Sunday, September 7, 2014

Irene Latham: My Life in Notebooks

I'm one of those writers who really cannot remember a time in my life when I wasn't writing.

This may be frustrating to those who come to writing late in life – I am brand new to the fiddle, and sometimes, when my fingers just won't do what I want them to do, I bemoan the fact that I am SO OLD a starter. Alas. Please know that there is no wrong time to come to something like writing (or fiddle), and that being an early writer gives me no advantage and means nothing in terms of likelihood for a successful career or anything else. It's just my story. I cannot conceive of  “me” that doesn't include pencil and paper.

My first written works were love poems --for my mother. I was 4.

By the time I was 8, I was writing poem for anyone and everyone I loved. Here's one I wrote for my father:

When I was a teenager, I became dependent on writing as a means of tunneling through the diamond mine of feelings, each so sparkly and new and brilliant, there were not enough notebooks to contain me.

And, like any miner, I worked in the dark. I was furtive about my writing and rarely shared it with anyone. It was too personal, too revealing. What would people think?? I read through those pages and try to rediscover the girl who wrote the words. It's scary, and I can only do it a little at a time.

Like so many writers, I did have a number of amazing teachers in my life who nurtured me along the way. I adored teachers who asked us to journal. I loved reading the little encouraging notes those teachers would leave for me in the  margins. Here is a classroom journal entry from 1986, when I was 15 (on the facing page, my teacher wrote “Are you trying to earn Brownie points?”:

These days I do the vast majority of my composing straight to keyboard. But I still use notebooks when I am revising, or when I am stuck somewhere without a computer, or for making lists. There's nothing special about these notebooks – most of them are hand-me-downs from my kids:

One of the most frequent ways I use a notebook is for catching ideas – lines I want to use or explore, ideas for poem or story titles, basic randomness that speaks to me. On this page, you'll see I found inspiration from several Poetry Friday friends, Robyn Hood Black and Mary Lee Hahn:

When I checked my rubber-banded manila file folder marked “Water Hole Poems” for any notebook pages, I found this note, from when I was driving my son 45 minutes away to Tuscaloosa so he could attend an Early College class – and I had to wait for him. (I know I should date these things, but most often I don't, so I have to rely on context clues, as in the notepaper found here.) It contains some brainstorming on the opening poem for DEAR WANDERING  WILDEBEEST... and, in fact, holds the title “To All the Beasts Who Enter Here.”

Sometimes I wish I wrote more in notebooks, because I do love the idea of it. But, as you can tell, my handwriting is not always legible. And I am so much faster on the keyboard! Also, for poetry, I love the instant gratification the keyboard grants for rearranging words and lines and trying different line and stanza breaks.

But, when I see my own handwriting, I feel such tenderness for myself and my inner world – it feels more vulnerable somehow, and it makes me want to do it more.

Also, you might be interested to know that I prefer PENCIL to pen... I need a clean page, so erasing is better for me than marking out... though it's less useful in terms of sharing my process in a blog post like this!

Notebook Exercise:

In my experience, art inspires art. Today, when you pop in your headphones to listen to favorite music, grab your notebook. Write down whatever lines speak to you. Then, go back and make those lines your own by changing a word here, adding a phrase there. Allow the words to flow through you, and you will discover your very own song!

Thank you, Amy, for inviting me to share my notebooks! I love peeking in on the many, many ways people live the creative life.

Available through
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Irene Latham was inspired to write DEAR WANDERING WILDEBEEST after viewing images taken by wildlife photographer Greg du Toit, who submerged himself in a Kenyan water hole in order to best capture the animals drinking. In response, she submerged herself in research and waited for the poems to arrive. She is also the author of three volumes of poetry for adults and two award-winning novels for children: LEAVING GEE'S BEND and DON'T FEED THE BOY. Two more collections of poetry for children -  FRESH DELICIOUS: POEMS FROM THE FARMERS MARKET and SUMMER IN ANTARCTICA - are forthcoming in 2016. Visit her online at 

In honor of Irene's generous sharing here, I will give away a copy of her brand new, Kirkus-starred poetry collection, DEAR WANDERING WILDEBEEST, to one commenter on this post.  Please leave your comment by Sunday, September 21 to have your name entered into the drawing.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Claudia has won the Rhodia!

Claudia has won the Rhodia pocket web notebook, chosen by Shane Couch!  Claudia, please just drop me an e-mail with your address to amy at amylv dot com, and this book will be on the way to you!

Thank you again to Shane Couch for sharing your happy addiction.

Readers - if you or one of your students or friends keeps a notebook and would like to share in this space, please send an e-mail to amy at amylv dot com.  I welcome your contributions and will send you the post specs for this blog.

Please share a comment below if you wish.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Shane Couch: Addicted & Not Seeking Treatment

Hello, fellow notebook and journal addicts. My name is Shane Couch and I have been keeping a journal since January 1, 1991. I think the two things that prompted me to start journaling was the start of a new year and the fact that I had a blank notebook lying around. Thus, I wrote the word "journal" on it and began my journey. Here is my collection as of three or so years ago. I have filled 56 journals and do not start a new one until the current one is complete. You can see the notebook that started it all in the upper left hand corner of the pic below, the gold, plain covered one.

Here they all are (well, most of them), in my bedroom. My mom gave me this antique corner bookshelf when I moved out on my own and it makes the perfect home for my journals. 

I mostly write in my journals so I prefer them ruled. I like to record memorable moments, funny and poignant things my kids say, prayers, things I've learned and mistakes I've made, all chronicling my life and leaving my legacy for my kids to read about when I'm gone. The following pics are of some work I did while participating in a cross country journal swap sponsored by Rhodia. Twelve of us were selected to fill six pages of a notebook they sent each of us, and then mail it to the next participant until the original was returned to its owner. It was quite an experience. I just got mine back a year and a half later than planned, but here is some of what I contributed.

I loved making these collages out of old comic books. If you can't tell, I'm a huge super hero fan specifically the 70's and early 80's era. 

Here's a cherished piece of my childhood. 

And another collage including some of the advertisements found in comic books at the time. Can you find O.J. Simpson???

And here's a shot of the books in addition to my collection above that are waiting for me to get my hands on them. I love me a retro superhero journal and Peanuts characters come in a close second. The Peanuts books below I bought online, though they were produced in the late 90's and are now extremely hard to find.  Most people are asking for a pretty penny for them, but with some earnestness and bargaining skills, I acquired! The Pigpen one is my favorite and is the next journal in line once I finish my current one. The Disney Store is also a great source for journals. They put out a lot in a year, usually coordinating with whatever new movie is in theaters. They go on clearance quickly because there's always something new coming out of Disney. Both The Jungle Book and Monsters University journals were bargain priced.

My kids once filled out a questionnaire for Father's Day and one of the questions was, "What would make a good gift for your Dad?" All three of them said, "A journal." 

Shane Couch is a husband, father, and pastoral counselor. He lives in Santa Clara, CA with his wife and three children. He is clearly addicted to journals and currently not seeking any treatment.  You can find more of his writing at If This Couch Could Speak.

In honor of Shane's amazing collection of journals, I will give away this Rhodia pocket web notebook to one commenter on this post.  Please leave your comment by Sunday, June 15 to have your name entered into the drawing.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Alex McCarron: Journals & Index Cards

Before I start, I have a confession to make: I used to hate notebooks. I’ve always loved writing, so I heard the advice to keep a journal or a notebook about a million times. I’d buy a pretty journal, and, after a few days, or, at the most, weeks, abandon it on my shelf. I couldn’t tell why—whether I was too lazy, or real life was too boring, or if I just didn’t know anything worth writing down. By the time I signed up for a writing class at my home school co-op, I’d sworn off journals.

At the first class, our teacher handed us each a composition notebook. As part of our homework, we had to write one entry—a page and a half or longer—every day. If we’d filled enough pages by the end of the week, our journal was stamped. 

I started journaling again with all the enthusiasm you’d have for a typical homework assignment. My first entries were mostly lists—favorite books and movies, things I loved and things I hated. After a while I began to write about whatever had been going on that day, and record my thoughts on my writing process. I was halfway through my first notebook before I realized how much I’d started to love it. 

Today, I keep two different kinds of notebooks: a journal and a notebook for everything else. Here’s my current journal:

I usually split my entries in half—one half is a writing log, where I record my daily progress and whine about how hard it all is. The other half is more of a typical journal entry, with anything interesting I did that day written down, plus any thoughts I want to remember. I’ve just started keeping a reading list at the back of my journal. It keeps track of what I’ve read, and each title works like a mini-journal entry—I remember thoughts and feelings I had while reading each book. I write in pen, so my journals are pretty messy!

I use a plain spiral-bound notebook for everything else; lists, homework assignments, and freewrites. Every day, before I write anything else, I sit down and write a page on whatever pops into my head first. There’s no editing, and rarely much punctuation or good grammar.

The photo below is of a freewrite from a couple weeks ago. As near as I can remember, it was inspired by a paper model of Paris. The first sentence is ‘The paper city came in a paper box.’ Not exactly a killer hook, but from there it morphed into a description of the girl who makes the paper cities. All day, she sits in her shop, surrounded by paper buildings, animals, and people. She never talks. So far, this description has stayed in my notebook, but who knows? One day it might become the beginning of a story. Freewriting helps keep my writing muscles limber, and it can be inspiring, so I encourage you to try it if you haven’t already. At the very least, it keeps me writing. 

Though my two notebooks are very different, I keep both of them for the same purpose--to collect things I don’t want to forget. Often, though, an idea strikes when I don’t have time to record it in my journal. For those times, I use index cards. I keep a pile of them on my desk, and more in my purse and backpack. I store used index cards in a shoebox.  

Anything that inspires me goes on an index card. The two cards in this photo have quotes written on them. The first is from Norton Juster: “I found out that nothing is easy—or should be.” I have to remember this constantly! The next quote, “To be one’s self is a rare thing and a great one.” is from The Farthest Shore by Ursula K. Le Guin. These quotes might inspire a story or the solution to a problem in a story later. For now I can rest easy knowing they’re both stored where I can find them. 

Looking back, I know the main reason I wasn’t successful at journaling was because I didn’t want a real journal. I wanted a picture perfect notebook full of beautiful writing. I didn’t want to be myself (you can’t ne yourself if you want to be perfect) and I didn’t want to collect all my messy, imperfect memories. Now I have notebooks full of them—and I couldn’t be happier. 

Alex McCarron is a 17-year-old student living in West Virginia. She’s always on the lookout for a good story, and hopes to write her own someday.

In honor of Alex's journals, index cards, and generosity here, I will give away a copy of CHARACTERS & VIEWPOINT by Orson Scott Card.  This book has offered Alex a "crash-course in character development", and it will go to noe commenter on this post.  Please leave your comment by Sunday, April 20 to have your name entered into the drawing.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Mary Poindexter McLaughlin: Even Just Breath

I recently met with my poetry professor, Myung Mi Kim, for a conference about my work.  When she asked to see my journal, I panicked.  “Here it is,” I said sheepishly, producing the small plain black book I carry around with me most everywhere.  “But I don’t have time— it’s not—I’m not—“

She wasn’t buying.  “Let’s see.”  I handed it over, and stopped breathing as she flipped through so many, so MANY blank pages.  I just had to explain.  “See, I’ve got three teenage kids and I barely have time to do all the coursework and I end up just writing down ideas in the notebook I use for class notes instead of a proper “journal” and…”  I trailed off.  Pathetic.

She stared at me, shook her head in sympathy, and talked to me as though speaking to a small, fragile, academically challenged child.  “It doesn’t matter where you write it down.  Slips of paper in your pocket will do.  All that matters is that you do it.”

So, here are my various “notebooks":

And here is a poem that was inspired by a dream I had, which, when I awoke from it, my husband insisted that I write down.  Which I did.  In my journal.  (This was before I started grad school.)   Thanks, Amy, for inviting me to share it as part of this conversation!

Mary Poindexter McLaughlin is a playwright, an Improvidancer, and a brand new poet (!?!) who lives in Western New York.  She’s also a mother of three with a soon-to-be-completed Masters Degree in Theatre and Performance Studies from the University at Buffalo.

In honor of Mary's notebook keeping, I will give away an Ultra Collection of Post it Notes to one commenter on this post.  Please leave your comment by Sunday, April 6 to have your name entered into the drawing.  

Monday, March 17, 2014

Linda has won RIP THE PAGE!

Linda Baie has won a copy of RIP THE PAGE!  Please just drop me an e-mail to amy at amylv dot com, and I will send you instructions as to how to receive your book.  Thank you again to Jamie Palmer for sharing such a wonderful list of notebook books.

Next up will be Alex McCarron, a notebook keeper from West Virginia!

Readers - if you or one of your students or friends keeps a notebook and would like to share in this space, please send an e-mail to amy at amylv dot com.  I welcome your contributions and will send you the post specs for this blog.

Please share a comment below if you wish.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Notebooks Resource Edition #1: With Teacher Jamie Palmer

For today's post, I invited fourth grade teacher extraordinaire, Jamie Palmer, to share some of her favorite books for teaching students about writers' notebooks as well as books that she uses as inspiration for her teaching with notebooks.  Thank you, Jamie, for this rich list of resources!
- Amy LV

Books to Inspire and Start Writers' Notebooks With Students

Picture Books

To Share With Parents

To Add a Little Creativity

Teacher Inspiration

Notebook Know-How

10 Things Every Writer Needs to Know

But...the Number One Thing...

...that gets kids to buy into keeping notebooks and cherishing them is to share my notebooks - from 5th grade through when I've been a teacher - and how I love them. Just yesterday, some high school seniors told me that they still have their notebooks and all the books we wrote together. 

The community is key and the teacher as a model is the number one resource!

 Jamie Palmer currently learns and teaches with fourth graders at Schlegel Road Elementary in the Webster Central School District north of Rochester, NY. She has also taught 3rd and 5th grades as well as being an Enrichment Specialist. Buying notebooks is something Jamie looks forward to each school year or really whenever she sees one that she can't pass up! Sparking the love of books and notebooks with her students remains at the forefront of building her classroom communities' reading and writing lives.

In honor of Jamie's generous sharing, I will give away one book from this list (yet to be determined) to one commenter on this post.  Please leave your comment by Sunday, March 16 to have your name entered into the drawing.

Please share a comment below if you wish.