The Sadness Found in Old Notebooks

It was back in a year that, now, very much feels like The Before-Time. In reality, it was The Time. 2016, the Worst Year Ever. Not that the years since have been particularly better, but we lost a lot of beloved individuals in 2016 – probably just leaving early to avoid the rush, really. Anyway. Since 2011 I’d fallen and I’d gotten up, and in late 2015 I was trying to think of something to do. I decided, essentially on a whim, to go back to school. My writing wasn’t really going anywhere, and I wanted to improve myself. Why not take some writing papers, maybe a history paper or two for fun?

Now, somehow, I’m finishing my thesis. Or trying to. In a month and change (touch wood) I will have handed in my Masters thesis. I have no idea how I got here.

After my brief holiday break, I was setting up my desk for another day of grinding out bad words and reading things I probably should already have read, and I spotted something on my shelf. The syllabus and workbook for the creative writing class I took the first semester I’d enrolled for my graduate diploma. This class was the reason I’d gone back to school. Sitting in a lecture theatre of 100-200 students, each with a notebook they’d been told to keep while working through the syllabus. Maybe, for many of them, their first writer’s notebook. It was exciting.

The class itself wasn’t perfect. The poetry section was my favourite, and I enjoyed the workbook-keeping. In the end, it was less what I learned in that class, and more the permission it gave us to make messes. It encouraged us to go out into the world and take field notes in a way that captured my imagination then, and does so now.


The Workbook is a repository for ‘life’ as you are attuned to it . . . an organic journal where you will collect and record all your workings, exercises, drafts, experiments, all imaginings, craft-related thoughts, recordings and responses to your environment. It is to be a busy hive of imaginative creativity for the next 12 weeks and should be portable and accompany you everywhere. A workbook encourages a culture of observation, critique, playful musings and is core to ongoing creative writing practice. No two Writer’s Workbooks will be the same.

When I picked my workbook up and flicked through it, I was surprised at how free it was. Quotes, sketches, bits of magazines cut out and stuck in. Nowadays my notebook is mostly thesis notes, maybe the occasional bit of prose for The Monstrosity pt. 2 or the draft of a poem. Everything within the lines. Each day marked and stamped, on its own page. I miss the mess. I need the days, now, because without them I’ve no way of keeping my notes in order, and these are things I have to reference, not just flip through at my leisure. Unlike the Leuchtturm1917 I’d used back in 2016, I’m now in a Stalogy. I love the paper, I love the number of pages and how chunky the book can get, but there’s something about that old lined Leuchtturm1917 that’s just pleasing to hold. There was a strange nostalgia about flipping through it, remembering where I was when I made that sketch or wrote down that quote. I’d been reading a lot of Burroughs at the time. Some poems by Lenore Kandel.

I said at the beginning of 2018 that I felt like my brain had been switched back on, and one of the things I fear about leaving postgrad is that it might switch off again. I find academic work extremely rewarding, even if, right now, with the deadline fast approaching, I hate my thesis just a little. I get to read nerdy stuff, and have ideas, and write them down for an audience of smart people. There is something I can’t describe about mentioning something to someone who has spent years on a subject that they hadn’t read or thought of before, and seeing their eyes light up with enthusiasm. I feel like my perspective, my thoughts, are valued. Like I’m adding something useful to the discussion.

But gods, I miss writing.

I miss having days where I could read fiction. I miss creative days, days drenched in art, days talking poetry with people who cared. I miss keeping that fucking writer’s workbook. I kept it for twelve weeks – the length of the semester – and I got through ten pages a week. There was a freedom about that book. You put your whole self into it. I miss believing that writing was important, instead of the thing relegated to the end of the day or to my lunchbreak. I miss sitting in a room with a hundred other writers. I miss that writer’s workbook, and how it never left my side. I miss the emotion and the creativity and the freedom. I miss creative work. I miss a dream that was never quite real.

Whatever comes next, I want to capture that feeling again.

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