Narrow Down Your Notebook Stash
as writers, we've all got a hoard of blank notebooks somewhere...
Most of us hanging out here on Vocal are writers of some sort. Call us what you want - wordsmiths, story spinners, pen jockeys - the fact is, most of us include writing as some aspect of our identity, for better or for worse.
Being a writer comes with a number of odd little side effects. Some of us have permanent pencil calluses, others sleep in wrist braces after typing all day. Nearly every writer faces the same barrage of questions from well meaning acquaintances: What are you writing about? Where do you get your ideas? Can you put me in your story?
(The answers are, in order: I won't know until I'm done, everywhere, and trust me, you really don't want that.)
But one aspect of the writerly life that seems endemic to writers of all stripes and types is the notebook hoard.
We get them as gifts, we pick them up as treats to ourselves, we acquire them for free at conferences, we win them in contests, and eventually we start to suspect they may be multiplying of their own accord on our shelves.
To be a writer is to have at least one stack somewhere of beautiful, but unused, notebooks. We hang onto them, planning someday to start that perfect project, to put them to brilliant use. But rather than inspiring our creativity and providing opportunities to write amazing things, they often become a source of anxiety, triggering our perfectionistic instincts by making us worry that we shouldn't write in them until, and unless, we have just the right thing to say.
I'm someone who deals with anxiety and perfectionism, and I've also had to move a bunch of times in the last few years, meaning that my collection of notebooks was becoming more and more of a problem. The last time I moved, I determined to do something about my notebook hoard, which had swelled to two entire shelves' worth of empty pages. They brimmed with potential, but it had gone unrealized for years - in some cases, even decades.
That's right. At the ripe old age of thirty, I was still hauling around notebooks I'd gotten as a high school or college student, but I'd never written in them.
So I decided to do something about that. I decided I didn't want to move yet another box of empty notebooks to yet another apartment, and I especially didn't want to pay to store them. I didn't want to devote space in my life to a bunch of things that made me feel anxious and pressured. I made it my mission to find uses or homes for the ones I actually liked, then get rid of the ones that didn't make the cut.
If you're a writer who, like me, suffers from Notebook Collecting Affliction, I encourage you to do the same.
Here are the methods I used to winnow down my notebook collection:
Method One: Just Get Rid Of Some!
Not all notebooks are created equal. Some of the ones in my hoard were actually quite useless. For instance, one of them had a three-dimensional cover, depicting a unicorn with a glass marble for an eye. (It was sort of like this cool sculptural piece I found on Etsy.) It looked awesome, but it was basically impossible to write in! The sculpted cover meant it didn't lay flat, and it wobbled around as I tried to write.
If you have a notebook you're keeping because the cover is beautiful, but it's not actually pleasant to use, find a way to display the cover as a work of art, and let go of it as a notebook. Remove the cover and frame it or prop the notebook up on a shelf, and effectively remove it from your collection of notebooks.
Some of my notebooks were also not great for writing in because I didn't like the paper inside. I have tiny, cramped handwriting, so I prefer lines that are narrow and close together. Notebooks with wide ruled lines were never going to be comfortable for me to use, so I donated them to a local school supply drive. I also don't like writing on blank paper, so those were out as well.
One notebook had enormous margins, leaving me only the center of the page on which to write. For someone working on a project with lots of marginalia, doodles, or annotations, it would have been perfect. But it wasn't right for me. Another one was printed on such cheap paper that no matter what pen or pencil I used, everything got too smeary. Bye!
Your first task is to go through all your notebooks and determine which ones you'd actually write in. Test them with your favorite pen, while sitting at your standard writing desk. If they don't work, toss 'em out!
Method Two: Get Social
Writing often feels like a solitary pursuit, so our notebook hoard seems like something we should plan to use by ourselves. But there are plenty of projects that involve notebooks and get other people involved, connect with others, and bridge the gap between the lone writer's mind and your support system.
One of the most common ways I started using my old notebooks is to write letters. If I found a notebook with paper I especially liked, I would carefully tear out the pages and use them to write to friends and family. Plush, lovely paper with perfectly spaced lines made it more fun to write letters, making it more likely that I'll actually sit down and pen a missive.
People love getting my letters, and no one seems to mind that some of the edges are a bit ragged. Plus, I get a powerful sense of satisfaction when I "finish" a notebook by ripping out the last page. If you aren't sure what to start writing in a notebook, find a pen pal and get started!
You can also keep a notebook intact while still getting social with it. Traveling journals were all the rage when I was a teenager, and my friends and I loved to pass around the same journal, all adding to it with notes, doodles, mementos, and other nonsense. Choose a journal and get it started with a friend or two, contributing as a group to share thoughts and messages.
Method Three: Send Them On Location
For the longest time, all my notebooks lived in the same place: one of my bookshelves in my bedroom. It seemed sensible, after all. I knew where to go if I wanted to pick out a notebook or if I needed one to start a project.
Of course, I never actually did. I just made sure I had the opportunity. You know, in case inspiration struck and the only thing standing between me and the next great American novel was access to several dozen notebooks, one of which would be so perfect that its mere existence would help bring my book to fruition.
Once I decided to actually use them, and not just keep them around in case I was going to use them, I realized that they didn't do much for me when tucked away on that shelf.
I thought about all the places I often found myself needing to write something down, and I selected the right notebook for each spot.
In my car, I put a hardbound notebook with a thick spiral - that way, it could have its own pen with it, and I didn't need a hard surface to write on. If I was out and about, I'd have an easy way to take notes on an unexpected phone call or jot down a new idea.
In my purse, I put a tiny green softcover I'd bought on a whim. It was just so cute, but it seemed impractical for most actual writing purposes. Instead, it was small and light enough that it was perfect for keeping in my daily carry bag!
On my desk, I put a notebook whose cover I loved, but with relatively cheap paper. I used that for my daily to-do lists and other random notes. I liked seeing the inspirational cover every time I used it, and I didn't feel bad about churning through page after page with things that needed to be written down, but not necessarily preserved.
You get the picture. Moving your notebooks around and making them accessible to you where, and when, you actually have reason to write in them means they're no longer collecting dust on a shelf.
Method Four: Give Them Jobs
This is, perhaps, the hardest of my four methods. Like I explained in my intro, the problem of blank notebooks is often one of anxiety and even shame, as we refuse to write in them until we're sure we have an idea or a project that is "worthy."
But one of the best ways of dealing with shame and anxiety is something called "opposite action," where you just do the thing that's scaring you, even though you're scared, rather than waiting for some magical courage to appear.
I decided to "feel the fear and do it anyway," and just start writing in my notebooks. I thought about the handful of projects I'd been thinking about, and just committed to starting some of them in my notebooks.
One thing that helped was starting with the notebooks that would be "forgiving" if my project didn't work out. That meant spiral bound notebooks where I could remove any number of pages without leaving anything behind. If I used the first 20 pages as a dream journal, then gave up or realized dream journaling wasn't for me, I could rip them out and use the notebook for something else later, and I wouldn't be stuck flipping past an abandoned project or the remnants of torn-out pages.
Another thing that helped was starting with projects that were easy to do. As much as I liked the idea of a vision board and scrapbook full of pasted-in ticket stubs, magazine clippings, stickers, and other cool visual elements, that was itself a whole project, one that would require other materials and even new skills. I set that idea aside and focused on something more achievable: a gratitude journal.
I've long known that gratitude practices are great, and I wanted to dedicate one notebook to a daily recording of three things that had made me happy during the course of a day. I picked a lovely notebook with a green leather cover and gold-foil edges, and put it next to my bed with a pen. Every evening, I write down three things that brought me joy that day.
Not only is it a healthy practice and a good bedtime ritual, it's also filling a notebook with a daily record of my life (at least, the good things about it!) The notebook is becoming an artifact worth keeping, not because it could be something one day, but because it's now full of information I'd like to carry with me.
You Don't Have To Be Perfect
Even after going through all of these methods, I ended up with a handful of notebooks that didn't have a location, didn't have a job, and yet I didn't want to give them up.
And that's okay! Sometimes the potential of a blank notebook is fun, and it's always good to have a few lying around for new projects. The key is being gentle with yourself, and making sure your notebook collection is a source of joy rather than a dead weight. Once you're not overwhelmed by the sheer number of them, you may see more possibilities than pressure when you open them up to a blank page!