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Nurturing Our Notebook Work

On Tuesday evening I attended a lecture by Lydia Davis, an award winning writer whose published work includes short stories, essays, novels, and translations of a number of classics including Madame Bovary. Davis’s lecture was titled, ” Thirty Recommendations for Good Writing Practice.” Whenever I listen to published writers speak about their process and practice, I look for two things: nuggets that will help me with my own writing, and ideas that will sharpen my teaching or enhance the workshop experience for young writers.

Much of what Davis said has been said before, by every writer I’ve ever heard speak. There are some non-negotiables for all writers. Writing often and reading good writing are at the heart of  of Davis’s writing life, just as they are for all writers.

But she had a few tips that were new to me, and got me thinking about my writing and possibilities for workshop time.

  • Take notes constantly, Davis encouraged us. We all know that keeping our notebooks close is good practice, because ideas come to us at unexpected times, and if we don’t write them down, we often lose them. Davis’s point was not only to keep the notebook close so that we capture ideas as they come, but to use the notebook consciously to practice and sharpen our power of observation.
  • Take public transportation and bring your notebook along. As Davis pointed out, if our hands aren’t on the steering wheel, they are free to write. More importantly, the experience of being among strangers and observing and recording what we see, hear, smell and feel is good writing practice.
  • Listen to and record exact conversations in the notebook. By doing this, we study and learn authentic speech patterns. We notice that real conversation is often incoherent, that people often speak in fragments. Using our notebooks to record and study dialog will help us write authentic dialog in our stories.
  • Consider growing/writing a story on the spot from an observation in the notebook. Davis is well known for short stories- flash fiction. She encouraged us to try developing an observation or overheard conversation into a brief story.
  • Revise notes often. Look back regularly at notebook entries. Choose something and try writing it different ways-change a word, or the word order, for example.
  • Leave a little bit of open time between when you finish writing and begin something else. Often, Davis said, ideas will continue to percolate in your brain, and it is important to create space for that to happen.

Lydia Davis’s tips gave me ideas not just about my own writing but also about possibilities for the classroom. Maybe they are sparking ideas for you also. Please comment below.


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5 thoughts on “Nurturing Our Notebook Work Leave a comment

  1. Great ideas! I really like the idea of recording conversations to improve on writing dialogue and am intrigued by the thought of returning to my notebook and trying to write a piece or observed moment in a new way.


  2. You inspire me! My writing takes a backseat to my daily teaching responsibilities, so I appreciate the encouraging notes from authors as well.


    • Love the public transportation idea. That’s one I used a lot while living in Manhattan. The Subway and buses are ripe for people-watching, overheard conversations, and snatches of talk that can turn into stories.


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