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Monday musings on Australian literature: Writers’ notebooks

October 11, 2021

If you’ve attended writers festivals, you are sure to have heard writers talk of using notebooks to jot down ideas on the run, to record conversations overheard on public transport, cafes, etc, to capture the thoughts of the writers they read, and so on. These notebooks are not works of art in themselves, but part of a writer’s toolbox for creating their art – except, of course, writers being writers can turn anything into art, if they set their minds to it.

Some time ago, an article appeared in The Guardian on writers’ notebooks. It starts by discussing:

the way notebooks seem to offer access to hidden origins, and to the creative processes by which works we value come into being. Notebooks record early versions and impulses, and though sometimes the writer has an eye to posterity, the privacy of self-communing allows things that can’t be shared with others to be said, within what Coleridge, one of the great notebook-keepers, called in 1808 a “Dear Book! Sole Confidant of a breaking Heart”. For Virginia Woolf, her notebook helped to “discover real things beneath the show”; flashes of perception, phrases, half-formed and potential ideas …

The article was written by American Professor Philip Horne, who commissioned ten authors to write new stories based on “germs” left behind by Henry James in his notebooks. That book has been published, Tales from a master’s notebook: Stories Henry James never wrote. (Anyone read it?) Apparently, Horne is also editing an edition of James’ notebooks.

I’ve digressed a little – into American writers, and third-party-edited notebooks – when I really want to focus on Australian writers. But, sorry, I’m going to digress again, this time to lithub.com staff writer, Dustin Illingworth:

Few literary artifacts remain as consistently enigmatic as the author’s journal. … The very names we employ—the aforementioned “journal,” the stuffy “diary,” the tepid “notebook”—are failures of imagination, if not outright misreadings. Staid synopses and ossified lives these are not. Rather, what we find within their pages are wild, shapeless, violent things; elegant confessions and intricate codes; portraits of anguish; topographies of mind. Prayers, experiments, lists, rivalries, and rages are all at home here, interbred, inextricable from one another. A piece of petty gossip sits astride a transcendent realization. A proclamation of self-loathing becomes a paean to literary art. News of publication shares the page with the most banal errands imaginable.

Perfect, including his reference to nomenclature – journal, diary, notebook. Writing courses specifically recommend keeping a “writers notebook”, but writers themselves – if they do it at all – keep diaries, journals, notebooks, even loose pieces of paper like backs of envelopes. Many of these eventually find their way into libraries and archives.

Here, though, my focus is those that are published – by the writers themselves, not posthumously by academics or other editors. These works are clearly part of a writer’s oeuvre – and I’m calling them “notebooks”. They tend to be highly edited and somewhat different from traditional diaries, which, of course, can also be carefully edited. But, these “notebooks” have minimal diary framework, in terms of day-by-day dear-diary accounting.

Selected Aussie writers’ notebooks

I don’t know how many writers have published the sort of “notebooks” I’m talking about, but I have three on my shelves, to get the discussion going.

The first one, chronologically in terms of publication, is the most unusual, Beverley Farmer’s A body of water (1990). I’ve had it on my TBR since it came out. How embarrassing. Luckily for you, though, Lisa has reviewed it, so do go there if you are interested. Meanwhile, I’ll just make a few comments. I bought it because I loved Farmer’s writing, and looking at it again – as I have many times over the years – I feel the urge to dive in, but, no, on with this post.

Farmer’s book takes place over a year from February 1987 to the next February. The thirteen journal chapters are named for the month, but what makes this notebook a little different is that interspersed between the months are five short stories. The content of the journal chapters, however, is very much as described in the quotes above. There are references to her life (particularly her relationship angst), to books she is reading, to her own writing, to her environment. I am, cheekily, going to quote from Lisa’s review, because – well, you’ll see why later:

Farmer reads Alice Munro, and makes notes about the structure of her stories; she goes to the Spoleto Festival (forerunner of the Melbourne Festival) and brings home the books of A.S. Byatt from which to learn.  She wishes she had the insouciance of Olga Masters, she admires the ‘spirals within spirals’ in V.S. Naipaul’s The Enigma of Arrival (p192) and she reads and re-reads cherished authors, to ‘rebuild and restore’ (p169) finding a ‘fearful symmetry and sureness of touch’ in Jessica Anderson’s Tirra Lirra by the River (p219).

My second book is actually called a notebook – Notebooks 1970-2003 (2005) – and it’s by Murray Bail. I bought it because I like Bail and was intrigued by this notebook form, but I haven’t read it yet, either. It has just two parts: London June 1970-November 1974 and Sydney September 1988-November 2003.

It is more spare than Farmer’s and Garner’s books, but that in itself provides insight into him, as well as its content sharing what he’s observing, reading, thinking about. Here’s something quite random:

Strolling from one picture to another in art galleries, even commercial ones, I am assailed by literary ideas which beg to be resolved.

Book cover

And finally, the book – or books – that inspired this post, Helen Garner’s first two volumes of her diaries, Yellow notebook: Diaries Volume I 1978–1986 (my review) and One day I’ll remember this: Diaries Volume II 1987–1995. Interestingly, the first one is called “notebook” and “diaries” while the second one is just “diaries”. I am including them here because the content, though arranged by year, looks like a collection of snippets, rather than a traditional diary.

In my review of volume 1, I focused on Garner’s writing about other writers, such as Elizabeth Jolley. In volume 2, she mentions other writers again, of course. One of these is – yes – Alice Munro, whom Lisa says Farmer also mentions. Here’s Garner:

Alice Munro is deceptively naturalistic. All that present tense, detail of clothes, household matters, then two or three pages in there’s a gear change and everything gets deeper and more wildly resonant. She doesn’t answer the questions she makes you ask. She wants you to walk away anxious.

Anyone who knows Garner and/or Bail will know that they were married (1992-2000) during the periods covered by their “notebooks”, and Bail certainly appears in Garner’s. But, more on that when I review it.

Why read these notebooks?

For me it’s because although, fundamentally, the text is the thing, I do think that understanding something about the writer can enhance what we get out of our reading.

Garner’s notebooks are a perfect example, because she writes much about what she thinks it worth writing about and what sort of writing she strives for. She wants, for example, to understand “what people do to each other”, and she writes of striving to let “the language tell the story”, and of “trying to trim adjectives without losing the sensuous detail they afford”. Of V/Bail, she admires “the bright freshness of his writing, its muscle, its dazzling turns. Carved free of cliché. Scrubbed till it hurts.”

There are many reasons for reading these notebooks, but another big one is discovering what our favourite writers read and what they think about what they are reading, as Lisa shares from Farmer. Here is Bail, being his spare self:

Emerson’s ‘Self reliance’: line by line, blow by blow.

I remained seated and immediately read through it again.

There is also just the joy of reading their writing. These notebooks are full of insights and descriptions that make you stop, but if I start sharing them, I’ll never stop. Instead, I’ll end with Farmer from near the beginning of her book. She’s writing about her “new phase of writing”:

This new writing: I want it to be an interweaving of visual images–more open, loose and rich, and free of angst. And if I keep a notebook this time …

Have you read any writer’s notebooks?

18 Comments leave one →
  1. October 11, 2021 23:38

    WG: Where on earth does your inspiration and energy come from? Let me take your quote as below – and work my own quirky response:
    “Farmer reads Alice Munro, and makes notes about the structure of her stories; she goes to the Spoleto Festival (forerunner of the Melbourne Festival) and brings home the books of A.S. Byatt from which to learn. She wishes she had the insouciance of Olga Masters, she admires the ‘spirals within spirals’ in V.S. Naipaul’s The Enigma of Arrival (p192) and she reads and re-reads cherished authors, to ‘rebuild and restore’ (p169) finding a ‘fearful symmetry and sureness of touch’ in Jessica Anderson’s Tirra Lirra by the River (p219)”

    I read all of Beverley Farmer’s writing – interested primarily in her Greek period at a time when I was tracing Greek/Australian literary connections: (George Johnston/Charmian Clift – Morris Lurie – Gillian Bouras, George Papaellinas, Angelo Loukakis, Kominos, Pi O, thalia et al). Olga Masters came along to one of my A.M.E.S. community evening classes at the old Cleveland Street High School premises in 1984 and spoke to the class members about her writing (she was part of a series of writers – Pino Bosi, Peter Skrzynecki et al). Later I attended at her invitation one of her book launches and met writer/editor Barbara Ker Wilson – a friendship which continued via Sydney, the Blue Mountains, Brisbane and Bowral up until her passing. Barbara visited one of my HSC classes in 1987 to share her knowledge of Jane Austen and EMMA – she had herself written a novel of Janes Austen in Australia. V.S.Naipual was of course born on/in Trinidad of Trinidad & Tobago. I am currently in almost every other day contact with a chap whose older sister married one of my English second cousins – whose father in turn was born of a number of generations in what we think of as the British Raj – one branch disappearing back into in 18th-century Indian connection (à la White Mughals by Willian Dalrymple). My (therefore) kinship connection – was born on Union Island – part of the St Vincent and Grenadines group – but in the mid-1950s – Hurricane Janet forced his family’s evacuation to become refugees in/on Trinidad – place of birth of V.S. Naipaul. in 1988, January – I completed a summer school of introductory Deutsch at the Goethe Institut(e) in Woollahra in Sydney. One of my classmates lived in the same apartment building as Jessica Anderson. I am stretching connections – of course – but it’s all about that very human aspect – making connections, no? Finding our meaning from the things we know, understand – of life – of relationships – as we move through it. Thanks again WG for bringing all these memories – tenuous though they may be in reality – to the fore. Jim

    • October 12, 2021 08:36

      Haha, love your connections Jim. BTW, I have read Barbara Ker Wilson’s book. I’m not a big fan of fan fiction, but hers was a bit different as you would know, and I enjoyed it.

      I loved Farmer’s Greek period writing too. And Bouras.

      As for inspiration for these posts, I have a notebook! Actually, I jot down ideas in my phone/tablet Notes app!

  2. October 12, 2021 00:53

    I tend to prefer an author’s letters to their notebooks or diaries. Granted, you need a certain sort of writer and a good editor to make a book of letters even make sense, but when they come together, they provide a lot of insight into the writer. Letters are already self-edited because there is an audience on the other end, and they’ll also strike a certain tone. I still remember reading a letter Flannery O’Connor write to a friend that basically said, “Good lord, you had ANOTHER baby??” That sort of letter gives me insight on the writer’s personality and leanings.

    • October 12, 2021 08:45

      Oh yes Melanie, letters can be great too . I have written several posts on Jane Austen’s letters. I think I have just one more to go. they can be wonderfully insightful I agree. Austen has a baby statement in a letter too.

      • October 13, 2021 00:54

        I did read a chunk of a rather large book containing Langston Hughes’s letters, and he is a writer I love. However, the editor didn’t quite put in the work to make the letters make sense. I also just realized that some books may contain ALL of an authors letters, whereas others books may be curated for a smoother reading experience.

        • October 13, 2021 07:57

          Yes… True. Very good point. I think editions Austen’s letters, for example, are all of them because so few have survived, and it does make them only for the aficionados I think. New editions, from Chapman to LeFaye’s, contain a few more that have been found.

  3. October 12, 2021 06:19

    I can scarcely grasp the concept of being a writer, so good at what s/he does as to be able to write about writing ..

  4. October 12, 2021 11:09

    I’m not a big fan of the genre (is it a genre?) but I’ve read Catherine Helen Spence’s diaries and correspondence in Ever Yours, C. H. Spence, edited by Susan Magarey, with Barbara Wall, Mary Lyons and Maryan Beams. I’ve also read Heysen to Heysen: selected letters of Hans Heysen and Nora Heysen, edited by Catherine Speck.
    But TBH I much prefer a good biographer to sift out what’s interesting for me!

    • October 12, 2021 11:53

      Thanks Lisa … I wasn’t really including letters and traditional diaries here (though am glad you commented on what you’ve read!) as I think they are a different form (or genre!! – who knows). I think these “notebooks” are very different from those in my experience. They are often tighter to start with.

      BUT for the record, overall, I agree with you re preferring the good biographer. I wouldn’t read a lot of these.

  5. October 12, 2021 17:53

    I think the closest I’ve got is an artist’s notebooks, Betty Churcher, in particular – similar but different to what you’re talking about though.

    • October 12, 2021 19:53

      Thanks Brona. I actually pulled the two Betty Churcher notebooks that I have off my shelves when I was writing this, but they are different, as you say, and so I decided to keep my focus to what I originally chose.

  6. Meg permalink
    October 12, 2021 19:46

    Hi Sue, like you I thought of Helen Garner and Murray Bail’s books. I do have and enjoyed W Somerset Maugham’s ‘A Writer’s Notebook’ and Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast. I know there are some more in the back of my head, but I know they are not Australian and I cannot recall them!

    • October 12, 2021 19:54

      Thanks Meg … I’m not sure I was aware of Maugham’s one (though it has the best title!) but I had heard of Hemingway’s. Both would interest me.

  7. October 14, 2021 05:32

    I love reading writers’ notebooks. I think the first that I remember reading was Katherine Mansfields’ collected notebooks? And the Canadian writer Marian Engel was not long after (author of Bear, a popular choice for this week’s 1976Club). Some diaries (I’m thinking of Sylvia Plath) verge into notebook territory too but others (I’m thinking of Dawn Powell, but there are some “story note” parts too, in hers) stay in their diary lane. It’s easier to find notebooks for American writers overall, I’d guess, rather than Canadian anyway. And I’m guessing the reason is why I don’t recognize your Australian examples either (I mean, for having been able to access them, I recognize the authors).

    • October 14, 2021 08:27

      Yes, you and I agree Buried… There’s a difference between notebook and diary even though the line can be fine at times. I’m not surprised that you like them too.

      And yes, as you’d expect, I don’t know your Canadian example.

  8. George permalink
    October 16, 2021 09:30

    Not necessarily notebooks as such. I have a copy of Lichtenberg’s The Waste Books and of selections from Thoreau’s journals (both NYRB editions). I should get back to a local used bookstore and see if they still have the copy of Samuel Butler’s notebooks.

    • October 16, 2021 10:36

      Well, George, I’d never heard of Lichtenberg or his figures (or I’ve forgotten) but I have now! Thanks. Samuel Butler’s would be interesting.

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