I Do My Best Work in My Cheapest Notebook

Kerri Sullivan is a writer from New Jersey whose work has appeared in The Billfold, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and elsewhere.

The bottom drawer of my desk contains a dozen notebooks I’ll probably never use. Some of them I’ve carted around through moves as far back as college. Some were given to me as gifts and others I bought for myself. There are notebooks with smooth pages, notebooks that lay flat no matter what page you open them to, notebooks that cost close to $20, and notebooks that came from other countries. They are much too nice for me to ever use.

My quest to find the perfect notebooks to help me execute perfect projects has taken me to stationery supply stores, Kickstarters, art museum gift shops, and bookstores. I thought the special notebooks I found in these places would not only inspire me to do great work, but also help me improve my writing practice in general. The kind of person who writes in a something that has gold-foil edges probably has impeccable handwriting and never makes mistakes or scratches out big blocks of words. There was a time when I thought that maybe I could be this kind of writer, for a little bit of effort and fifteen dollars.

I told myself I would save every fancy notebook I acquired “for the right project.” By now, I’m sure the right project will never come. None of my ideas will ever feel good enough for the notebooks in that drawer. They are notebooks in which I only thought I’d want to write, but I’m too afraid to sully them with my half-formed, imperfect thoughts.

It turns out that the notebook I actually want to write in is an unglamorous Mead Five Star notebook that I picked up for $2 at a pharmacy. Its pages are thin, not particularly smooth, and certainly don’t lay flat. It’s five inches by seven inches, making it not quite pocket-sized, but not too big to carry around, either. Its pages are lined, which is the one thing every notebook I’ve ever bought has had in common. I don’t think I could write on blank or gridded paper. I’ve noticed one key difference between this notebook and all of the others languishing in my desk drawer: I actually use this one.

I affectionately refer to this notebook as The Shitty Notebook and keep it in my purse at all times. Unlike the Moleskines and other status notebooks taking up valuable storage space, The Shitty Notebook is allowed to be a disorganized, dog-eared, barely legible home for all of my worst ideas. Because I don’t really care about the notebook, I’m unafraid to ruin it.

After years of chasing the idea of the perfect notebook, I’ve finally learned that the best notebook is not necessarily the most expensive or best quality or nicest-looking. The best notebook is the one I’ll actually use. I’m not the kind of person whose writing is improved by a notebook that sets me back twenty dollars. I’m the kind of writer who needs something a little more scrappy. Something unpretentious that doesn’t make me feel pressured to only fill it with good sentences. 

Another perk of The Shitty Notebook is the anonymity it allows me when writing in public. Since everyone does everything on their phones now, writing when other people can see me sometimes feels weird enough. I can’t even imagine writing in some fancy-looking notebook in public. That’s a straight up invitation for some nosy person to ask you if you’re a writer and what you’re working on and where can I see your work? But my notebook is small and unassuming. I can pull it out in front of other people—in line at the grocery store, in waiting rooms, on my lunch break—without attracting attention. I am just a person making a perfectly normal note, nothing to see here! No one will know I’m writing down a line that just came to me for the essay I’m working on about dead relatives or working out a joke about snack food. No one will ask me what I’m working on or try to claim a piece of my private work before I’m ready to share it. They’ll think I remembered something I need to pick up at Costco or that I’m jotting down the time of an appointment—they’ll think absolutely nothing about it.

I find that when I dedicate some time each day, no matter however small, to working a little bit on my writing projects, more ideas come to me than if I don’t regularly tap into this part of my brain. Sometimes this looks like writing down a few sentences in the notebook while I’m in my car, too early for work because traffic was lighter than I expected. In those moments, I make lists, notes, or jot down weird lines that came to me. I try not to censor myself in these moments. When I feel like those notes are actually starting to amount to something, I type them into a document and fill in around them until those scribbles become essays. So many of my favorite pieces of writing started as scraps of thoughts hastily written down into notebooks. If I only carried around expensive notebooks I was too scared to use, I would lose so much. 

Maybe one day instead of a drawer of empty, pristine notebooks, I’ll have a drawer of completed Shitty Notebooks, scribbled in and torn up, crammed with words on every page. Notebooks that might not look like much, but they served their purpose as a place to put fledgling ideas. Notebooks that were the origin for things that went on to turn into polished, finished essays. 

At the end of this month, I’m moving to the first apartment where I’ll be living alone. It’s small, and I’m going to have to be thoughtful about what I bring with me. It might finally be time to let go of my drawer of “someday” notebooks in favor of being able to utilize the storage space. And with them, I’ll let go of the idea that the nicer a notebook is, the nicer the words I’ll put in it will be.