I must admit to rampant curiosity: the man sat opposite me on the train is surrounded by notebooks. Most old and battered, some new, and the one nearest to me, the only one i can read, labelled ‘scrap’. He is diligently engaged in scribbling stuff out, moving through sequential books at speed, flicking back and forth, and then, with great intent and determination, crossing things out. Sometimes his eyes dart to one, pick it up, and write in it. Fast.
Sometimes his action is calm and considered. A single word, a sentence. But most of the time it is frantic – half a page struck out. Dismissed.
Is he writing a novel? Balancing his accounts? Editing his autobiography?
I speak with envy, because whilst his challenge is a book that is too full, my own relationship with notebooks stands in opposition. I own many, nearly all of which are either entirely empty, or have one page of careful reflection at the front. I tend to enjoy notebooks as things of beauty, not practicality, but that has not, i should point out, prevented me from carrying one everywhere i go for the last few years.
My most recent acquisition is a beautiful Smythson affair, ironic, because the Smythson notebooks are famed for their thin paper, allowing you to pack more pages (empty pages in my case) between the covers. Costing probably ten times what a sensible notebook would, mine travels the world with me, in a little cotton bag, carefully avoiding being marked in any way, let alone written in.
I also feel a degree of envy of his analogue world: whilst the rest of us pore over screens, his phone is nowhere in sight. Engaged in a very physical mode of creation.
Some people write whole books by hand, but for me, the freedom of digital is everything. It’s changed how i write. I can pepper a light structure across a page, fill in details and flavour, and then rework the whole thing from the centre outwards. Working words is like working paints for me. You can lay down one story, and then change it all with a few strokes.
I considered asking him, but sometimes a story finds it power through wonderment, and curiosity. Imagine how disappointed i would be if it was just his Christmas list.
Notebooks are things of wonder: one of my favourite experiences was to see Roger Deakin’s notebooks laid out in a drawer. An incredible writer, naturalist, storyteller, to see those handwritten notebooks felt close to seeing the act of creation in progress. A print is but a pale reflection.