Stephen King is Wrong (Why Writers Need Notebooks)

Unsolicited Opinions / Sunday, May 20th, 2018

Yesterday in the mid-morning, I had this really excellent idea for a blog post. I remember the scene perfectly: I’d just done the dishes. I’d eaten a breakfast burrito. I felt satiated: full of beans and great ideas, and I decided to go for a pleasant weekend jaunt before returning back home to write.

“Ah,” thought I, “should I jot down my idea perchance?”

“Nay, nay: this idea’s so obvious, so utterly relatable to my current circumstances, that time and distance shall only strengthen its hold on my mind!”

You’ve read enough books to know that my carefully conceived introduction leads to only one conclusion: I forgot the brilliant, unforgettable idea.

And then I did all the things. Retracing my steps, I stood in my kitchen and imagined I had just eaten a breakfast burrito (there were no more left in the freezer, so I couldn’t recreate the scene exactly, much to my chagrin and hungriness). That didn’t work so I curled up in a ball on the floor, blocked out all sounds and sights and tried to focus my mind. All that resulted from that experiment was a bit of dustiness, and a half-hour long cleaning tangent based on how icky the floorboards were. My last and greatest hope, which was to write a bunch of keywords down blindly like a medium possessed by a literary spirit, also failed me.

In shame and a little bit of residual shock, I settled down instead to write this post. And here we are.

Reasons why every writer should have a notebook handy:

1.You will forget your brilliant idea

If the preceding story taught you NOTHING, then let me reiterate: no matter how wonderful and seemingly obvious your idea is, believe me, it’s forgettable. I’m convinced that there are portals constructed in the brain – have you ever awoken from a dream with an entire story already written by your subconscious, and in the next few minutes it disappeared entirely? What happened, scientifically speaking, it that it popped right through a portal in your brain into someone else’s. And you might get it back, eventually, but only once it pops back out of their brains and into yours.

The only way to seal the portal of an idea is to write.that.shit.down, squarely trapping it in the physical dimension.

2. Power outages

Yeah, it’s romantic to begin with. Candlelight and all that. But then you realize that you forgot to charge your laptop and if you write on your phone you’ll drain all the batteries, and you have a writing quota for the day and you have to meet it, dammit, before the tealights dim. It’s best, in this case, to have one designated notebook – one you’ve kept nearby, one that you’ve kept secure, that will be the first place you look the next day when you want to type out everything you’ve handwritten.

3. You are not Stephen King

I remember being struck when I read On Writing by Stephen King (such a good book, highly recommend), that he thinks it’s stupid to keep a notebook handy for ideas. His basic reasoning, though I can’t recall the exact wording and I’m too lazy to look it up, was that if the idea is good, you won’t forget it. So there’s no need to write it down. All I have to say in response to that is that you are not Stephen King. And while he has a lot of really brilliant writing advice to offer, that is one I simply can’t endorse for the average, non-Stephen King writer.

4. Dreams are occasionally useful

I do all my writing in the morning because by the time I’m done with work my brain feels like sodden oatmeal that’s been sitting on the counter for hours. I can squeeze some material from oatmeal-brain, but it is not good. It is not tasty. Writing in the morning has another benefit: if I keep a notebook right next to my bedside, I can write down any ideas that occured to me during the dreamy night. Sometimes they’re useless, i.e., “Must yell at sister for calling me fat in dream.” But sometimes my subconscious brain surprises me by doing something useful, and it’s really important to have paper nearby lest the ideas slip away as dreams are wont to do.

5. You will start noticing pretty things

Sometimes you’ll be out – on a lunch break at work, in a cafe, on a walk, and you’ll see, hear, or feel something particularly beautiful. It will be specific, something about the way ice melts first around the edges of a fallen leaf, or about how you can hear different bird songs in different places in your skull. When you get back home you’ll have forgotten it. You won’t look up the birdsong that haunted you, and you won’t remember the pretty image of the maple leaf in the snow. When you have a notebook on hand, it frees you up for further observation.

6. It’s therapeutic

I guess my notebooks are really free-for-alls when it comes to content: ideas, drawings, observations, lists of bills. Often, they’re the repository for things I can’t say aloud. If I’m in a bad or uncomfortable situation, having a notebook helps ease some of the trauma. I can tell it things that I can’t say out loud. Sure – you could use a laptop or a phone to equal effect, but there’s something therapeutic about forming the letters with swoops of your hand – there’s faint or deep handwriting, slanted or straight, and sometimes the way my words look from my own hand gives me greater insight into how I’m feeling.

If you think I’ve forgotten how upset I am about forgetting my great idea, you’re wrong. I’m completely miffed with myself and my errant brain portals. I can only hope that if one of you is the recipient of my thought, you’ll take more expedient action and write.that.shit.down.

What about you? Do you keep a writing notebook? Does it help?


12 Replies to “Stephen King is Wrong (Why Writers Need Notebooks)”

  1. I take a notebook with me just about everywhere I go. I also write all my first drafts by hand, on paper. I think that the physical motion of writing affects the brain differently than typing, as I find I always become more creative after physically writing for a few minutes.

    1. I feel the same way. I’m rewriting right now and found I totally couldn’t do it on my laptop. I’ve been so much more productive since I printed it out! It helps me organize my thoughts, to write on paper!

      1. Same here. I find wrestling with my thoughts and notes on paper to be far more effective than doing so on a keyboard. Part of the reason might be that it’s physically taxing for our brains to look at computer screens, but in my experience the key factor is the actual motion of writing. Our bodies and minds are inextricably linked, so it makes sense to me that different types of muscle activity would affect the brain differently.

        1. Yes – and it can feel so decisive and satisfying, especially when editing, to physically scratch out a word or cross out an entire unnecessary paragraph. I think you’re totally right about that!

  2. Also, not to be crude, but in the little email blurb for this post on my phone the word “weekend” was cut off in the intro paragraph. So this is what I read:

    “Yesterday in the mid-morning, I had this really excellent idea for a blog post. I remember the scene perfectly: I’d just done the dishes. I’d eaten a breakfast burrito. I felt satiated: full of beans and great ideas, and I decided to go for a pleasant wee…”

    I thought that was hilarious 😀

  3. Brilliant post! I absolutely agree with you- there is a solid chance that you *will* forget your brilliant idea. I rarely agree with King, but he has a point about some of the best ideas coming back. That said, sometimes I forget an idea and have to wait *ages* for it to come back to me- and all of that time could have been spent working on it or incorporating it into world building/drafting- so I *still* end up chastising myself for not writing the damn thing down in the first place. Honestly, I’ve heard a lot of writers speak and most of them say “keep a notebook” as their first bit of advice. It’s by no means an unusual thing to do, so I find it strange that it was even up for debate!

    1. That’s a really good point: eventually, the truly amazing ideas come back…but not before you’ve spent a lot of time agonizing over the thought just slipping away into nothingness. I know for a fact that in the dark recesses of my mind lurk several ideas that are just sulking, refusing to reintroduce themselves, because I lazily neglected to write them down when they first presented themselves to me. And I have to say I’m fascinated that you rarely agree with King. I’d love to see a blog post one of these days about all the ways you disagree with him! I personally think he’s a pretty compulsively readable (albeit imperfect) writer, and I’ve been thinking a lot lately about his style!

      1. Exactly! hehehe I understand that. I sometimes find that I’ll have an idea come back, but not as good (like I’ll have a phrase and then the idea for the phrase will come back, but I’ll know it doesn’t sound as good, if that makes sense). hehe yeah honestly, I’m just not a King fan (I’m sorry! I’ve given his work *loads* of chances) I’m not into his writing style at all, so it makes sense that I don’t agree with a lot of his advice tbh (and I have mentioned it on my blog on occasion 😉 ). It’s a taste thing though, so I get that other people like him.

        1. I totally understand that! I’m always super interested in writers who appeal to the vast majority of readers. Like, what is it about JK Rowling and Stephen King that gets so many people to buy so many books? That said, there are plenty of popular writers that I truly for the life of me cannot figure out their appeal (James Patterson comes to mind: I just don’t get it).

          1. hehe fair enough! Yeah that makes sense- I tend to have a deeper love for other authors, so I guess that’s where my eye gets drawn 😉 Even so, I’ll always be interested in what someone like King has to say, but a lot of the time I hear some of his tips I think “huh maybe that’s why I don’t like your books” 😉 (and yeah, I hear you about Patterson, he’s alright, but not especially my cup of tea either).

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