Notebook vs journal: What’s in a name?

Crickets (the iPhone kind) wake me up at 5:30 every weekday morning. When they chirp I reach over and shut the alarm off for 15 minutes, then drag myself out of bed and head downstairs to make coffee. I wait, pour myself a cup, then walk into my office and sit at my desk. I take a sip, open the 99-cent composition notebook (black and white cover, college-ruled) and uncap a Pilot Precise V5 fine point marker. Finding my place in the notebook, I skip one line from the previous entry, note the date and time, set the alarm on my phone for 30 minutes (crickets again), and start writing.

As I write I try not to think about what I’m scribbling down, or anything really. I don’t check my messages first, nor my Facebook and Twitter feeds. I may throw a load of laundry in the dryer while the coffee brews, if my kids need something before they leave for school, but in the almost-two years since I decided to start my days with a writing session, I’ve become quite good at thinking about nothing until I sit down to write.

It’s a relief, actually. I like starting my day with nothing.

For the most part, I adhere to Natalie Goldberg’s advice from Writing Down the Bones: Don’t think, just write. Don’t stop, just let it flow. Try not to cross anything out, don’t correct misspellings, and for heaven’s sake, do not edit. The goal is stream-of-consciousness writing as a path to deeper truth.

It’s Goldberg’s assertion, among so many other writers and writing teachers, that a daily writing practice yields benefits when you come to the page seriously and with intention. It’s the same idea as Julie Cameron, who promotes morning pages in her book, The Artist’s Way, and it’s profoundly simple: When you clear out the cobwebs, you reach a deeper creative level.

But what if your writing isn’t all that deep, or even all that interesting? When I first started writing morning pages I was resolute and oh, so profound – pages of descriptions of sunrises, what chirping birds sound like, the thump of the newspaper as it hits the concrete driveway, a beam of light illuminating my handwritten page. I experimented with imagery and metaphor, worked from prompts, described my neighbors’ houses, imagined where the man across the street went at 5:45 in the morning as he backed out of his driveway wearing his pajamas. Really.

Then I got bored and started what I’ll call my feelings phase. Our oldest child will start college in the fall, a fact which spawned dozens of pages about applications, acceptance and rejection, chick-out-of-the-nest emotions, did we do a good job as parents.

There’s also a lot in there about resolutions: a new year, the start of a new month, Sundays and Mondays. I wrote down goals, created schedules, and plotted my days by the hour. The more schedules I wrote, the more bored I was. I questioned whether I was writing with intention or just keeping a diary; whether what I wrote was worth anything, or if it was a trivial hobby.

When I first found myself floundering I decided to take a break from morning writing, but after a couple of days I read through an old notebook and to my surprise found that some of the writing wasn’t half-bad. A word or sentence jarred something in my mind and I picked up the Precise V5, flipped to the next blank page, and started writing again. Almost two years later I still do the same thing when I get stuck, and without fail I feel better, like my day has righted itself.

Whether you share your writing notebooks or keep them private is up to you. But for this practice, I’ve found that the best audience is yourself.