Inside the writer’s notebook

Lisa Andrews shares her experience of the hugely popular Trade Secrets workshop, run by Jill Hopper last month.

I love a notebook. The fatter the better. Usually with some sort of interesting cover. Preferably wide ruled, although that last one isn’t a deal breaker. I get at least one every Christmas as a gift and I buy an unhealthy number of them throughout the rest of the year. I even built myself a wonky shelf over my desk so I can look at them.

The only thing I love more than my notebooks are those that belong to other writers. I don’t just mean I’m nosy about their choice of paper/cover etc. That’s a given. But I’m fascinated by how other writers use their notebooks.

So when an email inviting me to join Jill Hopper’s 26 Trade Secrets workshop Inside The Writers Notebook landed in my inbox, I signed up immediately.

26’s Trade Secrets training team offers a variety of workshops, like Jill’s, designed to inspire creativity and support members’ own writing businesses. During lockdown, the team has run a series of online events and workshops specifically to find ways in which our lovely writing community can come together and learn from one another.

Hands down, Jill’s workshop was my favourite Zoom session of the entire pandemic (and there have been some other absolute crackers this year, including the 26 Wild finale when we read out all 56 poems dedicated to our endangered wildlife).

What unfolded was a wonderful, gentle 90-minute Zoom session in which Jill generously opened up her trunk (yes, an entire trunk. I’m not going to lie, I’m still burning with envy) of notebooks dating all the way back to the 1980s.

Containing everything from memories to shopping lists and drawings to dried flowers, Jill’s notebooks are an archive of her life. She spoke movingly about how they have helped her through particularly difficult times and how by labelling them with a rough date, Jill is able to step back in time to rediscover small, yet powerful, moments of detail. More recently, this treasure trove has been invaluable in helping her write her memoir The Mahogany Pod (published in February 2021).

Like all good workshops, Jill also had some practical tips for using notebooks more effectively, including how to collect material, let it bubble away between the pages and then beachcomb what you’ve written for ideas at a later date. And she encouraged participants to get involved – by sharing their own notebooks and tips on using them. I don’t want to give too much away because I am reliably informed that Jill is hoping to do another session sometime in Spring 2021.

However, during that process of sharing I dragged out a notebook I’ve kept from when I was about 18. I hadn’t planned on sharing it. I had, in fact, all but forgotten about it. It is filled with dreadful, maudlin teenage poetry that part of me would like to burn. But it also contains photos, drawings, quotes from other writers that I had forgotten about. And it contains me at a time in my life when I was insanely awkward and shy but clearly trying to articulate something. It is, it turns out, possibly my most precious notebook. 

The way I used this notebook was a bit of a revelation. Lately, I’ve been trying to use specific books for specific things, worried I might lose a nugget in the noise. And there’s a lot of noise.

But rather than unlocking a mine of gems, something odd was happening. I started looking at my wonky shelf with something close to trepidation. Those labels feel so official, so definite. They started turning into tiny accusations, such as  ‘You haven’t worked on me for a while, have you?’ (turns out my inner critic can project herself into notebooks).

I asked Jill about this and her answer was simple: she puts everything and anything in her notebooks and trusts that if the gem is there it will come back to her at the time she needs it most. At the time, I wasn’t sure that a doodle entitled ‘The Night That Never Ended’ stuffed in the back of mine was of any consequence, until writing this and realising it pretty much sums up 2020.

Jill also pointed out the problem I kept stumbling into – using this approach means you’re rarely in the right place with the ‘right’ notebook. So rather than treat them as precious, hallowed artefacts to be drawn from a shelf when inspiration strikes, we should messy them up, fill them with everything and anything that catches our eye. Because what feels like noise today might just be the line that unlocks a poem in five years’ time.

Jill helped me reconnect with the notebook keeper I once was, rather than the rather rigid notebook librarian I had accidentally become. I’m already using her tips – shoving everything in a book that had originally been designated as ‘poetry’. And now I’m on the lookout for pocket-sized beauties to stuff in every bag and pocket, so that I never leave the house without a friend.

– Lisa Andrews

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