Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream

A local habitation and a name

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A page from the author's notebook

If there’s one piece of advice that every writer receives, it’s that he or she should keep a notebook. Yet like all useful admonitions, from “Write what you know” to “Less is more,” this one has a way of being fetishized to a point where we lose sight of its true rationale. Notebooks, of course, can be attractive objects in themselves: I love browsing through collections of people’s journals, whether they belong to scientists (Field Notes in Science in Nature) or visual artists (An Illustrated Life). But they’re primarily a tool. And their value goes far beyond the basic premise that we’re likely to forget our ideas if we don’t write them down. If we’re worried about not remembering something, there are all kinds of ways to jot down a moment of inspiration: we can send an email to ourselves, or make a voice recording, or use one of the many convenient apps for taking notes on our phones. These are all excellent solutions to the problem of retaining a single flash of insight. But they can’t replace a journal on paper, which is less about preserving a specific idea than about affording it a physical location over time where it can sit, grow, and evolve.

I got to thinking about journals as locations—or as places where ideas can take up residence for the long term—while reading the poet Stephen Spender’s reflections on the subject. In his essay “The Making of a Poem,” he writes:

My mind is not clear, my will is weak, I suffer from an excess of ideas and a weak sense of form. For every poem that I begin to write, I think of at least ten which I do not write down at all. For every poem which I do write down, there are seven or eight which I never complete.

The method which I adopt therefore is to write down as many ideas as possible, in however rough a form, in notebooks (I have at least twenty of these, on a shelf beside my desk, going back over fifteen years). I then make use of some of the sketches and discard others…Each idea, when it first occurs, is given a number. Sometimes the ideas do not get beyond one line.

Two things strike me about Spender’s approach: 1) He numbers each idea—that is, he’s deliberate about keeping them organized. 2) The journal gives each line the space and time it needs to develop. As he puts it: “The work on a line of poetry may take the form of putting a version aside for a few days, weeks, or years, and then taking it up again, when it may be found that the line has, in the interval of time, almost rewritten itself.”

Notebook page for "The Voices"

And if we acknowledge that this kind of growth over time is important, we see how essential it is to give it a specific place in the world to occupy, on the written page, as well as to develop some method for keeping those pages straight. (Even if you don’t number them, as Spender does, you should at least put the date at the top of each page before you start to write, as Francis Coppola advises.) That’s the real function of a journal: not just to lock down that initial brainstorm, which could be done in any number of ways, but to provide it with a permanent residence, a kind of forwarding address to which later insights can be sent. In addition to the countless index cards and scraps of paper that collect around any writing project, I’ve learned to devote one full page to each story idea in a hardbound notebook. That way, whenever I get a new idea that builds on the first, I have somewhere to put it. In theory, I could do this in some digital format, but pen and paper remain unsurpassed. If nothing else, they provide a lasting record of the steps along the way, which can be a source of information in itself: you can figure out where you’re going by going back to see where you’ve been. And a journal keeps everything in one place.

In The Nature of Order, the architect Christopher Alexander notes that placing even a single dot on a piece of paper charges the surface with meaning:

The space changes throughout the sheet of paper (and not only where the dot is), vectors are created, differentiations reaching far beyond the dot itself occur within the space. As a whole, an entirely new configuration has come into being, and this configuration extends across the sheet of paper as a whole.

That’s true of words as much as dots, and as soon as you’ve written down a sentence, a journal page becomes a concrete process in time. We see a hint of this in the most famous evocation of the poetic act in literature, the speech of Theseus in A Midsummer Night’s Dream:

And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.

Reading these lines over again, I’m struck in particular by how Shakespeare emphasizes the poet’s pen as an indispensable next step in giving shape to that “airy nothing.” Shakespeare was a seer and an artist, but he worked on paper. And whenever possible, so should we.

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