Writers, lose your notebooks


No, I don’t mean that all of you should literally throw them away right now. In fact, I keep all of my notebooks, going back years, officially for libel-defense purposes but really out of superstition. But that’s not what this post is about. It’s really about the following anecdote.

I happen to live next door to Michael Lewis, an author of several bestsellers (Liar’s Poker, Moneyball, The Blind Side, et cetera). He and I were walking down the hill once to get some lunch. We got to talking about the time that he came back from a big reporting trip for a book, only to discover …. that his notebook was gone!

“And it turned out….”, I began asking.

“Oh, much, much better,” he said.

And we both cracked up.

When my notebook lost me

Here is a brief description of my early years as a journalist, which is the experience that made me laugh at (ie, understand) Michael’s response.

When I started, I was so enthusiastic about observing every last detail and capturing every quote by everybody I met that I agonized over my note-taking. I could not write fast enough. In the evenings, I took a night course in shorthand (Teeline). I was the only guy; all the others seemed to be young ladies training to be secretaries (somebody should have told them that this wouldn’t prove so useful in their careers). But even that didn’t help. I never got fast enough.

So I had the quintessential writer’s predicament: Do you live, absorb, participate, think, see, hear, smell, act? Or do you stop life, and write it all down?

Recording interviews, with one of those little gadgets, didn’t help either. I didn’t like fiddling with them, and they usually intruded into the conversation, pointing at my interviewee like a dart that might be poisonous. Those things distracted me, and I threw them away.

Even so, I did capture quite a lot. I observe well, and I get “good quote” out of people. So, for a while, I was writing my articles quote to quote, detail to detail. Today, I believe that was the worst writing I have ever done.

At least close it

Around that time I heard John Micklethwait give somebody advice. The lady was having writer’s block, and John, the quintessential British cavalier, said, roughly:

“First, close your notebook. Then trust that it will come.”

(These days, John is The Economist‘s editor-in-chief–ie, my boss–so the trick must have worked for him. ;))

Relax and trust

Writing, and all storytelling, is necessarily a two-step process: 1) You live. 2) You pause, re-live and tell. You can’t merge the two artificially by writing everything down as it happens. If you try, you only interfere with Part 1).

Instead, good writers know how to relax. Only when the brain is relaxed does it make the lateral connections, the quirky associations that we call creativity. And only when you are relaxed can your interview partners relax as well.

Good writers then trust. They trust that ‘it’ comes back to them. And ‘it’ does. What is ‘it’? It is whatever comes back!

By the time it comes back, it is like water that has percolated through sediment and become pure and clean and potable. A writer’s memory is therefore like a filter, provided the writer lets it be that. What it filters is the entire overwhelming world of detail, so that only a few–the right ones–run onto the screen and become life-giving, texture-giving color.

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4 thoughts on “Writers, lose your notebooks

  1. Well, we are in sync (again). I was going to ask you about this very idea.
    You have interviewed and written about hundreds of people and events.
    How do you keep it all straight?

    I was sure you kept a notebook.

  2. Great Advice, Andreas.

    I think that sometimes writers depend too much on certain habits, and this hampers writing. Sometimes just throwing out the notebook helps.

    I do keep my notebooks, as you do, but the idea of not depending on the notebook is important, for sure.

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