During my peak teen mall rat phase, Barnes & Noble was a haven. Sometimes I’d buy a book, but mostly I’d walk each aisle until I reached the notebooks. My favorite were leather-bound, roped shut with a cord. Some were etched with spiral designs; others had gold-edged pages. They all cost $20 or more — more than, at the time, I wanted to spend. But I always looked.
When I actually did buy one, there was nothing more alluring than that first crack of the spine, choosing the perfect pen to press to the lined page. I’d write a poem, or a few diary entries, then close the book.
After that? It would stay 90 percent empty forever. In a few months, I’d see another new, beautiful book, full of promise, and the cycle would repeat.
I’ve gotten no better at filling out notebooks over the years; I still have stacks of sad, half-used ones spread across my apartment and childhood home. But I know I’m not alone — the internet is full of people who find themselves unable to finish a goddamn notebook.
Writers—when someone gifts you a blank notebook what are the chances you’re going to fill even half of it?— todd dillard (@toddedillard) June 19, 2019
Jonathan Plucker, a professor studying creativity at Johns Hopkins University, believes the ability to fill a journal “has a lot to do with why you picked up the journal in the first place.”
“To serve as a diary? To record notes for work? To keep track of family stuff? To collect your poetry or short stories in one place? To serve as a sketch pad for ideas?” he asks. “Those are all very different purposes, requiring different levels and types of creativity.”
Creative efforts, it seems, are more precious to the scribbler, and there’s more worry over filling the pages with something less than worthy. On the flip side, journals with utility — like note-taking in class — have far less issue being filled.
When you start a creative project specifically, there’s a pervasive sense of the clean page, and its possibility. Phyllis Korkki, author of The Big Thing: How to Complete Your Creative Project Even if You’re a Lazy, Self-Doubting Procrastinator Like Me, ascribes a lot of weight to a new notebook’s possibility versus the reality of, you know, actually sticking to a project.
“A new, unused, good-looking notebook represents pure potential. The words we inscribe into this beautiful notebook will be words of pure genius, we tell ourselves,” Korkki says. “A used notebook is sullied — it shows how we attempted to achieve something impressive and fell short. ... I hate to continue writing in a journal I have previously abandoned months or even years before because that journal represents the ‘old’ me. A new journal represents the new me, who will always be disciplined and inspired.”
But what about actually finishing the notebook once you’ve started?
Korkki believes that “people lose steam because the idea of perfect writing in their heads never matches what they end up putting on the page, and they become discouraged.” Plus, there’s a strange adherence to timeliness when it comes to these books — people often dislike reentering old journals, perhaps because that journal, abandoned, represents the “old,” not-journal-filling you.
In On Writing, novelist Stephen King advises: “You can approach the act of writing with nervousness, excitement, hopefulness, or even despair — the sense that you can never completely put on the page what’s in your mind and heart. You can come to the act with your fists clenched and your eyes narrowed, ready to kick ass and take down names. ...Come to it any way but lightly. Let me say it again: you must not come lightly to the blank page.” That’s a lot of pressure.
The pervasiveness of technology can be an issue, too. It’s changing how we communicate, though it permits an expansive range of expression and the sort of language adaptation that has been paramount to human existence. But it’s too easy to blame our lack of adherence to writing habits on technology alone — I think always of the 1815 principal who saw his students writing on paper instead of slates and thought their penmanship would be ruined.
There’s also the issue of writing things versus experiencing them — Robert Lee Davis, a Melbourne-based artist who gave the TEDx talk “Why Don’t We Finish Things? An Artist’s View,” found he wrote most when he wasn’t engaging with the world around him, especially after moving to new, unfamiliar places.
“It was easier to write everything down than to go out and take a chance and venture into those experiences,” Davis says. “When you can’t speak the language, when you don’t know what the currency is, it’s easy to sit in a cafe with a coffee for hours and just write about these experiences you want to have.”
While his TEDx talk implies that the inability to finish a project means it’s not one’s calling, he now errs toward a slightly different view: that the inability to finish a creative project helps you understand what your calling is, and how to get there.
In order to find out why so many people don’t finish notebooks, I talked to a handful of the superhumans who do. They have multiple recommended habits: investing in a very nice notebook and pen, springing for a less precious utilitarian notebook, keeping the book nearby, returning to half-filled ones after deserting them. The Finishers aren’t identical people whose similarities led them to wield this special power of composition. They’ve simply found what works for their particular inclinations and, somehow, made a habit.
Sarah Gregg, 36, of Belfast, writes upon waking, and has broken the habit of checking texts first thing in the morning by keeping her phone in airplane mode and the journal at her bedside. Josh, a 28-year-old from Brooklyn, is also able to finish his journals. “People put down books and finish them later in life all the time, so I feel like that’s a good way to approach notebooks too,” he says. All he needs is the right notebook and pen.
And after a recent trip to Europe, Korkki has found she’s kept a travel journal consistently for the first time. Her secret? Having “very low standards for quality.” While that mostly sounds like a self-drag, it makes sense — the stakes are way lower when you scribble in a beat-up book with whatever pen you can find.
“I bought a plain old lined notebook at the dollar store and said to myself: All you have to do is write three sentences a day, every day, during your trip. Surely you can do that, you lazy-ass person, you,” Korkki says. “And that worked! Every morning before I went out the door, I wrote at least three sentences about what I had done the day before. And guess what? Ninety percent of the time, I ended up writing more than three sentences because inertia took hold and I just kept writing.”
But sometimes it’s not about forming habits or trying to make your journal “happen.”
“One reason many people don’t end up journaling, even with a cool journal in hand, is likely because journaling doesn’t work for lots of people. We all want to think of ourselves as super creative, intelligent people who have all our stuff together, are super organized, have everything shipshape,” Plucker, the professor studying creativity, says. “But there are plenty of super creative, intelligent people who have desks full of papers, pile notes on the floor, move from day to day somewhat by the seat of their pants.”
“The stereotype of the hyper-organized, successful person is just that: a stereotype without much accuracy behind it,” he adds. “Give me 50 successful people from a range of fields, and we’ll probably find 50 very different ways of taking notes, organizing thoughts, and organizing their lives. That strikes me as both very human and very cool. So if you can use a journal to do it, great. But you’re almost certainly in the minority, and that’s okay.”
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