Let’s talk about Margaret Atwood for a second.
Why Atwood? (Okay, yes — Season 4 of The Handmaid's Tale is now out!)
However, not only is she one of the most famous, most celebrated writers working today, she’s almost unimaginably prolific. As of right now, April 2021, Margaret Atwood has published a mind-boggling 66 books.
The woman is 81 years old. She was about 22 when she published her first short story collection, so she’s averaging more than a book per year over the span of her career.
How can one person possibly write so much? Where do all those ideas come from?
Now, I don’t know Margaret Atwood personally (she won’t return my calls), but smart money says she’s got stacks and stacks of notebooks filled out somewhere.
#thenotebookproject: Writer’s Notebooks and the Pre-Writing Stage
Today I’m going to talk about what a notebook can do for you in the pre-writing stage.
What do I mean by pre-writing?
I mean that you can use your notebook to generate ideas. You can generate your own writing prompts.
How the heck do I prompt myself?
Ideas can, and do, come from anywhere. When you have one, write it down in your notebook!
But sometimes, you might find yourself sitting at home, with that rare, precious resource so many writers—especially women writers—struggle to find: time.
And now that you finally have the time to write, you’re sitting there in front of the computer screen, and you’ve got nothing. Your mind is as blank as the page.
So step away from the computer, grab your notebook and pen, and start writing about the most mundane thing you can think of.
Don’t even think about writing “well”—don’t worry about technique or aesthetics, or things like imagery, theme, symbolism. Not even grammar and spelling.
It doesn’t have to be good. It’s not a final draft; it’s not even really a draft. It’s just words.
Write lists, musings on your day, rants about something in the news, descriptions of last night’s dream or this morning’s pancakes. Anything goes!
Here are some examples:
Pick a colour. Write a list of all your favourite things you can think of that are that colour. Then write a separate list of all your least favourite things the same colour. Do it over again for as many colours as you want.
(Not interested in colours? Okay, try temperatures—favourite and least-favourite hot things, cold things, lukewarm things. Big or small things; loud or quiet things; textures, shapes; the possibilities are endless!)
Write down every room in your house. For each room, write down what sorts of activities you might do in that room. Then write about what sorts of activities you could, or would, never do in that room.
Go through your closet. What clothes do you wear most? Why? Is it because they’re the most stylish, the most comfortable, the most flattering? Write about them. Then write about the clothes that you wear the least, and why you hang onto them anyway. (Bonus: How would this sort of list be different if we weren’t living in a pandemic right now?)
Or move on to your kitchen pantry and think about the spices you use most and least often, the condiments, the cookbooks. The possibilities are endless here too.
If you’re out of the house with your notebook, look around you. People-watch. Write down what you see. Describe buildings, landscapes, roads, cars, clouds, bugs. Describe art on the walls of doctors’ offices. Describe city noise and how it’s different from country noise.
What did you do yesterday? What did you do today? What do you plan to do tomorrow? If it’s all the same, write about that. If there are differences, find them. Get into the heart of how you feel about your daily routine, or your lack thereof.
The point of all this is—when you don’t have an idea for a specific poem, story, or other literary work, just write about the first thing you can think of, even if it doesn’t seem very artistic or entertaining.
Okay, you have some lists and descriptions: what now?
The idea for a real poem or story might not come out of these mundane writing activities automatically. But you’d be surprised what you can find when you look back later through your lists and descriptions.
You’ll probably surprise yourself. You’ll find connections where you didn’t think they existed.
Maybe you’ll find yourself drawn to the cookbook inventory, and you’ll start thinking about why you like certain dishes more than others, and what that says about you—or your generation, or your culture, or whatever.
Maybe in the people-watch descriptions you’ll find an idea for a scene or story.
And even though some material might be unusable (and some of it will be), you’re still doing important preparatory work: you’re carving out space for creativity in your life.
You’re putting words on paper. In short, you’re writing.
Margaret Atwood got started somewhere, and so will you.
Next month, we’ll talk about why writing by hand is different from typing.
#thenotebookproject: Free Mini-Course and Writing Exercises Each Month!
Your writer’s notebook is an important tool to help you generate new ideas, practice your craft and write more consistently.
Join #thenotebookproject and get immediate access to a free mini-course guiding you on how to set yourself up for using your notebook effectively AND a set of 4 new writing exercises for you to use in your writing notebook.
You'll receive 4 new writing exercises on the first Monday of each month, every month for 6 months. (That's 2 dozen different writing exercises in total!) It’s completely free for my email subscribers (Yay!) and you can sign up here to get access. The mini-course goes live on Monday, May 3rd so sign up now!
And don’t forget to pop by my Facebook page on Friday, April 30, at 5pm Eastern for a notebook giveaway! (The last Friday of each month, I’ll be giving away a notebook during my regular weekly Facebook Lives.)