I have two notebooks. One is for ideas, overheard bits of dialogue, my morning pages, fragments written during a train ride, diagrams about the architecture of the story I’m working on, maxims and book proposals condensed into eight words which I later cross out. One page might be crammed, whilst the next has the words “Zero is naughty” on it and nothing else. I do not need a nice pen to write in this notebook – the less it needs to be pretty, the more honestly I can use it. I write in it at cafés, or when I have an idea in the street and I lean it on the top of a bin to jot down a phrase, or half-way through a film in the cinema I scribble something in the dark. Some of the ideas in this notebook have bloomed into essays and books. At other times it has functioned as a merciful scrapyard of the mind, a place to dump my ruminations so that I can get to writing.
In my other notebook, I copy out passages from other authors’ work. After I have read a book that has inspired me, I like to make time to sit and faithfully copy out a few lines or paragraphs. There is such pleasure in getting this close to the language and discovering how it was the placing of a comma or an inconspicuous verb that gives a sentence its vitality.
This type of notebook is sometimes referred to as a commonplace book, which the likes of Marcus Aurelius and Virginia Woolf used to keep. It is a way to help unlock the codes of my favourite sentences so that I can use them in my own work. It allows me to hear language again, through the white noise which amasses from too much social media, news, podcasts and from reading too many books too quickly. Also, the punctilious order of my commonplace book allows me to be as chaotic as I like in my other notebook. But what I cherish most about collecting the words of other writers is how helpful it has been at times when I have felt lost or unsure in my own writing. A commonplace book is a vicarious representation of your own values as a writer. It has reminded me of why I write when I have most needed it.