Keepers of Private Notebooks

Joan Didion writes about people who keep and carry notebooks with them wherever they go:

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. I suppose that it begins or does not begin in the cradle. Although I have felt compelled to write things down since I was five years old, I doubt that my daughter ever will, for she is a singularly blessed and accepting child, delighted with life exactly as life presents itself to her, unafraid to go to sleep and unafraid to wake up. Keepers of private notebooks are a different breed altogether, lonely and resistant rearrangers of things, anxious malcontents, children afflicted apparently at birth with some presentiment of loss.

Journalists always have a notebook with them — to record impressions or jot down that perfect opening sentence for a future story. It is the first dumping ground of their ideas. It's a physical artifact of their curiosity.

It's always good to see journalistic instincts in non-journalists. Yesterday I met with a technologist who, in the first five minutes of our dinner, pulled out a notebook to make notes. It was a terrific first impression on me.

Here's my post analyzing pros and cons of taking notes in an informal lunch/dinner meeting. Here's my post on the importance of capturing your fringe-thoughts. Moleskine notebooks are in-style but I prefer spiral ringed notebooks of equivalent size because I can clip a pen to it easily.

(thanks Steve Dodson for pointing out this essay)

11 comments on “Keepers of Private Notebooks
  • Such a great little post but powerful message Ben. The first time I saw somebody write so diligently on their Blackberry was during our first meeting. I’ve used the Blackberry option, but always leave the house with my pen and notepad (I prefer these over the Moleskines because they bend in your pocket:, digital recorder, and fully charged video/picture camera. I cannot use any other browser but Firefox because their Delicious app is the easiest one to use. Can’t wait to see what else is developed to support this incredibly important habit.

  • I’m a Moleskine believer but have moved to typing things out on my smartphone because it’s always on me. But when push comes to shove, I write things down on my hand. I keep it short and use a lot of mnemonics to remember as many things as I can. Only then can I “rest easy.”

    And no, I’m not a reporter!

  • I prefer being a keen listener thro any conversation and then jotting down the takeaways that I think are unique. It lets free flow of conversation and cuts out the following risks.

    The talkers can get nervous seeing the spoken word being taken down. She can get over cautious, would not be natural or may not open up at all – especially if it is to do with some scoopy stuff, insider info etc.

    People would like to talk with your eyes, not with your dandruff.

    While taking notes, you are noting the previous sentence while hearing (not listening to) the next. The outcome may well be distortion of context and communication.

    Notings give you an illusion of “information security” whereas what is available for retrieval is only scribbled raw data. The context, anecdotes and examples would have long gone out of your mind since you were not a 100% listener (while busy jotting), without which the jottings are pretty much trashy.

    Using blackberry is not such a great idea because you can never get as fast with tiny keys (and an aching thumb) as one might be with a well held pen on white paper. The talker would also not mistake you for a private detective engaged by her employer emailing what she’s just said.

  • Amazing! I just read that essay a few days ago. It appears along with other great essays in her book Slouching Towards Bethlehem.

    From that collection I would also recommend “On Self Respect”, available here:

    For myself, I keep two sets of notebooks going at all times. One is private, usually left at home, where I record what’s going on and how I feel. (As Didion says, “Remember what it was to be me: that is always the point.”) The other is smaller, messier, always in my pocket, easily withdrawn for writing good ideas and to-do items.

    Smartphones do not work. Often the crux of a thought is expressed by arrows across the page linking words, or small diagrams. And Ben’s point is gold: you do not want to appear to be emailing.

    Krishna, with a little practice you can learn to continue to listen even while writing. And when people see you begin to write, usually will stay in a “holding pattern” around the idea while you jot.

  • I love winter jackets for this reason. In each one (I have 3), I keep a very thin moleskine notebook and a pack of gum.

    From a to-do list to a quotes collector to a brainstorming tool, that notebook has a lot of free-flow thought in it. A truer journal than even my blog.

  • I don’t know where my experiences fit in, but I’ve always been like Didion, constantly writing my thoughts, but hated doing so. I used have piles of spiral notebooks, journals, and reporter style notepads with only the first two or three pages filled in, tops. In the digital age, I saved notes in my phones task icon, and rarely look back at it. I was a relief just to write down the thought but somewhat redundant since I didn’t looked backed on it again. For me, it was an annoying habit I had to break. I’ve come to realize that if I don’t push myself to remember the thought myself, it wasn’t that important in the long-run. It’s pretty liberating.

  • I always have a notebook with me. You never know when a good idea will strike you or someone will say something profound and you’ll be kicking yourself later when you forget it. I once lost my little notebook of great ideas at LAX and I about cried.

  • Well, having notebook with you it’s really important for nowadays especially for journalists. But in developing countries lot’s of professional journalists can’t afford to keep notebooks. This is quite bad thing if we take into consideration how much important information is just being lost because of this fact.

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