My Many Notebooks

Ever since I was in elementary school, I’ve had a love of notebooks. In those earliest days I would fill spiral-bound school notebooks with drawings. In college, I’d keep an extra notebook or two in addition to those designated for classwork, just to scribble random thoughts or doodle in my spare time. The summer before I entered seminary, I started journaling; this practice has endured for me for over 20 years now.

In more recent years, I’ve added a few other notebooks for other purposes, either for work or for stoking or organizing my own creativity and writing. These have changed based on my needs, but here are the ones that I use nowadays.

Scratchbook – Since I’m not always able to have a larger notebook with me, I try to be intentional about keeping a pocket-sized one on my person as often as possible. This is a catch-all for to-do lists, articles I want to read later, reminders, ideas to flesh out in my journal, the blog, or elsewhere, and whatever else I need it for in a pinch. I keep it close most of the time, and I make it a point to grab it on my way out the door no matter the occasion as well.

Workout log – I started doing this one near the beginning of the year. I ordered a pocket-sized weekly planner, and I record whatever I’ve done that day related to exercise and/or karate. It’s my new way of trying to hold myself accountable on that front.

Journal – As mentioned, I’ve been journaling off and on since 2001. I started with those Mead Composition notebooks that you can find at any drugstore. Most recently, I’ve been using Zequenz unlined notebooks. I may sometimes write typical diary sorts of things here, but I also use these to take notes at conferences, record quotes, take notes from books I’m reading, flesh out ideas for books and blog posts, and more. This is the most prized among the various notebooks that I keep.

Do you use notebooks? What kind, and for what purposes?

A Gimmicky Rhyme Scheme for Pursuing a State of Flow

My word for the year is Flow, based on the work and writing of psychologist Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi. His book on Flow has been foundational to this effort: finding a center is key to his proposed concept of flow, as one seeks an ideal state between anxiety and boredom where we meet the moment with confidence and effortlessness.

As with Csikzentmihalyi’s writing, my own goals in engaging this word have included thinking less while trusting my ability, to achieve that natural effortless state or at least pursue something closer to it. And in my own practice and research, I’ve come up with a series of steps that to me seem necessary in getting to that point.

Not only do these steps build on one another, but I’ve managed to fit them into a gimmicky rhyme scheme that makes them easier to remember.

Show – The very first thing you need to do is show up. Show up to whatever it is that you wish to experience greater flow in doing. Show up to your workplace, or gym, or family situation, or spiritual space, and start engaging in the project or activity. At this stage it’s not about being perfect or even good. It’s just about consistently being where you need to be to start the process.

Slow – As mentioned in the previous step, you won’t be good at whatever you’re showing up for at first. Nor should you expect yourself to be good at the beginning. I recently read a quote from martial artist Chris Matakas saying that you earn a white belt because it signifies the courage to begin. So after that initial act of courage comes your earliest learning, which can take time and involves lots of awkwardness and mistakes. That’s to be expected, so take things slow and “embrace the suck.”

Grow – Continual practice eventually leads to greater proficiency and confidence. Activities that seemed difficult before are now much less so, to the point where they’ve become easy or routine. As one set of practices reaches this point, it’s time to move to others that will bring new challenges, capabilities, and learning. Continual practice leads to growth.

Flow – Finally, as you grow into greater competency, you’re more likely to be in a flow state when engaging that particular activity. The basics may seem too easy and even boring, the most advanced techniques still may bring too much anxiety and self-consciousness, but there is a sweet spot where you’re able to meet certain challenges with confidence because you’ve done the necessary work and continual practice that allows for it.

As these steps imply, a flow state is not a static place of being. The more you grow, the more that space between boredom and anxiety shifts. But this is a positive development, as it’s the natural result of continually showing up and growing out of where you began.

Steps to Finding Your Writing Voice

I recently came across a blog post with some tips for writing that included a few phrases that sounded strange to me. It offered some good basic tips and tricks for those looking to get started, but these phrases struck me as a bit unhelpful: they were headings that advised to “choose a writing style” and to “choose what kind of writer you are.”

I find them unhelpful because they presume that these are things you can do easily at the beginning of your writing journey, like picking items off a menu at a restaurant. “Yes, I’ll have the declarative style and my two sides will be an analytic approach and a dry humorous undertone.”

In reality, finding your own writing voice is a process of discovery. You may have an idea that you want to be declarative while using analysis and humor, but it will still take time to develop your unique approach that will make use of those things. Or, on the other hand, you may discover that one or more of those don’t work for you; that they aren’t really you after all.

And so, rather than making such decisions about your writing voice from the outset and striving to make it happen no matter what, the process of discovering your own style may take you someplace you never expected. It may include some of your original aspirations, but it will likely also bring in elements you never expected. Please note: this is a good thing.

So what does that process of discovery entail, anyway? Here are some of the most common features and necessities.

Write, write, write. There’s no getting around this. To call yourself a writer, you actually need to write. And the more you write, the more you’ll discover the type of techniques that most suit you. And I don’t mean that you need to churn out masterpieces every time you sit down…far from it. Get a cheap notebook, set a timer, and just write whatever pops into your head for a while every day. A popular version of this is Julia Cameron’s Morning Pages, but it doesn’t have to be that specifically. The point is that writers need to practice as much as anyone else, and practice is how you figure out your own personal style.

Imitate your favorites. A big part of the reason you initially set out to be a certain kind of writer likely is because you enjoy reading that style from others. The main thesis of Austin Kleon’s book Steal Like An Artist is that all artists steal concepts and techniques from others–they were first inspired to create from others, after all. Most musicians begin learning by sitting in their bedroom playing along to their favorite bands, and in a similar way a writer may begin by “playing along” with their favorite authors, essayists, and poets.

Tweak according to your own taste. The more you write (see Point 1), the more you move away from imitating others. As time goes on, you figure out what works best for you and what you can’t quite pull off. At the same time, you discover new separate things that you like doing and mix those in as well. All of this together contributes to your own evolution.

Choosing your writing voice up front is a nice aspiration to have. But where you start will most likely not be where you end up. But that journey of discovery is necessary and will lead to you finding your own unique voice, which the world needs much more than 1) a mere imitation of someone else, and/or 2) a writer who doesn’t actually enjoy or believe in their own style.

Embrace the journey, and see where it takes you.