Helen Mort: Keeping a Notebook


If someone were to burgle my house in Grasmere, they could take my mobile phone. They could take my CD collection, if they could be bothered to carry it. They could even try to take my whippet, Bell: she’d howl so much they’d soon put her back again. But the one thing I’d die without is my notebook. A humble, A5 black book, probably worth less than the average cup of coffee, but full of irreplaceable (albeit often uninteresting) ideas. Somewhere to scribble down the peculiar thoughts that pop into my head on a daily – sometimes hourly – basis, safe in the knowledge that nobody will judge me for them; in fact, perhaps my morbid fear of having my notebooks taken has as much to do with the idea that someone might read them as anything else.

I often leave speaces in a draft when I've not yet found the right word
Often I leave blank spaces while waiting to find the right word

So what does this guarded volume contain? Guilty secrets? Semi-precious masterpieces? The answer, of course, is predictably mundane: a mixture of poems-in-progress (peppered with crossings-out and blank spaces where I’m waiting to find the right word), vague impressions and ideas (some more vague than others – I’m still not sure what ‘absolution near Doncaster’ means), interesting things I’ve seen or heard like poems by other writers and finally, what I call miscellaneous intrusions (‘phone Gran’, ‘toothpaste and Red Leicester’, ‘read War & Peace’).

Apart from the pressing matter of getting hold of some Colgate, the most important thing in my notebook is definitely the poems in draft. I tend to start poems in my head, while I’m out running or walking the dog, so you might think I could save on paper and dispense with a notebook altogether, but nothing beats being able to work something out on the page – it’s a bit like thinking aloud, with an audience that doesn’t assume you’re weird. I don’t like re-drafting my poems on a computer screen. To me, when a poem reaches the laptop, it’s more or less finished. There’s something about the physical process of writing that helps me clarify my thoughts.

Frankly I could write better
Bell thinks, “Frankly I could write better”

I’m not fussy when it comes to choosing my notebook. Sometimes, it’s an A4 pad picked up from the corner shop. Sometimes it’s a hand-stitched, dainty book somebody nice has got me for Christmas (note to families: writers are easy to buy presents for). If I’m feeling flush, it might even be a Moleskine. I get through so many notebooks I’ve had chance to experiment with them all. As long as you feel comfortable scrawling all over your book without the pressure to be neat and presentable, and you can carry it round without the assistance of a long-suffering, staggering mate, I’m not sure it matters.

Working at The Wordsworth Trust in  Grasmere, with its remarkable collection of manuscripts, I’ve particularly enjoyed being able to see some of Dorothy Wordsworth’s original journals, where she (often painstakingly) recorded the events of each day.  My notebooks aren’t journal as such, though the poems I draft in them often form a loose record of places I’ve visited or things that     have happened – on a recent trip to Shetland,  I wrote a poem each day instead of keeping a diary.

Work in progress in my current notebook It’s liberating to think that there’s nothing too small to be noted or jotted down: you don’t have to be on your best behaviour when you’re keeping a journal. There’s something very intimate about looking at Dorothy’s handwriting, the way she ordered her thoughts, the things she crossed out or replaced: as someone who constantly scribbles and revises, I think of that as very much part of what it is to write. Her writing seems very beautiful to me, and whilst someone flicking through my notebooks could hardly feel that same sense of admiration, I’d like to celebrate the notebook in all its glorious, messy sprawl and encourage you to start your own.

Helen Mort was born in Sheffield in 1985. She lives in Grasmere, where she is the current Poet in Residence at The Wordsworth Trust. She has published two pamphlets with tall-lighthouse press and written a live literature show, ‘A Pint for the Ghost’. Helen in a former recipient of the Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award.

Do you keep a notebook? Do you prefer to use individual sheets of paper, or do you write straight onto a computer or onto your phone? If you have a notebook what type do you use?

Published April, 2011

18 thoughts on “Helen Mort: Keeping a Notebook

  1. Fancy notebooks prevent my inspiration…I feel like I always have to write nicely and neatly, and it interrupts my thoughts. My best ideas and poems come from a scruffy spiralbound notebook with the cover falling off.

    1. Haha, I am the opposite, Claudia! XD I like fancy notebooks, but even though they aren’t cheap ( 🙁 ) I still like to write in my disorderly, chaotic kind of way and wait for Epiphany.
      (Yes, I am borrowing from one of the old FYP winners! XD).

      To each her/his own. XD Your notebook sounds like it has a good deal of character to it – The cover falling off and all! By notebook has been speckled with tea (when did I spill tear again?) and has cream paper inside (which I like) 🙂

  2. I feel exactly the same, Claudia! I still haven’t plucked up the courage to write in the lovely Paperblanks notebooks we received at Foyles. My tactic for writing poetry sometimes includes writing poems out repeatedly, revising something each time — lots of scribbling…

  3. I feel the same way. I always have my A4 notebook at my side. Sometimes I look back and think, ‘Wow, I must of been tired!’

  4. I can’t keep a ‘proper notebook’ either, Sherrie and Claudia homies! I feel that pressure of to write something nice, coherent, orderly and final in the notebook, thus end up writing the exact opposite. I usually scribble on a badly-torn exercise book paper, or in pencil at the back of a current book I’m reading. It feels more simple and, um, ‘kitsch’.

  5. I can’t jut scribble on any old A4 notebook. I like to buy nice notebooks or journals and fill them up. I use to think that i had to fill it out nice and neatly in my best handwriting and if it wasn’t perfect I would rip the page out and start again which was frustrating untill I relaised the imperfections and scribbles make it what it is

  6. I have such terrible, tedious handwriting. I may be a victim of the modern disease but I can’t write on a notepad, or by hand, I need a computer.

  7. I have a draw full of notebooks and cards… in fact it’s so full, I don’t really know what’s in there anymore. I jot down ideas that pop into my head, even though they often come to me late at night. That’s why there’s a torch, a pen and of course a notebook beside my bed.

  8. Tip to make fancy notebooks easier to write in: Scribble all over the first page. Doesn’t work for everyone, but i find it very helpful to stop me worrying about the presentation.

  9. I’m very much the opposite. I like to draft a poem on my phone. And then I copy it (once it’s fully fixed) in to a fancy notebook. Even just carrying the notebook helps me because it reminds me to write.

  10. I know you posted this article several years ago, but I enjoyed reading it and wanted to leave a comment. I’m new to poetry and the process of being a poet is still fresh to me.

    I guess I do have a poetry notebook after all, although I had not realized this until I read your article. It is a dirt cheap composition book where I write down emotions and phrases to inspire me, concepts I want to develop and finally, finished poems that are scattered about at random. I still use this notebook to this day when I’m composing. I never show it to anyone. Too messy. I don’t consider a poem done until it reaches my computer portfolio, but there the finished poems live like tin soldiers, at ready to send to magazines.

    I stumbled on your article because I’d like to create a notebook of finished poems that I can use at open-mic readings. Perhaps a leather traveler’s notebook with inner books divided by type of poem where all my poems are handwritten in a font large enough to be read from. Perhaps a smartphone would be more efficient, but paper and pen seem more romantic. I don’t know. Just a musing on a stormy winter day.

    1. Hi Wendy,

      Thank you for your comment! It’s lovely to hear that you found this Young Poets Network feature interesting – do have a look around our site for other features (this recent article points to many resources on the site: bit.ly/poetrygoals). We’d love to read some of your poems if you felt they were finished, so keep an eye out for challenges (ypn.poetrysociety.org.uk/category/workshop) and consider signing up to our mailing list so we can keep you updated (ypn.poetrysociety.org.uk/sign-up-to-young-poets-network).

      All the best for your poetry in 2018,

      Helen at Young Poets Network

  11. I just came across your post and loved it. Earlier this week I wrote my first poem in about seven years and thought I needed a system to jot down any ideas that come to me. You have motivated me to get a notebook and begin the journey. Thanks!

    1. Hi Stan,

      Thanks for your comment, that’s so lovely to hear! We are glad that you found this feature useful.

      Happy writing,

      Helen at Young Poets Network

  12. Writing something unique on a Notebook is not easy as people think, It needs a concentration, needs an idea and more. Thanks for sharing such a nice article about writer… I have subscribed for blog updates.

    Riya Malik

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