I'm not sure why the post here, about how to make your Moleskine into a more efficient planner, gave me the giggles, but it's also set me thinking again about notebooks again. My basic notebooks small (bag/pocket) and big (desk/holidays) are not organised in any way, except that I start at the beginning, and fill it from left to right, till it's full. I did once decide to collect my PhD thoughts at the back, but kept forgetting to put them there: now everything gets bunged in together.
In life, I like things sorted and organised by function and logic. I'd rather keep books on the floor and papers on the desk until I've time to put them away in the right place, than have muddle in the shelves and files. I use diaries and to-do lists and shopping lists: even the icons on my desktop are arranged by kind-of-programme. So why am I happy to throw everything into my Moleskine however it falls? (Though I do, it's true, get much more organised once a writing project is up and running.)
Imagination and the storytelling impulse came long before the documentary impulse in me: the first thing I wrote as an adult was Chapter One of a novel. So the only notebook I needed, I thought, was for notes for the novel. Then I realised that documentary writing can be fuel for the imagination; it needn't be an end in itself. But - but - what? Just put everything in? As it occurs to me? An idea for the novel, a line on a tree/smell/shop, research notes from a museum, some words which seem to be part of a poem I haven't written yet, a brilliant story title ditto, an eavesdropped conversation, an expensive book I want... But how do you keep the same kind of thing together and different things apart? Which notebook for which stuff? And whatever categories and headings you choose, the actual material always resists them: is that conversation research, or a story idea? How will you find anything again? How will you know it's there when you need it? But you must organise it somehow, you must get a grip on what you've actually got, or you might never find something you wanted again.
That's the key, I know, because I can feel my chest tightening. Absolute impermanence, irreversible loss, is terrifying because it's what awaits us all, and perhaps existential terror is one thing that makes you a writer, not an actor: writing makes your experience and therefore self permanent. Indeed, because writing something down is the best way to get it into your head, notebooks are a bulwark against loss too. But if I have to start by working out what section a note goes in I probably won't bother, or the lights will have changed, and then it really will be lost. So, while my notebook is a form of letting go of the outcome, it has also become part of my process. Whether I'm looking for a research fact I know is there somewhere, or for some small sparks which might ignite to make a story, with only a rough idea of the order of the past to guide me, I see stuff along the way. I've found ideas for novels when I was seeking notes on an 18th century waistcoat, and stumbled on found poetry in my daughter's handwriting (I was driving), when I sought that solution I had to the hole in Chapter Four. I do usually find what I need, and some nice surprises too, in the encounter with my writerly past. And if I don't, and the novel takes a slightly different turn because of it, so be it: if I want to write a novel as a bulwark against the greatest terror, I've learnt that I need to live with the smaller ones.