Shaun Levin

Natalie Goldberg and the Uncertain World of Notebooks

In Writing on June 25, 2014 at 3:37 pm

Spiral-Bound NotebooksFor a long time I did what Natalie Goldebrg told me to do. Cheap notebooks were the best, she said, not the fancy ones that make you feel precious about your writing. Keep it simple. So for many years I wrote in spiral-bound A5 notebooks. I wrote with a blue biro, and only blue would do. I met people who wrote in other colours: black, green, someone’s husband used a brown pen, and there were those who’d write with whatever was at hand. Some people weren’t picky. I was picky, and pickiness is a form of superstition, a way to ward off dread. For years I wrote like this in notebooks with 80 sheets, ruled lines, some were perforated, but it was bad luck to tear pages out of a notebook. I’m not sure where I got that superstition from. Many of my superstition are of my own making.

I wrote a lot in those years, almost every day, starting from around 2006 when I first came to London. Natalie Goldberg said to finish a notebook a month, so I did. Some months I was close to the end of the month and still had blank pages untouched, so I wrote to fill the pages, because that’s what I’d committed to doing, what I thought one did to hone the craft. When that happened, I allowed my words to get bigger, letters took up two lines, doubled in size, ten words per page. Anything to finish the notebook, to move onto the next one on the first of the month. I liked the freedom of the bold handwriting, something I didn’t give myself much license to do. I stuck to the lines and stuck to my monthly quota. One notebook per 28, 29, 30 or 31 days.

4 Spiral-bound NotebooksRyman’s used to make a recycled spiral-bound notebook. It was the perfect notebook, and when they stopped making it, I called up head office to ask if they had any left; I was willing to buy whatever stock remained. It was like my rabbit’s foot, my shark’s tooth, my rusty horseshoe had been stolen. But they had none and I moved on, found something similar and forgot about the Ryman’s 100% Recyled 8″ x 5″ spiral-bound notebook until I sat down to write this.

Time passed and things changed; I got busier, needed more than a month to finish a notebook. But I was loyal to the notebooks with the light green covers, the thin paper, the ruled lines. I bought them in bulk from Viking, the office stationery company. When I look back now it seems strange to me that I wrote on lined paper. Recently, someone commented on how straight my lines were – “typical writer,” she said, though I don’t think she knows any – and perhaps those ten years of writing on straight lines have been absorbed into my system, so that when I shifted to the thin plain pages of the Moleskine, my lines were already ingrained, part of the way I saw the page, like those lined pieces of card we’d put under blue onionskin airmail paper when we’d write to people abroad.

About five years ago, a lover came to stay for a while. He was visiting this island from the island he is from. He brought me Mitsubishi Uni-ball Signo DX UM-151 0.5 gel pens in various colours: pink, green, dark yellow, purple, orange. I’m not sure how it happened or why – maybe I was ready for change, ready to try something new, or I wanted to show him I was using his gift, the way you use a gift to mask your ambivalence in the presence of the giver. This was the type of pen he wrote with in a language that calls for fine-nibbed pens; that, or soft calligraphic brushes. By then I was writing in Moleskine notebooks, though I don’t remember the moment my notebooks changed, when I went from the soft covers of the A5 spiral-bound notebook to hard-backed pocket-sized notebooks with double the amount of pages.

Moleskine SpinesFor about 6 years, maybe more, I’ve been writing in black Moleskine notebooks. When a friend gave me a green hard-backed Moleskine notebook last week, I faltered. I couldn’t imagine writing in a notebook other than the exact notebook I’ve been writing in for years. The repetition, using the same notebook over and over, creates a sense that multiple notebooks are one Notebook; after a while, you stop noticing the colour, shape, cover of the notebooks you’re using. Repetition allows you to forget. You don’t have to remember whether it’s the blue one you took to Paris, the yellow one you wrote in while on retreat in Scotland, or the beige one you record your dreams in. On the day he gave me the green notebook, I didn’t have my notebook with me, so I accepted it, cautiously, my superstition unseated.

I’m not always sure exactly when things changed, when I went from spiral-bound to Moleskine, the way I know the precise moment when I moved from blue biro to multi-coloured pens. So now I mark this date, Saturday the 21st of June, the day I ventured into multi-coloured notebooks. I recently started using a black pen, albeit from the same make as the coloured pens. I’ve been experimenting with drawing and black feels like the right colour to do this in. So that’s where things stand at this point in time.

  1. Reblogged this on The Top Banana and commented:
    I’m just the same. It has to be Moleskine. And I imagine my notebooks being pored over by literary scholars who are trying to plumb my genius.

  2. only moleskine for me, thin ones but different colours yes!

  3. […] or maybe even pink pen (one definition of love being a rainbow-coloured pack of Muji 0.5 gel pens, something I learned from Shaun Levin who continues to inspire me pen-wise and as a kind of […]

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