The Writer’s Idea Notebook

Photo of Cheryl ReifsnyderBy Cheryl Reifsnyder

Are your notebooks grease-spattered?

Dirty, dog-eared, crumple-paged, coffee-ringed, or soda-stained? Do they have sand stuck between the pages from a trip to the beach, or maybe a grass stain or two? Perhaps you’ve even collected the footprint of a wayward beast.

If none of the above resonates with you, maybe you should ask yourself if you’re doing it wrong.

I say this as an ardent admirer of beautiful notebooks. Take me to the Renaissance Festival and I find the leatherworker who crafts hand-bound blank books with leather covers, At the bookstore, I gravitate toward the Moleskine displays and the shelves of journals–of which there are now versions for every purpose, I should add: notebooks designed for recording thoughts, sure, but also wine lists, city notes, travel diaries, spiritual journeys, and more.

And yet…I have several of these lovely notebooks sitting on my shelves, untouched by pen. A few have the start of something, an idea for a poem or story or intimate essay that couldn’t possibly live up to its beautiful wrappings.

Journals galore

Photo: Joanna Penn, The Creative Penn

Here’s what I think: all those journals are wonderful and beautiful and cool, and since they look like great presents for writers, most of us writers have a few of them on our shelves, but they may not be the best place for actual writing. There can actually be such a thing as a too-beautiful journal, because once a journal moves past a certain threshold of quality, I feel too much pressure to fill its pages with perfect prose.

As you probably know, there’s no better way to squash creativity than to demand perfection on the first go-round.

Every writer needs a way to record ideas, inspirations, snatches of dialog and description that can be mined later for story material. However, an idea notebook needs to encourage you to capture those thoughts that flit through your head as you interact with your world throughout the day. That means you need to be able to live with it. Take it places, get it dirty.

In fact, it doesn’t need to be a notebook at all. It could be a digital recorder you carry on walks; your mobile phone, used to leave idea “messages” on your answering machine–or used with a recording app (my personal favorite: …). It can be a spiral notebook from the dollar store, an index card (Anne Lamott prefers index cards and a pen in her back pocket), a homemade folio of paper tucked up your sleeve, or even something fancy. The key is to have a place to record those nuggets of inspiration and, in so doing, capture the gifts of your subconscious.

Am I saying you shouldn’t buy yourself that lovely journal that you’ve been dying to possess? Absolutely not! A beautiful notebook can tell your muse that she (or he) is valued and special and worth treasuring.

Just make sure that notebook doesn’t also deliver the message that your muse needs to live up to that notebook’s beauty.


  1. I loved this article. Came across it by searching “beautiful idea notebooks” in hopes of finding a handcrafted notebook to replace my tattered, plain idea book that has one more page left unfilled. Can’t wait to go buy another plain notebook now. Thanks!

    • You made me smile–thank you!! I’m so glad you have an idea notebook that works for you. The beautiful one might work for you, too, but sometimes sticking with what works is the best plan :). Happy writing!

  2. I can’t ever pass up a cool looking journal. I’m trying to get better dedicated them each to a purpose so they aren’t neglected.

  3. Oh, yes, I have several. Their beauty does work against actually using them. There’s also the problem that very few of them will lie flat. I use half-size spiral-bound notebooks (small enough to fit in most of my purses, large enough to get several words on a line)
    for many things. When I’m noodling ideas, though, I like index cards because I can re-sort them easily.

  4. I have several blank ones too! In fact, I gave some away recently. When I kept a journal, I loved the Moleskin ones–not fancy, just blank, lined pages. Nowadays I use various sizes of spirals, small ones for purses and pockets, larger ones for note taking and the like–a new one for each book. They work great despite their classroom associations.

    Fun post, Cheryl!

    • I think we end up with all those extra notebooks, too, because they make such perfect-seeming gifts for writer-types :). I love Moleskine, too–they stand up to a lot of abuse. Although I’ve also started using the Staples version that looks similar and costs half as much. Those last very well, too.

  5. I had one of those velvet bound journals purchased at a Renaissance Fair that I finally gave away. I could never bring myself to write in it. I wasn’t worried so much that my prose wouldn’t stand up to it’s beauty. I was worried more that my penmanship would look crappy and that I wouldn’t be able to write on a straight line—all my writing would be at an angle on the page. It was all about the look for me, not about the content.

    • I have a beautiful hand-bound journal, made of handcrafted paper, sitting on my shelf for the same reason. It does make a nice piece of art, though.

  6. Chery, I love this blog, and it’s so true! I, too, have a couple of those beautiful untouched notebooks that I can’t bring myself to write in. Amazing the number of obscure things writers have in common.



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