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[Note: I know Diana Raab only through our online connection, and have no relationship with the book’s publisher.]

Even though my creative writing and journaling students hint that I browbeat them, I’ve never told them to buy a book. As a rabid supporter of libraries, I typically urge people to borrow books before buying them. But I want you to trust me on this one. Writers and Their Notebooks, an anthology edited by Diana Raab, is a book you’ll want all to yourself. So, I urge you to just go ahead and buy it.

You’re going to want to read and reread it; write in it; draw stars beside passages; and exclamation marks next to those that are so apt they could have emanated form your own pen, your own heart.

The collection will introduce you to writers you didn’t know before; and you’ll want to read their published work and compare those to what they say about the relationship of their notebooks to the final products. For example, writer James Brown states in his contribution, “For me the journal is. . . a stepping stone to a larger, more refined work… [W]hat you originally thought you wanted to say and what you actually end up writing aren’t always the same thing.”

The Basics
It’s taken me a long time to write this review; the collection is so rich, so perfect I had trouble figuring out who and what to highlight. So, here are the basics.

Writers and Their Notebooks consists of entries by twenty-four highly accomplished contemporary writers of long and short works of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and plays. The book is divided into five sections: The Journal as Tool; The Journal for Survival; The Journal for Travel; The Journal as Muse; The Journal for Life.

I’m pleased that Raab didn’t confine this book to just journals, which like diaries suggest daily entries, while “notebooks” covers a broader field. In this collection, we see little of the actual journals or notes. Instead we salivate over glimpses of the secret lives and work they chronicle.

The Many Names of Notebooks
Some of the writers call their notebooks wailing walls. Others, junk drawers. Still others, mirrors. They write in fancy blank books, or in those childhood “copybooks” with the green or black covers, and a big, empty white rectangle for the owner’s name surrounded by squiggles like paint peeling off a wall. Some of the contributors write in tiny old spiral notebooks small enough to stick in a back pocket, and even on tired scraps of paper, as when mental institution personnel forbade a writer to use real books to record her self-healing sentences.

Besides my journals, I’ve got notes on my iPhone, kitchen counters, and the passenger seat of my car. Writers and Their Notebooks gave my habit, my compulsion, legitimacy; allowed me to feel I’d located my tribe, my club—writers who not only turn a literary microscope on others, but also ruthlessly forage around in their own lives and minds.

How and What They Write
I can’t imagine how Raab found these perfect contributors, willing to let us snoop on their private writing habits. There’s Sue Grafton, the über successful mystery writer, who shares her time-consuming system for writing every single one of her twenty-some books. Ilan Stavans’ notebook struck me as a joyous melee: “An idea shows up and becomes a line. I then cross it out and put another one on top, add several below or on the side. I let myself enjoy non sequiturs.” Bonnie Morris’s essay, “Writing in Public Places,” notes “a willingness to create in chaos.” But keeping a journal publicly held its perils. At fourteen, “as a middle-class white girl, living in an affluent country,” she writes, “I listened numbly as a circle of other white girls told me I had a choice—give up my journal…or have neither friends nor protection in our hostile junior high school.”

Not surprisingly, truth and authenticity, either one of which represents the writer’s Holy Grail, make frequent appearances in Writers and Their Notebooks. It’s one of the reasons writers keep journals; it’s a place to tell the brash, unflattering truth, be our real selves, rather than the one we show to the world that we are in, but often, not of.

At the end of the book are appendices, containing ideas for keeping a journal and imaginative ideas about what to write in it; suggested further reading; and bios of the contributors to the volume.

Books about writers’ journals and notebooks can be surprisingly hard to find. But, from now on, I need look no farther than Writers and Their Notebooks. This book’s got it all.

A Single Complaint
The book is profoundly enlightening, entertaining, and downright satisfying; I wish it were double its size.

Do you keep a journal or notebooks? Weigh in about your practices.

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12 Responses to “Writers: BUY . . . THIS . . . BOOK”

  1. Denise Murphy says:

    I am off to buy this book when I finish commenting! Not only do I find inspiration and motivation through glimpsing into the lives, habits and working process of other writers but I am an obsessive note taking journaler. I have not been without a journal since the age of ten and have several vintage train cases full of archived, dated notebooks stacked in my closet to prove it! I will not buy a purse that won’t accomadate my journal. My Moleskin notebook may not be an American Express Card but I never leave home without it. I have driven more than halfway to a destination only to turn back if I’ve forgotten my precious journal as if it were my phone or wallet. My journals run the gamut from neatly written accounts of my experiences to “junk drawers” full of quotes from other writers, scraps of conversations overheard in cafes or on the subway and bits of wisdom culled from the words of my writing teachers over the years. I stop wherever and whenever to copy down something that pops into my head; its is not unusual to see me crouching on the sidewalk scribbling furiously knowing that if I don’t copy the phrase or idea down, I’ll lose it forever. My journal is both a tool and a talisman. Delving into “Writers and Their Notebooks” sounds like being invited to a cocktail party with kindred spirits. Thank you for bringing the book to my attention!

  2. Linda Gartz says:

    I will be sure to get it. What a brilliant idea — to have writers contribute. I’ve seen again and again that anthologies are a great idea because everyone with a piece in it has a vested interest in helping promote it. Not that all do, but it’s a good idea. Also sounds really helpful! Thanks for highlighting it. I’ll pass it on to my writers’ groups.

  3. Diana Raab says:

    Dear Lynette:

    Thank you so much for the stellar review. I am delighted that you enjoyed this anthology and that you are sharing it with others.
    You are a vibrant force in the literary community!
    Keep up the great work!

    Carpe diem,
    Diana

  4. Cath Moore says:

    Hadn’t realized writers who write well feel so isolated and unsure of process. The book reminds me of the need for journals by patients who’ve gone through a particular procedure e.g. cardiac catherization, or disease, to write about how it felt and what advice they have for being your own best advocate.

  5. You are so right, Cathy, to see that connection. Not to mention, writing about an experience like that contributes to healing. Studies show that journaling has a positive effect on a number of physical conditions.

    Thanks for that insight!

  6. The book made such a huge impact on me, Diana, that I’m eager to tout it to other people who will benefit from it. You should pat yourself on the back (and so should the contributors). It’s a real gem.

  7. Thanks, Linda. Another reason I like anthologies is that readers get a variety of perspectives from the different contributors. Come back here when you have a chance and let us know what you thought of the book.

  8. I *thought* you’d like this book, Denise, but I had no idea you were such a committed journaler/note-keeper. In the drawers beside me and on the file cabinets behind me and the attic above me, I have stacks of journals that I’m using for both the memoirs I’m rewriting.

    How ever do writers remember the precious details without these tools?

  9. Denise Murphy says:

    I imagined you had a similar habit! I remember you mentioning scribbling ideas at any/all times too. I do regret that I wasn’t more of a letter writer and keeper of written correspendence. THAT always seems crucial to memoir. I ordered the book and look forward to reading it . Thanks for the heads up!

  10. Letters are some of my favorite things, Denise. But like you, I think I’ve gotten rid of the bulk of those I received. On the other hand, I might, just might, stumble on a cache of them in the attic that I’ve forgotten about. I should go check. Or, rather, ask my husband to check. I’m afraid (despite his assurances to the contrary) that I might run (and I do mean run!) across a rodent up there. :(

  11. Bill Mitropoulos says:

    Hi Lynette,

    Thanks for recommending this wonderful book. It is so inspiring that it’s almost difficult for me to read. Difficult because the reality for me is that I am not a “Spring Chicken” so I probably will not accomplish what the writers in this anthology speak about. I have an “Itty Bitty” book light for reading at 3:00 or 4:00 AM on sleepless nights. The reading helps me to drift off to sleep. I started reading “Writers and Their Notebooks” at 3:00 AM last night and could not go back to sleep. I was so inspired after reading James Brown that my mind was all about getting up and writing. At 4:00AM I forced myself to switch to reading fiction.

  12. Hi Bill: I’m sorry that you sometimes find yourself sleepless, but glad you’ve been inspired by “Writers and Their Notebooks.” I was, too.

    Wherever we are in life is where we are. Period. And we just have to do the best work from there that we can. Your writing is so elegant and insightful that you needn’t think in terms of quantity. You’ve got the quality.

    [Bill is a memoir writing student of mine, with a ton of talent.]

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