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Tuesday, July 13, 2010



The Value of Notebooks...
by Hudson McCann


While most of my night stand is covered with a disparate collection of items -- a chalk-white lamp; a beige cube clock radio, Kleenex box and 3” Super Woman doll -- a two-foot high pile of books covers the northeast corner.  In the past couple of years, as writing wedged itself into my daily life, the height of the books hasn’t changed, but the contents of the pile has. Some of the books are now authored by me.

No, the books aren’t published. The self-authored books are notebooks that contain stories initiated from group prompts, first drafts, revisions of scenes, notes from lectures, character sketches, book recommendations, web pages, trade associations and other writer’s resources.


Once, in a lecture, when my attention derailed from the topic, I turned to the last page and generated an index for the book on hand. Since the pages weren’t numbered in my blank book, that was the first step in making it a reusable source. Surprised and pleased by the sheer volume of material I had captured, I eventually did the same for the remaining books in the pile. What a treasure trove!


Taking the time to go through and index the notebooks, I found rough gems of ideas that simply needed polishing. Seriously, I think I must have written some of the items while asleep or in a trance. I don’t remember writing them. Not that all of them are immediately useful, and some may never be, but many are complete thoughts that one day might be.


Lexicons are my favorite finds in the notebooks. They are accurate lists of words and phrases about a topic or experience that interests me and, might one day be included in a piece. When I develop a lexicon, I write the topic and underline it at the top of the page. Underneath and for some, several extending pages are lists that accurately describe the topic. All lexicons are works in progress and can be added to at will. Now that I have an index, I know that there are a few that I started on one page, then tapped into a vein of information later and continued the lexicon pages later.


Developing a lexicon is much like a writing prompt without connective words. For example, not long ago I accompanied my niece to a tattoo “parlor.” As the tattoo technician inked her dragonfly, I created a lexicon page to capture the proper names of the items in the shop. I started with the names of the equipment, then the surroundings.  I listed the types of music he offered and the bands and artists he favored; surprised by a single Brittany Spears in the collection among the heavy metal. Turns out a young girl brought it to play during her time in the tattoo chair. 


As a complete novice to the world of tattoos, I listed the names of the various genres evidenced by the books on the shelf next to the CD player.  I added my impressions informed by my senses to the lexicon. In this case it included what I saw, smelled, heard, and later, what I felt when the artist inked my Celtic tat, with the precisely named, 'tattoo gun", that he wrapped in a "baggie.” And, so I learned that sometimes accuracy is mundane. I was imagining the gun with an official name, like the Inkerator Three and the sandwich bag he used to cover it was The Trojan. In asking, I learned a better story. The tattoo artist designed the gun himself using parts from others until he got the effect he wanted. The baggie turned out to be a process improvement that saved him maintenance time. My lexicon include bits of information to add texture to writing sometime in the future.


Last year, when attending a writing conference in Taos, NM, where I learned about Lexicons from my instructor and author, Priscilla Long, I started a lexicon, titled, New Mexico. During the week, I kept a running list of impressions From the veranda off my hotel room I saw trees, cacti and prairie dogs. Later I asked or learned the specific names for each. In the morning, not long out of bed with a hot cup of coffee, I used the time to write phrases and metaphors to describe the scene before me as a writing warm-up. Someday, perhaps I'll want to tap those memories. At that time, I will have words for the subtle differences in the bleached color green found in panoramic views of Taos, rather than the verdant landscape scenes in springtime Chicago.


I always have a notebook with me, and I employ it often. It's not hard to imagine that it will be useful for a scene to be written sometime in the future, about an ophthalmologist's office that will include the ladies' room key attached to eye glass frames or the names of the magazines offered in large print.

Since beginning the collection of lexicons, I have expanded my strategies for creating them. My notebooks include pages torn from magazines and newspaper augmented by my own impressions. A new addition, for example, is a brief article I tore out on how to read clouds from Backpacker Magazine. Someday, when my smart heroine is out hiking, she won’t just see a tall, dense cloud, she’ll know its Cumulonimbus and head for shelter.

Sure, I could go to Wikipedia and get the accurate names of things, but lexicons offer deeper, more personal descriptions of a subject. They allow me to form opinions and ideas at the time and tap them much later when I can no longer access them directly. The present moment of creating a lexicon, offers richness and depth especially in rewrite.

Now that I have a variety of lexicons, I find that they inspire me to write. At my fingertips, like a ready-to-heat meal, I have all the ingredients, to which I simply need to add characters… from another page in one of my notebooks.

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