Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Cynthia Grady: Notebooks in My Sock Drawer

I’ve been a notebook buyer since I was very young, and could spend my weekly allowance at Jolly Five & Ten, while our father did the grocery shopping. I liked to buy small 4-inch notebooks in different colors —but here’s the thing, I never wrote in them. I didn’t want to spoil them! So, they sat in my sock drawer, waiting for me. For years I did this. When I wrote, I wrote on binder paper—loose-leaf, not a bound notebook. Something about writing in a book, whether diary, journal, or sketchbook, terrified me.

While I still write on loose sheets of paper and yellow pads, I’ve lately been trying to keep my poems and other writing ideas in notebooks. I keep different kinds of notebooks, but that sounds more organized than it is. Most of them are a jumble of all kinds of written things. I have one notebook just for words and phrases I like. It’s a journalist’s notebook with unlined pages that a reporter-friend gave to me.

I keep a lined pad of paper beside me when I’m reading—sometimes it has white sheets and sometimes yellow. In it I jot down every phrase, image, or sentence that I love as I’m reading a given book. I do this with almost every novel I read. Here is a page I kept while reading ZORA AND ME by Victoria Bond.

When I’m researching a book of my own that I’m writing, I tend to keep my notes in composition books because they feel like school to me. Here is the notebook I used for a picture book biography coming out in 2017. I first began the research for it in 2006!

For my first book I LAY MY STITCHES DOWN: POEMS OF AMERICAN SLAVERY, I used several notebooks, a binder, and pads of yellow paper. I was making a quilt, researching slavery, and writing the poems, all at the same time. This is how I did it: I picked quilt block patterns that sounded like there could be a connection to slavery—for example, Log Cabin or Cotton Boll. I drew up the pattern I’d use to sew the quilt block, and then asked all kinds of questions about it. I’d generate 30-50 questions for each quilt block. After that I’d start composing the poem for that block. Here is the first page of “Basket” questions for the final poem in STITCHES.

And here is the poem that grew partially from these questions:


Each night, I take my patches, blocks, and scraps
of fabric from the basket by the chair;
my thimble, thread, and needle comfort me.
I lay my stitches down and troubles fall
away. Before too long, I'm breathing with
the rhythm of my quilting -- listening
wide with every fiber of my soul:
the praise songs of my people; voices
of my kin; drumbeats of my motherland form
the threads that weave the fabric of my life.

I strongly believe one creative endeavor feeds another, and this definitely held true while I was working my quilt and the poems for I LAY MY STITCHES DOWN. I'd go back and forth between sewing and writing. Then when I needed to know some historical fact, I'd go off to the library to do a little research on basket-making or blacksmithing or the North Star or whatever. It was so much fun, I've decided to make a quilt for each book I write!

I’ve since found that asking questions about a photograph, a sculpture, or some object on my desk is my favorite exercise to do when I’m stuck—or when I’m beginning a new writing project.

You might wish to try this technique yourself.  Look at a piece of artwork:  painting, sculpture, quilt, postcard, paperweight--whatever.

Ask and list 50 questions about the object before writing!

Then begin. You will know the object intimately by this time -- it will turn into a beautiful poem.

Cynthia Grady is a poet and librarian living in New Mexico. You can learn more about her and her upcoming books at

Cynthia has generously offered a signed copy of I LAY MY STITCHES DOWN: POEMS OF AMERICAN SLAVERY to one commenter on this post.  Please leave your comment by Sunday, October 11 to be entered into this drawing.


  1. Cynthia, I've done the same thing- buying notebooks and then being afraid to spoil them. I like notebook paper and a binder because they are mistake-proof. I can remove one sheet without messing up the entire book. : ) I loved hearing about your process for writing I LAY MY STITCHES DOWN. Congratulations on your new book!

    1. Thank you so much, Linda. Yes-- i have a closet full of binders!

  2. I've been trying to break this habit of being afraid to write in notebooks/blank books. Is the quilt in the photo the one you made for I Lay My Stitches Down? I was introduced to the book last year at NCTE when I heard you speak. I loved learning about the research you do to write your books. 50 questions about an object - that's quite a challenge. Wondering about your new picture book biography...any hints about the subject?

    1. Yes, Ramona-- that's the quilt I was working on when the poem ideas started coming to me. And 50 questions IS a challenge. With students I do fewer-- beginning with 12 and then increase from there after sharing. The new picture book biography is coming out from Charlesbridge in 2017-- a book about librarian Clara Breed during WWII.

  3. I think I'll have my students try that 50 Questions strategy (and I'll try it with them). Fluency of ideas is one of my goals for my writers!

    1. Hi Mary Lee-- with students I usually begin with 12 questions. Then I have them share in table groups and have them write down others' questions they liked that they didn't think of themselves. Then we do it all again. It's amazingly generative!

  4. Just this morning I found about 7 notebooks I've not written in, and 4 I have that aren't full. I think that's the beauty of your loose-leaf system -- easier to organize and less waste. Your quilt is lovely! Our quilt guild did a challenge quilt last year with Civil War-era blocks in reproduction fabrics. It was a stunning sampler!

  5. Thank you, Keri. I wish I actually made as many quilts as I dream about! I have fabric for 4 quilts right now waiting for me in my closet. Maybe this month . . . . Happy autumn!

  6. I enjoyed reading this post and totally agree that one creative endeavor feeds another. If I stray too much from taking the time to work on something creative, I feel out of sync, off balance. I will share this post with my students and point out your questioning technique to get unstuck or ready to write. The right questions can be powerful. Your quilt is beautiful and I am looking forward to reading your book. Thank you.

    1. Thank you! I'd love to hear how things go with your students.

  7. Cynthia,
    I am stuck on a project. I am forming a plan for how to move forward. I never thought of writing 50 questions to help me organize my thoughts. I will try it! Thank you! Your quilt, book cover, and shared poem are all beautiful. Congratulations! Wishing you much success in all your writing.

    1. Thank you so much, Linda! Good luck with your project.


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