My notebook fascination began in high school with one subject, college-ruled, spiral notebooks. These were the cheapest of the cheap notebooks that any drug store would sell for a dollar or less. They usually came in different colors, and I’d buy a wide variety – reds, blues, yellows, blacks. I’d stack them into a box under my bed, and write in them whenever I got a chance, not caring very much which notebook I used at any given time. They all were filled with fragments of ideas, snippets of unfinished stories, or simply random emotions that flowed through my brain. They weren’t journals necessarily, but my writings were very personal.
Soon college came and I kept up my notebook writing, continuing with the cheap notebooks, having no inclination to upgrade to anything fancier. Part of this was simply I was a poor student who couldn’t afford to be buying a bunch of expensive notebooks, but there was also this romantic notion I had in the back of my mind of the starving artist. I didn’t need anything more than the cheapest of cheap notebooks to write brilliant works of art. It was the writing version of the old lyric about only needing “three chords and the truth.”
I still had a computer during this time, and would also use that to write. Yet, there was something about the physicality of the notebook that spoke to me. I liked being able to simply open it up and start writing – no starting up, no battery life, no distractions. A notebook is the ideal minimalist writing environment. I also liked starting longer stories with a brand new notebook, its physicality making me feel like the story was already published. I merely had to add the words and I’d be left with this tangible product of my writing, as opposed to merely a file on a computer.
After college my notebook writing began to diminish, although I’d still always have at least one half empty notebook on hand. The years went on and I started to write less and less, and I felt like maybe writing in notebooks was a thing of my past. Then I discovered Moleskine notebooks, and my notebook fascination was rekindled. This time I’d abandoned my starving artist ideal and went all in on the ‘legendary’ Moleskine notebooks and their rich history. Hemingway wrote on Moleskines, Van Gogh sketched in Moleskines. These were what true artists used to make true art, or at least that’s what I thought in my mind.
I initially started with the standard black large version. I loved the size – not too small, not too big. Its heavy stitched paper, its textured black cover, its elastic strap holding everything together. I was smitten as it seemed a perfect place to save my thoughts into the distant future. Eventually I entered the wider world of Moleskine notebooks and started buying different sized versions and different colored versions. At one point I was obsessed with buying an extremely thick version with hundreds of pages, yet they didn’t make one. I scoured the internet and finally found a similar type of notebook that was 300 pages. I bought it, but when I finally opened it, the lines were ruled slightly larger than my Moleskines, and I couldn’t stand the difference.
It was around that time I started to realize that I was becoming more of a notebook collector than a writer. I’d have numerous Moleskines sitting on my shelf that had the first ten or fifteen pages written in, and then were completely blank. I’d get tired of one and go and search out a better version. I even expanded my collection to other brands (Miquelrius, Piccadilly, Field Notes, Writersblok), always in search of the perfect notebook. I’d put off writing until I got the next notebook, hoping that this time my words would flow freely. The new notebook would finally allow me to write the Great American Novel.
Yet, it never happened and I eventually reevaluated why I was buying all these expensive notebooks. I realized it wasn’t helping my writing, and in some ways was greatly harming it. I quickly decided to go back to my old ways and bought a stack of cheap one subject spiral notebooks. But even those cheap notebooks didn’t actually improve my writing. Whether I had the most expensive or the cheapest paper to write my words on, the paper didn’t really matter. The writing itself was what mattered, and I had lost that fact in my obsession to find the perfect notebook. I needed to forget what I was writing on and simply write.
When asked what tools he used to write, Robert Frost replied:
“I use all sorts of things. Write on the sole of my shoe.”
While he might have been exaggerating for effect, I think it shows he didn’t give a damn what he was writing on, he simply wrote. Whatever he happened to have on hand was fine, as long as it let him express his thoughts.
I still enjoy notebooks, but as collectibles more than idealized mediums for my writings. I’ve let go of the dream of the perfect notebook and simply write on whatever’s available, whether it be a brand new Moleskine or cheap half used pad of paper or increasingly my computer. The words are what matters – the strings of words that flow from my brain out into the world. It’s a fools game to obsess over finding the perfect tools in which to produce art. Finding the perfect camera won’t make you a great photographer, finding the perfect guitar won’t make you play like Hendrix, and finding the perfect notebook won’t let you write any better than using the sole of your shoe.