How to Keep a Notebook


My women’s suffrage commonplace, homestead commonplace, and field book cover.

Keeping a notebook, a journal, a diary has been important to me for as long as I can remember, I think because, although it does not look good on paper, I am very important to me. My relationship with myself has easily been the most challenging—learning to control myself, finding the depths of my lows and reigning in the highs of my highs, learning that there was not some mysterious “real me” lurking underneath all of that, learning how and when to tell myself to cut the bullshit. Much of that has happened on paper. I’m better for it.

Assuming that my experience isn’t extraordinary, counselors probably advise people to keep journals because at some point in the writing of whatever theory you have about why you feel so crummy, you will start to hear the ridiculous egotism of your inner-monologue. Or its cruelty. Or faulty logic. Or maybe we just get tired of ourselves when we have to write out our thoughts. I don’t know. I have a Ph.D. in literature, not psychology.

We English majors, however, are likely to point toward Joan Didion on this subject. In her 1968 collection Slouching Toward Bethlehem, she writes that keeping a notebook keeps us in touch with ourselves. My notebook will not help you. Yours won’t help me.

“It all comes back. Perhaps it is difficult to see the value in having one’s
self back in that kind of mood, but I do see it; I think we are well advised
to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be whether we find
them attractive company or not. Otherwise they turn up unannounced and
surprise us, come hammering on the mind’s door at 4 a.m. of a bad night
and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is
going to make amends. We forget all too soon the things we thought we
could never forget.” -Joan Didion, “On Keeping a Notebook”

Keeping a Field Book

IMG_20200425_120350074There are many reasons to keep a notebook, though. As I learned to keep better company with myself, my notes focused more on the world outside my head. After reading David Sedaris’s Theft By Finding: Diaries (1977-2002)I decided that if I really wanted to write well, I should probably start carrying a notebook and writing stuff down a lot more. At first, I tried to keep a notebook in Google Docs. It was simple and always on whatever device was at hand. But it was so easy to completely forget about. And it lacked style. I looked into Bullet Journaling. It’s so cute, but I am just too lazy for the amount of planning it requires and, even with the stencils and skinny-tip color pens I bought, I lack the artistic skill required. I tried and failed to keep The Morning Pages several times. I am, at heart, a chaos muppet. I need a notebook that allows me to sort-of lack discipline.

After my father passed away, I was looking for something in his desk and I found a little leather field book cover, complete with a ~3″x5″ notebook. I resisted the urge to take it, because at that point everything felt sacred and if I didn’t fight the impulse, I would have moved all his random stuff home with me. But, the notebook stuck in my brain. Dad had style. I found an imitation leather version, added it to my Christmas list, and received it from my brother and sister-in-law. Since then, I have tried (and mostly succeeded) to fill one field book per month.

I like the style of a field book for a few key reasons.

  1. Because this style is inspired by surveyors’ notebooks, it does not have the self-reflexive vibe that I previously invested in diaries. These are my observations. Sometimes they are about me; often they are not.
  2. They are little, so I can actually finish a book in a month. That sense of completion propels me into the next book and I get that “yay! fresh notebook!” feeling to keep me going. Before, I would buy pretty notebooks and never finish them, because they felt too precious for the random crap that takes up a lot of brain space. (Many have become commonplace books. More on that in a moment.)
  3. Field books are pocket-sized, so they are easy to slip in my purse, coat, etc.

Very basically, the first five-to-seven pages of each month’s field book are dedicated to lists and trackers, bringing in some of that bullet journal impulse. The rest are free-form.

Here are my suggested field book front pages:

  • A writing log to track time spent writing and on what project. (mine is usually mostly empty)
  • A habit tracker (I make a simple grid. Days of the month go down, habits go across)
  • A list of books read
  • A list of new words learned, their definition, and where I read/heard them
  • A shopping list and meal planner
  • A prayer list (If you do not pray, I still recommend something like this page, so that you can keep track of the people in your circle who are struggling, and come back to it with love. It’s also a good reality check when you’re having a bad day.)

The rest of the book, I fill with notes, overheard bits of dialogue, to-do lists, stray thoughts, descriptions of things I find interesting or beautiful, etc. In other words, the various bits of life that I find wonderful, humorous, or terrible. Most recently, I have been riffing on The Morning Offering Journal to start my days.

I am 18 months into the habit and some months go better than others. Since the COVID-19 lockdown, my notebook has been more abandoned than I’d like, but I’m trying to get back to it. Once I feel like I have earned it, I plan to reward myself with Field Notes’ National Parks series of books, because they are gorgeous.

Keeping a Commonplace Book

Sometimes, I need to keep a notebook that is dedicated to a specific topic. In that case, I make a commonplace book that divides the subject into sections. I fill in these sections as I find relevant information. Currently, I have commonplace books going for our homestead, the history of U.S. women’s suffrage, and a project I’m working on about the saints. Eventually, I will make one about our daughter.

As an example, my commonplace book for the homestead is divided into sections about the Garden; Chickens; Compost, etc.; Alpacas; and Other Dreams & Projects. As I read books and websites or talk to other homesteaders/alpaca farmers, I collect the information into those different sections, making notes of where I learned the information.

The commonplace book on women’s suffrage is divided into: my learning plan, Colorado & The West, National Movement (Including British Influence), Race Issues, Working-Class Suffragists, and a section for keeping track of sources, contacts, and events.

I like to start my Commonplace book with a table of contents and crude tabs to make it easier to find the different sections. Keeping a commonplace book is a very old practice, so there are tons of resources on how and why to make one. I find these sources helpful: Critical Margins, Notebook of Ghosts, and Youtube.

Why do you keep a notebook? What is your favorite method? Is yours really pretty? Let me know below.

Further Reading:

My Favorite Essay to Teach: On Keeping A Notebook — by Jessica Handler

What Kind of Muppet Are You?

The Morning Pages

A Brief Guide to Keeping a Commonplace Book

“Why did I write it down? In order to remember, of course, but exactly
what was it I wanted to remember? How much of it actually happened?
Did any of it? Why do I keep a notebook at all? It is easy to deceive oneself
on all those scores. The impulse to write things down is a peculiarly compulsive one, inexplicable to those who do not share it, useful only accidentally, only secondarily, in the way that any compulsion tries to justify
itself.” -Joan Didion, “On Keeping a Notebook”

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