doing it. Let’s look at why excellent writers have thought this to be true, and along the way, I hope you’ll be inspired with ideas for your own notebook potential.

Guillermo del Toro

Back in 2013, perhaps the most famed director of the so-called Mexican New Wave,1 Guillermo del Toro, shared his notebooks with the world in what’s probably the best picture book you’ll ever read, Guillermo del Toro Cabinet of Curiosities: My Notebooks, Collections, and Other Obsessions.

Del Toro keeps feverish notebooks that rival the amount of detail of another great notetaker, Leonardo da Vinci. In fact, the fantasy horror director even special orders his leather-bound notebooks from Italy.

Del Toro’s personal pages feature colorful sketches of characters and symbols that would go on to appear in many of his films. He talks here about how his drawings and notes give him inspiration across the body of his works, saying he always goes over old notebooks when starting new projects to see what insidious characters or quirky artifacts he can use or reuse. This happens, for instance with very similar-looking clock men appearing in Cronos and Hellboy. Read here for more examples.

What an awesome drop cap!
What an awesome drop cap!

But I don’t mention del Toro because he is a visual artist. You may not have realized it, but del Toro has dabbled in noveling with the vampire trilogy The Strain and the recent people-eater yarn Trollhunters. Doubtless his voluminous notebooks provided him with more than enough inspiration. And as visual as his notebooks may seem, he squeezes in quite a few words on those pages. Take a look at these cool examples.

Fyodor Dostoevsky

This Russian novelist wrote five major novels and several smaller works, and he kept notebooks dedicated to whatever he was writing. Back in the ’70s, Prof. Edward Wasoliak made this rather large collection of notes available to English readers. Wasoliak says the notebooks contain “drawings, jottings about practical matters, doodlings of various sorts, calculations about pressing expenses, sketches, and random remarks.”

So you can keep notebooks dedicated to specific projects, but having a notebook affords you enough disorganization to let your thoughts and creativity flow. That’s the whole point of keeping a creative notebook — trap your inspirations before they leave you.

One interesting factoid is that Dostoevsky made quite a few visual sketches in his notebooks even if he was primarily a master of words.

Not as good a visual artist as del Toro, but not too shabby either.
Not as good a visual artist as del Toro, but not too shabby either.

Virginia Woolf

The famed early feminist writer Virginia Woolf kept a very personal diary in which we often catch glimpses of her battle with depression. Although her notebooks were filled primarily with private thoughts, she believed keeping notes “loosens the ligaments” when it comes to writing professionally.

This just goes to show that the particular way you use a notebook is completely up to you. Your mind might work better thinking in terms of a personal diary, or you might keep more formal notes. I’d recommend the latter if you ever become famous and want to publish your notebooks without embarrassment!

Woolf's notebook. Sadly, no pictures.
Woolf’s notebook. Sadly, no pictures.

Mark Twain

The Art of Manliness blog featured a nice list of famous authors and their notebooks back a few years ago. Mark Twain made the list, as he filled his notebooks “with observations of people he met, thoughts on religion and politics, drawings and sketches of what he saw on his travels, potential plots for books, and even ideas for inventions.”

He had his own leather notebooks custom-made with tabs at the top for easy page-turning. (You can do that when your novels get famous enough.)

Mark Twain perfecting a witty joke.
Mark Twain perfecting a witty joke.

You see? It takes work to be witty, all of which can be accomplished by a nice companion notebook.

Ernest Hemingway

Ever wanted to laze away the day at the cafes in France while working on your next creative writing? That’s what Ernest Hemingway decided to do with his life, and personally it sounds like a fine way to live.

Wrote Hemingway in A Moveable Feast:

I would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, “Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.”

The only image of one of Hemingway’s notebooks that I have been able to find is the one below that made it’s way around the web a while back. Written when he was a child in elementary school, it already displays his aspirations of traveling and writing. Good note-taking habits start young, but don’t get discouraged. It’s never too late!

Very adult handwriting for a child, no?
Very adult handwriting for a child, no?

I hope you enjoyed this brief rundown showing the importance of keeping a notebook. Personally, I keep my phone’s Notes app filled with random novel ideas mixed in with grocery and to-do lists. The medium is up to you, and whatever you choose will prove to be rewarding both to your art and to your workflow.

  1. Including Alfonso Cuarón, director of Gravity and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Askaban, and Alejandro Iñárritu, director of Babel, 21 Grams and The Revenant. ↩︎

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