The perfect notebook / a writers’ blockade – Anna Spargo-Ryan

The perfect notebook / a writers’ blockade

The perfect notebook / a writers’ blockade

Should you find yourself brave enough to open the cupboards in my home office, you might also be buried alive under a cascade of notebooks. All kinds: small spiral bound ones with thick blue lines, big ones with watercolour paper, medium sized ones with graph paper. My favourite is an A3 unlined Moleskine. Oh, the ideas I had in store for that notebook!

The thing is, not one of them has more than a few pages of notes and ideas inside. They are “could have” notebooks. There is a notebook for the first book I never wrote. There is a notebook for the first business plan I never finished. There is a notebook for poetry that could be finished but might not be (who knows with poetry?). Each time I set out to achieve something, I bought a new notebook for it, as if the notebook itself contained the magic I needed to follow through.

But of course, it doesn’t. I know that. I knew it even more profoundly each time I did go and buy a new notebook. I knew it when the people around me started to say “Anna has a new idea – must be time for a new notebook!” And I especially knew it after I saw photos of the writing spaces of some of the world’s – and history’s – greatest literary minds. They weren’t all minimalist, with IKEA desks. They weren’t all rich with mahogany and many copper drawer handles. Most of them weren’t even clean. Look at Maggie Gee’s room! ( All these writers seemed to need was a space to throw their paper / laptop and a bit of time. I know writers who do some of their best work sitting on commuter trains. I know writers who sit at the kitchen table without even clearing the night’s dishes. The magic of their writing doesn’t come from their notebook or their desk, it comes from – god help us all – hard work.

I am a chronic writers’ blockee. I relish in the writers’ block. I pace the length of my office and scribble notes on my whiteboard (these things were designed to help me write, after all) and watch “encore presentations” of Masterchef. I do these things for hours, telling myself that I’d be better off not trying to force it, that I won’t write anything worth reading if it comes out of pushing through the writers’ block, as though it is a physical blockade with me on one side and perfect, astounding prose on the other. When people call and ask me how writing is going (and by people, I mostly mean my dad, who is a man completely unfazed by where he sits when it’s time to write) I tell them that I’m in the midst of Writing Blockades and Road Closures but don’t worry, I’m doing some other things to take my mind off it so that I can write more later.

What I hope will happen is that I’ll come back to the page (or screen) once my head has cleared (as it will do, completely, leaving only space for genius) and throw all the words down in exactly the right order and only look at them again if I want to congratulate myself for them. I am afraid of second drafts. I am even more afraid of third drafts. Writing has, for so long, been an emotional outlet for me that there are no second drafts. How can the spirit of the occasion be anything other than the way I felt it in the first iteration? That’s the one that comes from the place where I first felt it. Sometimes I literally meditate through writing sessions, feeling as though I am actually back there. The words are so carefully placed that sometimes I can’t go back again.

That’s not good enough. What happens then is that I sit on this side of the blockade and shout across the witches hats to the finished product on the other side, but never see it. I buy a new notebook. I write “Anna’s book” at the top like I’m ten and then I fill it with exactly nothing, because I am still blocked. Because the blockage doesn’t come from the wrong notebook or the messy desk or the fact that I don’t have a view of rolling hills and vineyards through French doors in my country villa. It comes from my fear that when I write it, it will be wrong, and I won’t know how to fix it.

The notebooks are my blockade. They have to go.

  • Kelly Exeter

    July 8, 2012 at 6:01 pm Reply

    I have exactly 5 notebooks on my desk at the moment, 8 in the drawers, 3 on my bedside table and 6 pristine newbies waiting for the next big thing.

    Ironically I am not scared of anything, certainly not failure. But still, I have the same friggin notebook problem of every writer I know.

    So I think I agree with you, the notebooks must go!!

    • Anna Spargo-Ryan

      July 8, 2012 at 6:16 pm Reply

      Mine isn’t quite a fear of failure as much as it is not living up to my expectations (even if they’re low and even though I’ve followed everything through for years). I like to keep things in my head until they are right and then let them out, which is just stupidity because often they just stay in there.

      It’s an old insecurity and it deserves a good, hard kick.

      • Kelly Exeter

        July 8, 2012 at 9:25 pm Reply

        Oh no I wasn’t talking about you, was talking about me. I don’t think you have a fear of failure – rather just a great procrastination tool in those notebooks ;)

  • Naomi

    July 8, 2012 at 6:20 pm Reply

    This is exactly what I needed to read today. I convinced myself that I had writers block because I had not been running. Or because I did not have the perfect desk in the perfect room with perfect natural light… and I just need another pot of tea, surely all writers have perfect pots of tea on their perfect desk?

    Then I stopped. I wrote. Badly. But I wrote. I have to get over the fact it will not be perfect first go.

    As for my notebooks? They are mostly full of shopping lists after the first few pages. The have to go.

    • Anna Spargo-Ryan

      July 8, 2012 at 6:21 pm Reply

      Perhaps we need a kind of notebook intervention? And then a ‘perfect workspace’ intervention?

      I know I do.

  • Valerie Khoo

    July 8, 2012 at 8:11 pm Reply

    You and I must have the same notebook cupboard. Although mine spills out into the garage as well!

  • Evelyn

    July 9, 2012 at 2:18 pm Reply

    So well put! I too suffer from notebook block. My problem, I think, is that they’re just too damn pretty to be ‘spoiled’ with non-perfect writing. By not using them I’m keeping them pristine, thought why I need so many empty notebooks is beyond me..

  • Sam Quigley

    July 10, 2012 at 3:26 am Reply

    If you’ve not already seen it, I highly recommend a click over to Bon Vivant to read Simon Taylor’s writing tips. They won’t help. At all. But they’re bloody funny.

  • Lisa @ Giving Back Girl

    July 19, 2012 at 10:27 pm Reply

    Whenever I stumble across a new notebook, I always think I need it, and then they gather dust with only a few earnest, well intentioned words to keep the dust company. And then I forget about them until the next notebook joins the collection. Love this Anna!

  • Ricardo Bueno

    November 6, 2012 at 10:08 pm Reply

    Heh. I thought I was the only one who collected notebooks like this for each project.

    Before I ventur on a new writing project, I buy a black moleskine notebook, another time is a 3-pack of red moleskine notebooks, and another it was a brown leather “Notes” notebook. Two of those projects I actually shipped. One of them (my book idea), I didn’t ship. And I’m sad I didn’t. I’m disappointed. But I’m pushing myself to ship it still.

    Some days it’s easy. I sit there, and the words will pour out. Seemingly out of nowhere. Other days, I stare and I stare, and I procrastinate and wander, and nothing. Nada. Zip.

    It’s hard. But the good days, feel that much more rewarding when they hit.

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