09 June 2018

On Making a Notebook

Libby Cudmore
Many writers, myself included, suffer from a terrible affliction known as "Pretty Journal Panic." Well-meaning friends and family buy us beautiful journals as gifts, and, once unwrapped, they languish in a drawer, their pages too pretty to be scrawled with half-finished poems and false novel starts. It easier to make mistakes on yellow tablets or battered composition books, and some of us have even abandoned the notebook completely in favor of sleek keyboards and digital drafts.

But a notebook is a safe space. Opening up a new .DocX final betrays a certain finality, a final draft feel that can crush the early blossoms of creativity. There's an intimacy of pen to paper that cannot be matched by the tap tap of fingers on a keyboard. It's easier to make mistakes, to take risks on stories or poems that might never be finished, when the page doesn't look so formal. You can't doodle in the margins of an Open Office document.

 It wasn't until I started making my own notebooks that I discovered how intimate a process it could be. Creating something from raw materials has a certain magic to it -- taking a pile of paper and thread and building a sacred space.

I had abandoned the notebook years before in favor of the laptop, but after a seemingly-endless, post-MFA fit of writer's block, I retrieved a blank, leather-bound book brought back to me from Italy by a dear friend. When I began writing inside, I found again the joy I remembered from my early writing days, of scribbling stories in composition books my teachers assumed were notes for class. And the more I wrote, the more I thought about those beautiful notebooks, covered with stickers and filled with magazine cut-outs, pockets filled with writing prompts from various conferences. There was magic in them, surely, and if I could build one from scratch, I could design that magic all my own.

My first was messy, but fully functional. My second was better, my third, even better than that. I made notebooks as gifts for friends. And the more I made, the more that Pretty Journal Panic faded. The notebooks became stories in themselves, narratives of form and function. I keep different ones for different types of writing; currently my crime-writing slate consists of Gail, Mona and Effie, all hard-working collections whose pages are filled with robberies, homicides, lost dogs and wayward husbands.

 The first step is to assess your notebook needs -- size, lined or unlined paper, type of binding, whether it will have envelopes or pockets. This requires some serious soul-searching; after all, you want a notebook that is functional to the work you do, not unwieldy or merely decorative. I made a beautiful notebook with a tightly-folded concertina spine, but it falls open so dramatically and holds so few pages that, while it was lovely, it wasn't exactly functional.

Spend an afternoon pouring over the notebooks you previously used and take notes. Do you glue in a lot of ephemera? You'll want binding that's flexible, such as a coptic stitch or wire binding. Do you want to be able to rip out or add in pages? Simple binder rings mean you'll be able to open up the notebook more easily. What size feels best in your hands, what sort of paper takes your preferred writing instrument best? There are plenty of books and tutorials on how to make a notebook; I recommend exploring several before deciding what works best for you.

 The only requirements of the front and back covers is that they be sturdy. Chipboard is easy to find and work with, but don't limit yourself to what's in the paper section of your favorite craft store. For one, I used a box of Canadian Ding-Dongs as the front cover, another creation, a Steely Dan record that was scratched beyond playability. I've seen notebooks made out of shells and slate tiles, felted sweaters and hand-tooled leather. Each notebook will take on a distinct personality, so it's important to consider this as you begin assessing your materials. There are seemingly limitless ways to bind a book. I use coptic stitch because I like the exposed spine, but you can go as simple as a few binder rings or have it wire-bound at print shop, all the way up to complex (and beautiful!) kettle stitching or a hardbound codex.

 But for me, the most exciting part is creating the signatures, the stacks of paper folded together to make the notebook's pages. I've salvaged water-stained paper from abandoned sketchbooks, used hotel stationary and vintage postcards so that each page I turn is an inspiration in itself. One of the greatest differences between buying a notebook and creating one is that it becomes a piece of art in itself. Explore the papercraft aisles of your local craft store for scrapbook stickers, printed and handmade papers for covers and signatures, even knobs, gears and beads to give your notebook texture and dimension.

 And finally, when the last signature has been folded and the glue has dried, open up to the first page and write yourself a note. Name the journal, write a description of its creation or simply write "This is not a blank page." Take a moment to connect with your creation, to pour over its promise, to see the finished product in your hands. You will find that the pretty journal panic has vanished. You've already embarked on the creative process, designed and build something unique and beautiful -- like the words you will soon put on the page.
Interior, The Book of Crows


  1. These are so cool! Great post and great pics!

  2. There's nothing like your own scribble book, whatever type it is, that goes everywhere with you.

  3. Over the years I've been given several pretty journals, but I've not written in any of them. I wonder: Had I created my own, decorated to match my taste and my interests, if I might have ventured to fill them with my words and my doodles.

    Instead, I scratched notes on scraps of paper and stuffed them in my pockets, hoping to retrieve them before my jeans hit the laundry basket and the notes were destroyed in the wash. These days, I thumb-type notes into my cell phone and mail them to myself. I don't lose much this way, but the phone lacks the personality of a self-created journal.

  4. It's interesting to hear how other writers write their stuff. I'm a iMac-iPad-iPhone guy and it fascinates me to hear how you create. I have writer friends who use legal pads, some use electric typewriters. It's all so cool.


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