Tuesday, February 11, 2014


IN THE NAVY, it’s referred to as a “wheelbook:” a small journal or notebook that officers carry so they can record orders, note details that require attention, jot down key learnings or otherwise set down information that they don’t want to trust to perishable memory.
In this digital era, a notebook might seem like a quaint anachronism. Be it a computer, a tablet or even a smartphone, the device you’re reading this on right now almost certainly has some sort of note-taking ability, if not a full-blown word processor. And although I’m not sure why naval officers still carry wheelbooks, I know that you’ll rarely find me without a pocket notebook, because it is fundamentally reliable, almost instantly accessible, it survives weather conditions that might threaten electronics and—confession is good for the soul—I have this irritating habit of sending digital notes into virtual perdition when I sync my iPhone.
A notebook is with me at practically all times; when I’m asleep, I have one sitting on the nightstand. Some writers do this so they can record their dreams when they are still fresh in their minds upon waking. My dreams are all either scary, nonsensical or unrepeatable in mixed (or any) company, so I don’t write them down. But if I wake up with an idea that I want to be sure to remember in the harsh, busy light of the day, then I write it down.
I use the notebook for anything I want to remember. When I’m reading other writers’ novels and see a technique that works well, I jot it down. When I’m researching setting, I’ll literally take note of details I want to remember. I rarely use a notebook for story ideas, because I have so many that it all devolves into noise, so I trust my memory to save the workable ones. But I do sometimes write scenes of a work-in-progress by hand; I find the tactile sensation of pencil on paper comforting, and writing drafts out longhand forces me to keystroke them into a document—editing as I go—later on.
As long as it is convenient to carry, any notebook works for my purpose. But as some people seem to be intensely interested in such things, I will share that there are two brands of notebooks to which I typically gravitate.
One is the Field Notes brand of pocket notebooks, modeled after the advertising notebooks that seed companies once handed out free to farmers all across the Midwest. These 48-page, pocket-size notebooks are available in blank, squared or lined pages and, although I sometimes sketch in my notebooks, I use the lined paper nonetheless, because if I write on unlined paper, and particularly if I write on unlined paper in a moving vehicle, my lines tend to slump like snow getting ready to slough off a pitched roof.
After a couple of years of using Field Notes, I discovered that Pencils.com, the site where I buy—you guessed it—my pencils, offers a Palomino Small Flex Notebook that has the same physical dimensions as the Field Notes, but contains 80 pages, rather than 48, and inside the Palomino’s back cover there is a small pocket, open on two sides, but large enough to contain a business card, a bus ticket or a folded piece of currency. The Palomino comes in the same page-printing options as the Field Notes and (as of this writing) costs a dollar less per three-pack. Then again, Field Notes offers a very competitive discount as long as one buys twenty three-packs at a time—which I occasionally do—while Palomino (again, as of this writing) does not.
So the notebook I have at any given moment could be a Field Notes or it could be a Palomino. The one in my pocket as I write this is a Palomino. To help me find the current one in the disorganized pile atop my dresser, this notebook has the name of my current work-in-progress written in permanent marker on its front cover, and on the back number is my name and cell-phone number (did I mention that I tend to leave these everywhere?).
For a writing instrument, I prefer a pencil to a pen, as any rough draft I write in pen is apt to contain so many cross-outs and re-direct arrows as to be illegible. For a while my preferred brand was the Blackwing 602, a pencil equipped with a flat eraser that helps prevent the pencil from rolling off a desk or table. This pencil, while a skosh softer that a regular number two, was still a little too hard for my liking, and the alternative—a soft illustrator’s pencil—broke too easily. I emailed Pencils.com, complaining about this. Apparently legions of others had the same complaint, because they introduced a new product—the Blackwing Pearl—that glides almost as nicely on the paper as an illustrator's pencil, but is much more resistant to breakage.
For carrying the pencil in my pocket, I put a cap on it (you can get these at art-supply stores). And when I lose the cap—which happens with woeful regularity—I roll a strip of paper tightly around the pencil, pinch the end shut, secure the shape with Scotch tape, and use that for my pencil cap.
As I fill my notebook, I clip the tip of the corner off each filled page, using scissors if I have some handy, and by folding and tearing if I do not. This allows me to find instantly the section I am currently on in the notebook. It is a system I have used for years, and it works.
As the notebook currently in my pocket has only about three or four pages filled at the moment, it is still relatively pristine. It won’t be for long; eventually I will wear a shirt without pockets, at which point the notebook will get shoved into a hip pocket, from which it will emerge concave and wrinkled.
But I don’t care. It will still be legible, and that’s all that matters. When lightning strikes, I need a bottle in which to store it. And for my fiction, that pocket notebook is my bottle.