Throwback Week · writer's notebook

It’s Not Just About the Notebook — Part of #TWTBlog’s Throwback Week

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This post written by Lisa Keeler is on my list of favorite posts from the archives of Two Writing Teachers. The first thing I love about Lisa’s post is her honesty. I thought I was the only one who sometimes struggled with my writer’s notebook! It was so refreshing and validating to know that other writers struggle as well. The second thing I love about Lisa’s post is her perseverance. She doesn’t just give up on her notebook when it’s not working. Instead, she keeps trying and looks for resources and ponders the purpose of the notebook.

If you have ever struggled with keeping a writer’s notebook (or have seen your students struggle), you will appreciate Lisa’s voice and guidance. Enjoy!


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I started this summer with  this confession to all of you about my less than steady notebook habit. And after I let you in on my little secret, I dusted off my notebook, located my pens, and selected a few pencils. Then I put them all on the chest of drawers beside my bed, and I waited. I waited for inspiration. I waited for the right time. I waited for the perfect idea to write in my notebook. (Meanwhile, I happily wrote blog posts and worked on drafts of various pieces on my computer.)

I thought the motivation to write in my notebook would happen magically. Nope. It didn’t work that way. I did not wake up everyday inspired to spend time writing in my notebook. And that is when, where, and how my learning began.

My summer notebook writing goal led me to this learning: It’s not just about the notebook.

I was reminded that sometimes a writer faces a writing task with little motivation, and sometimes a writer has no idea what to write, and some kinds of writing come more easily than others.

I was reminded that a writer has to show up, and pick up the pen, and open the notebook, and try, even when it feels uncomfortable.

I learned that sometimes, using a prompt, exercise, or structure, helped to get me started.

How might all of this help me in the classroom?  I plan to be on the lookout for writers who are uncomfortable with a writing moment. I plan to share my stories of discomfort. And I’ll keep a few ideas for nudging them forward tucked in my back pocket at all times.

When I was stuck, I sometimes turned to Kate Messner’s 59 Reasons to Write.  Her book contains daily writing exercises, including quite a few that could work well for young writers. A few of my favorites include:

  • the six word memoir (see page 38)
  • choosing a single word and filling a whole page with thoughts about that word (see page 40)
  • and the “Clearing the Cobwebs” exercise (see page 91)

When I see a student having a hard writing day, I’m going to be able to tell him or her what I did when that happened to me.

Shortly after I figured out that I had to find the notebook, it wasn’t going to find me, I made another disheartening discovery.  My stamina for notebook work wasn’t all that impressive. While I often sit and tinker with a draft on a Google doc for hours at a time, I found it hard to spend more than about 8 minutes with my notebook.

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And then I learned, that over time, as I practiced writing in my notebook, my stamina grew.

How might this learning help me in the classroom? I  have renewed appreciation for the experience of building writing muscles, especially when the writing I’m doing isn’t coming easily. I can look young writers in the eye and say, “Listen, I get it.” And while they are building writing endurance, I will make sure to celebrate wildly what is accomplished in short stints at the beginning of the year.

I learned that my notebook is definitely the place for me to record quick snippets, overheard lines and ideas, and sometimes it’s a place to vent or reflect. I learned that it has to be nearby always, because the moments when I needed to write those sorts of things usually occurred when I was doing something else. I was reminded that the notebook has an important role in a writer’s life.

How might this help me in the classroom? I’m going to do everything I can to help writers see their notebooks as a place where they do a lot of the choosing about what goes in there. Sure, there may be times, post minilesson, when they are invited to try something in the notebook. But I’m going to celebrate and notice all the other things that happen in there, as they learn to live like writers.

If I hadn’t refocused on my notebook this summer, I wouldn’t have made these discoveries and experienced discomforts. I wouldn’t be able to say to young writers, “Here’s something I tried in my notebook,” or “One way I get my writing muscles moving is…” I wouldn’t have pages to show them. I wouldn’t be walking the walk.

If you are teaching writers but don’t yet have your own notebook, now, as the school year starts, is a perfect time to start one. It’s going to help a lot more than it hurts. And, really,  it’s not just about the notebook.