I have a couple of iOS devices, and various text apps that sync with my Mac – the mainstays being iA Writer and WriteRoom – either via the excellent Dropbox or Apple’s iCloud. But when I really need to chew on an idea, I go back to basics: the notebook and pencil.
I’m certain that working with a notebook and pencil is different to working with electronic gadgets – and I don’t mean in the obvious way. For example, if I write something down that I need to remember, I find I don’t forget it and the written reminder is redundant. This doesn’t tend to happen if I make a digital note by pressing my thumbs against a touchscreen or typing at my desk. I think this might be the result of actually forming the words on the page with a pen or pencil.
Then there’s a particularly tactile aspect to using good old fashioned physical items. There’s a lot of talk on the Internet about tactile keyboards. I’ve even got one myself – and very nice it is too. There’s little that’s tactile about a touchscreen, though. It might click or buzz, but this can’t be compared with the sound of pages turning and the scratch of a pencil being dragged across paper. The dead tree notebook also offers the opportunity to doodle, draw, add notes and stars and arrows, circle text and flip back and forth between pages, none of which is really possible in quite the same away on a device such as an iPad, no matter how well designed the application.
I drafted this blog post in my notebook, while on another page trying to sort out the short story I’m working on at the moment. On the page facing that was a shopping list. I can leaf through the pages, glancing at previous notes and scribblings with ease rather than scrolling up and down a single virtual page. Even the very stylish Daedalus app doesn’t have the same feel.
The notebook I like most is the large Moleskine soft cover. There are a lot of cheaper alternatives available, but for durability, features and general feel, nothing beats this book. (As an added bonus, it matches all my other black stuff…) I‘ll also use a cheap A4 notebook from time to time, when I need more space. The best one of these I’ve had to date was a Kraft ring-bound hard cover with dividers, bought for £4.00 from Paperchase at Euston Station in London. (That was some time ago – apparently these are now £5.50.)
I haven’t yet found the perfect writing instrument, though. I like pencil because there’s a resistance on the page and my scrawl seems more legible. Pencil can also be easily rubbed out, although I usually strike-through rather than remove completely, as seeing what I’ve decided to discard is often as important as seeing what I’ve decided to keep. I’ve also tried two colours of pen – red and blue. This works well to distinguish between various aspects of whatever it is I’m working on, and also looks pretty, but this requires me to carry two pens and swap between them, which feels a bit, well, clunky. Although I’d prefer it to be darker on the page, for the time being pencil seems to be the best option.
Looking back through my notebook now, its pages contain the raw materials that subsequently became several short stories and a novel, as well as other things, such as the aforementioned shopping lists and notes I made in the French class I went to last year. And when this notebook is full and it’s time to move on to a new one, I can stick it on a shelf somewhere, pick it up every few years and flick through it to remind me what I was doing way back when. Who knows, perhaps when I’m long gone someone else will pick it up and glance through the pages and wonder what the bloody hell was he thinking?. Or maybe they’ll just have it recycled and turned into something more useful than some guy’s discarded thoughts. Whatever the case, text files, regardless of their day-to-day usefulness, enjoy no such prospect.
Don’t get me wrong, digital files and cloud syncing are here to stay, and when a piece is ready, when it has some meat, I transfer it to the cloud – as with this blog. But whatever technological developments occur, the physical notebook will always be a cornerstone of my creative process.