East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

An obsession with notebooks

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I was reading an interesting piece by writer and adventurer (or the other way around) Alastair Humphreys, about his tools as a writer, and I followed one of his links down a rabbit hole of posts, tweets and photos about notebooks.

The photo of Humphrey’s soaked notebook above reminded me of my time in the field as a geology student. The basic tools of the trade of the geologist in the field are hammer, compass and notebook. The basic destiny of the geologist student in the field is to get soaked.

When I was a student, one of our teachers, together with one of the students from my year, has set up a nice hustle, importing special, plastic-covered, water-resistant notebooks, produced for the US Geological Service. The guys also sold hammers and compasses to the students, but the water-resistant notebooks were probably their best sellers: the field mapping course took place during the traditionally very rainy spring, and soaked notebooks were a classic. Hence, the extremely expensive, yellow plastic-bound notebooks.

Then I spent one year in the UK, and there my fellow students showed me a perfectly simple way to take notes in the rain for ten cents instead of twenty bucks: you just slipped the notebook into a large plastic bag, the transparent kind used for freezers, and you were set.

But my obsession with notebooks is much older than that.
I always liked blank, virgin copybooks, and to this day whenever I am at the supermarket and there’s one of those sales – just before schools reopening, for instance – I feel compelled to buy a pack of notebooks. From large A4 spiral-bound notebooks to smallish B6 pocket-sized notebooks with hard covers, to thin craft paper notebooks, I get a pack, and stash it in a box here at home. In the same box you’ll probably find a bunch of pencils, and maybe a packet of BIC pens.
This is sort of an ammo depot.
When I am starting a new project, I crack open a new notebook, get a fresh pencil, and start scrawling and mind mapping.

This turned out to be a life saver in the first weeks after my father’s death, when we were in utter chaos and had to get a lot of stuff straight.
Write it all down, I said, and so we spent about half an hour every evening after dinner, jotting down to-do lists for the following days: talk to the bank, see the lawyers for the successions, get the bills and tax info…
We also wrote down ideas about how to make ends meet in the coming months.
It helped us cope, and it kept us afloat.

My approach to crises has always been to write them down, to use paper and pen to negotiate the bad waters.
It works.
And maybe it’s the reason why I love so much Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones, the book about writing as meditation. Because to me writing was always a form of meditation, a way to quiet the monkey mind and set things straight.
So I make sure I always have a good stock of notebooks and pens and pencils, because life seems to always have a good stock of curve balls ready to make our life interesting.

Author: Davide Mana

Paleontologist. By day, researcher, teacher and ecological statistics guru. By night, pulp fantasy author-publisher, translator and blogger. In the spare time, Orientalist Anonymous, guerilla cook.

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