I keep a writing notebook, thanks in part to a lifetime of journaling but mostly as a new habit I started after reading Natalie Goldberg’s fantastic book, Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within. (If you haven’t read it, please stop now and order it from your local bookstore or download it to your Kindle. It’s a little new-agey but one of the very best books on writing and creativity I’ve ever read.)
Goldberg recommends writers commit to daily writing practice – a timed session of free writing every day. So I bought a few composition notebooks from Office Depot and found a good writing pen (the Pilot Precise V5, which writes like butter and doesn’t have the shorter ink supply I find in Sharpies), and now most days between 5:30 and 6:30 in the morning I sit at my desk and write for 30 minutes about whatever is in my head. This is not profound writing, nor is it particularly good. In fact, a lot of it is whiny, self-indulgent and laughable. No one will see it, I think, other than me.
These writing notebooks came to mind recently as I listened to David Finkel speak at the Power of Narrative Conference at Boston University. Finkel, a Pulitzer Prize winning reporter and National Enterprise Editor of The Washington Post, wrote The Good Soldiers, a book about one of the first Army infantry units to be deployed to Iraq in 2007 as part of George W. Bush’s surge strategy. Finkel embedded with the soldiers in Baghdad for several months during their tour, and his award-winning book is an honest, painful and accurate portrayal of modern war.
During his tour, Finkel recorded everything in reporter’s notebooks, transcribing interviews, recording dialogue, and writing descriptions of rooms, places, clothing, colors, smells – any detail he could remember that might be useful to the story later. He filled dozens of them, but when he returned home and began to write his book, he knew how to handle the volume of information he’d collected.
“I’m a methodical reporter, so I indexed every notebook before I even started writing,” he said.
In the index, Finkel carefully listed every scene, character and detail so that he could find and refer to the information more easily as he wrote the book. The indexes helped him to link the narrative and expand a story that covered 15 months; without them, Finkel said, he wouldn’t have been able to write the book the way he wanted.
I don’t dare to compare my writing notebooks to Finkel’s reporting volumes, but the idea of indexing these journals was an a-ha moment. So I started with my first month’s writing, and grabbing a pencil and a blank sheet of paper, read and recorded topics, characters and ideas. I found that in September, for example, I’d spent a lot of time describing what was outside my window, so I wrote the heading “OTW” and listed page numbers. I did the same thing in October, so it too has an OTW listing. Reading through the notebooks I rediscovered character sketches, remembered ideas from a seminar I’d attended, recalled the name of a photographer whose work reminded me of my novel, and found a lot of prompts that I either finished or didn’t. I even wrote about dreams I’d had that I hope no one reads, for several reasons. (Ha!)
The process of indexing this free writing serves two purposes: It helps to corral information and herd stray thoughts; and it offers easier access to ideas that on days when the writing’s going slowly, or the next project isn’t forthcoming, might hopefully inspire the muse. Indexing is worth doing for those reasons alone, which is something I’m sure Natalie Goldberg would appreciate.