Writer’s Notebook on Steroids

I was sitting with my notebook this morning, relishing the heft of my favorite pen. Me, the passionate digital writer and reader, the enthusiast for the transformative teaching and learning possibilities the web offers us– forget all that. This morning, it was all about the pen. Its shiny gold-colored clip. The cool, smooth barrel and the way it sat perfectly against the nubbin of my middle finger.

And I thought about how writing changes us inside and out. How deeply I believe students can write their ways into their best selves.Pen on lined paper

But I haven’t been able to figure out how my paper notebooks and all the spaces of my digital composing fit together. What kinds of writing or composing do I do in which spaces? Do certain topics live in certain places? How can I make sure I can write anywhere– as the spirit moves me, or during specific times at my desk?

For some time, it’s meant token notebook attention while I tried different places for making things with words. Penultimate (formerly, an online journal space, now acquired by Evernote and something completely different.) Omwriter. Evernote. Posterous (R.I.P.) And, for a while, nothing in either paper or digital spaces.

Every once in a while, I’d pick up the pen, dip into my notebook again. I’d even buy new notebooks. Most recently, I chose a notebook for its sleek paper and tight coil binding. I decided it would be my work notebook.

But thinking is not divided between work and not-work, or, in the case of students, school and not-school. Composing happens in words and in more than words. Frequently, the spaces overlap.

Ultimately, I needed to write. A lot. And because I needed to write, I just did. In so doing, I wrote my way into a solution. One notebook. Some good pens (and one really good one.) Multi-colored gel pens. Use the notebook for everything. Use colors to mark off notes and questions to return to. Use tags at the tops of pages to help locate writings that might turn into something.

As I look back over the past weeks of writing, I see a chain of ideas with surprising, unexpected connections, and a string of questions that are narrowing themselves into something that may be researchable. It’s a writer’s notebook on steroids.

And now that I seem to have some systems worked out, I’m thinking about how to create opportunities for students–and their teachers– to need to write.

I ask my grad students to use their blogs as maker spaces– places where they can make sense of or develop new knowledge about intersections between their life experiences and their school reading and learning experiences. I try to design the assignment so that students discover they need to write. I’ve heard that for many of these students, public thinking becomes a powerful way to learn. I would ask high schoolers to use writers notebooks– or blogs– as places to write about the questions they have and are trying to answer, the problems they see and want to solve, the small things that matter…. 

Once I worked with a teacher who was trying to get her middle schoolers to just write. After a little while of working with the students to introduce freewriting, it was time to brainstorm a list of things they’d like to write about. Their list filled multiple pages of flip chart paper. Turns out, they needed to write, they just hadn’t discovered that yet. 

Here’s hoping we can all keep discovering that need, and the right pens and notebooks and media and digital tools to help us meet it.



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6 responses to “Writer’s Notebook on Steroids”

  1. Connie Knapp says:

    Ah, yes, the feel of pen on paper. I have used a fountain pen for over half a century (I’m old). And friends, knowing that I am an IT person by training and profession, find this unusual–why on earth would anyone, let alone a techie, write with a fountain pen?

    Two words: morning pages. Julia Cameron. The Artist’s Way (look it up if you don’t know what I’m talking about). Three pages every morning, preferably handwritten, not for anyone’s consumption but your own.

    Or, Susan Piver’s 10:10:5. Ten minutes of meditation, ten minutes of free writing, and the five? Two things for which you are grateful, two things you are concerned about, and one way in which you will make an offering this day.

    Not at all the same when you write it on a keyboard (trust me, I’ve tried). And so I have journals and journals filled with morning pages/10:10:5, most of which I will never read again, but most of which, at the time, helped me to know what I was thinking.

    I have learned that I need to write to even *know* what I’m thinking. How many times have I been surprised, at the end of my three pages, to learn that I was angry, or sad, or curious? Too many to count.

    As always, thank you for this, Karen. A great reminder that there is something to be said for the physicality of “pen to paper.” And especially a “good” pen (written by someone who has four five fountain pens: two really good ones, one almost good one, and one that I carry around and have replaced at least once, possible because it is cheap).

    • Karen says:

      Julia Cameron. Yes. I tried morning pages but it didn’t take long before three pages began to feel onerous. It might be different now that I have a little more discipline. 😉

      I love the 10:10:5– thank you for that! It feels like the right shape and size to fit into newly developing routines.

      I, too, had tons of notebooks I never looked at after writing. The act of putting pen to page makes knowing almost compulsory– you write to discover, and through the process, you come to know….Or at least, I do. The composition scholar, Peter Elbow, had an exercise he would ask students to do. Freewrite for some minutes, get a good amount of words onto the page. Then, crumple up the page and throw it away. One of his points? For some of us, holding on to writing can be a real obstacle to doing more writing. So one day I looked at that stack of notebooks in the closet and tossed them. No qualms. They had served an important purpose.

      This new notebook seems different. A thinking notebook, in some ways– a layer in addition to the deeply meditative & personal.

      My favorite pen ever was a cheap purple gel pen. It just felt good. So who cares if it was cheap?

  2. I also struggle w/ knowing where to store writing. I have a plethora of notebooks partially filled, and several online sites and tech tools I’ve used to store writing. What’s certainly clear is both teachers and students need to write.

    • Karen says:

      Interesting that you focus on storing writing– I hadn’t considered that as the core factor. I do know that I am more reluctant to store stuff online since sites and products can disappear….

  3. In my advisory group on Tuesday, we began our time together by sharing highs and lows. One sophomore shared a writing instrument high. That instrument? A 1954 Parker Pen, a fountain pen. He knew the pen’s history and the specific names of the potted ink colors. A good pen makes all the difference sometimes. I am one to write in many spaces and in many different ways, privately and publically. But what prompts that need to write? I know some of the instances in me–passion, prayer, emotion, thought. Where does the need to speak or to tell a story fall? Before pen to paper, after?

    • Karen says:

      And *that* would be the question I’d start the year with, so that by the end of the year, each kid would know more about writing and why/how they do it.

      A fountain pen!! I tried one of those for a while but managed only to stain my finger….Good for your student!

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