Writer’s Notebook, Day 1: I stared at a blank sheet of paper. My mind searched through topics worth writing about, dismissing one after another. I placed the pen to the page, stopped and lifted it back up again. I was in my third year of teaching ELA, struggling to write in a notebook. Doubt crept into my thoughts. Part of me wanted to quit already. I finally scribbled some prose onto the page, the actual ideas long forgotten. My inner voice laughed at each word I wrote down. Writing froze my thoughts on paper. It was awful. I didn’t want anyone to read it.
This day marked one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.
A little over a year ago I sat down to read The Essential Don Murray: Lessons From America’s Greatest Writing Teacher. A book that showed me what it meant to be a writer. It set me down a path of discovery and lead me to keep a writer’s notebook, or as Don calls it, a daybook.
When writing about his daybook, Don wrote, “It’s a private place where you can think and where you can be dumb, stupid, sloppy, silly; where you can do all the bad writing and bad thinking that are essential for those few moments of insight that produce good writing.”
He made it sound easy: get a suitable notebook, sit down everyday and write. A simple process that looked effortless from the outside. Don stressed how much bad writing needs to happen before we can find the good. Yet, when I first started keeping one, it was a struggle. It felt awkward writing for myself. Most of my life I wrote for academics. I’d include an intro, body and conclusion; I wrote whatever was required for an A.
I started waking up ten minutes earlier to write in my writer’s notebook. I reminded myself that it was a form of thinking on paper, that it was for me and no one else, but I still criticized every word I wrote. I didn’t like recording my thoughts. Writing them down made them visible, almost tangible. This paralyzed me.
Don’s words showed me I had much to learn about writing. I read more books on the writing process, or books about how writers write. Most agreed that they wrote because they had to. They used their writer’s notebooks as a way to experiment with language and thoughts. I was envious.
My morning writing sessions quickly disappeared, instead I wrote in my notebook whenever I felt guilty about not writing. I could feel less resistance when putting pen to paper. My inner critic eased up a bit and although I wasn’t writing in my notebook everyday, my mind was starting to shift towards that of a writer’s. Throughout the day, I caught myself randomly asking “should I try writing about that?”
A few months after my first writing entry, I listened to Linda Rief speak about her use of a Writer’s-Reader’s Notebook in her 8th grade classroom. I read over pages from her students, mesmerized by not only the quality of writing, but the level of thinking they were producing. They were asking relevant questions about their lives and writing to discover the answers. I quickly devoured her book, Read Write Teach, in which she thoroughly describes her amazing classroom. It invigorated me. I wanted to show my future students the power of a writer’s notebook. I thought, if I want them to keep their own, I first needed to improve mine.
I started writing about anything and everything. I wrote about the books I read. I wrote about any question or idea worth exploring. I wrote about writing. I wrote about not having anything to write about. I wrote about how I was taught to write in school. As the days went by, the pages of my notebook filled up with my language experiments. Most were random, but let to some kind of discovery. Such as realizing that if I had such difficulty writing when no one else would see it, my students couldn’t be blamed for sometimes sitting and staring before they write, or even not writing anything at all.
Last month was the first time I wrote in my notebook every single day. I wrote because I needed to. Even if it was just a line or two. I’ve traded in my inner critic for a teacher. Now I’m an observer, searching for things to record or explore.
I also look at words differently. Whether on a billboard or spoken out loud, I find myself paying closer attention, even recording them. I view pieces of text through a writer’s lens, noticing the craft the author used and it’s effectiveness. I record down pieces of writing worth imitating or that I wish I had wrote.
Writer’s Notebook, Day 414: My pen struggled to keep up with the thoughts pouring out of my head. Paying little attention to structure, organization, or conventions, I wrote about failures. Eventually the words lead me to my writer’s notebook and the amount of times I failed while attempting to write in it. I reflected on the year long struggle to find my voice as a writer. It’s the entry that lead me to write this blog post.
Keeping a writer’s notebook has forced me to better understand how writing works, but more importantly, how to better help my students identify as writers. Writing is about discovery and learning. It’s not something we do for academics. I used to believe that being a writer meant having published a successful piece of work, but that’s better defined as an author. Everyone can be a writer, or rather, everyone should be a writer.
Looking back on the process of keeping a writer’s notebook, it’s one of those things that I thought I would never accomplish. It felt like a chore, like something I was forcing. Day by day, I felt little change, but now, a year later, I know that keeping a writer’s notebook is one of the best decisions I’ve made in my life. It’s the reason I’m the person I am today. It’s the reason I’m the teacher I am today. And it’s the reason that I’ll continue to grow and learn.