Harriet the Spy always carried a dog-eared notebook with her, jotting down notes about the people around her — often very invasive, totally inappropriate notes. And, the young reader is told, this is what will one day make Harriet a great writer.
Like lots of tween girls who are now women my age, I loved this book. I read it at the beginning of summer vacation between fifth and sixth grades. Half-way through, I dug up an old spirtal bound notebook that still had most of its pages – from which we can deduce that it was probably my math notebook from the year before — and I started keeping copious notes on the grown-ups around me and sneaking into places I shouldn’t be. I knew, from the book, not to keep notes about the other kids.
There were lots of little girls with notebooks back then. Harriet the Spy was up there with Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret and Jane Eyre on the reading lists of nerdy young women. I imagine many of us discovered secrets we wouldn’t have known otherwise. My brief foray into spying and notebook-keeping lead me to the revelation that my great-uncle’s over-attentive secretary was really his Mistress. And, in pure Harriet form, Mary Penny Packer became the topic of my first personal essay. An essay that I was so very proud of, I submitted it as the inevitable “What I Did On My Summer Vacation” paper at the beginning of sixth grade.
Thus begun my now well-established pattern of humiliating my mother by not having sense enough to know what you’re not supposed to write about. Harriet has a lot to answer for, let me tell you!
I long ago gave up the notebook habit. Actually, I long ago quit being able to read my own handwriting, which somehow completely fell apart once I passed the “ninety words per minute” mark as a typist.
Once again, though, I hear a real writer suggesting that, if I too want to be a real writer, I should return to my old Harriet-inspired notekeeping ways. I was visiting Kathy Rhodes’ excellent blog, First Draft, and reading about the latest Council for the Written Word fiction workshop, lead by the novelest Darnell Arnoult. According to Kathy’s recounting of Arnoult’s advice, writer’s should have a “little notebook you are supposed to keep in your purse or pocket to record all the interesting and unusual details that happen during your days.”
I am certain this would make me better at my craft. I doubt it would make the details of my life more clear, though, because the only thing less likely than my keeping a little notebook full of pithy observations is my being able to find the right little notebook when I sat down to write about an event from years, or even months — okay, my husband says three days — ago.
I have, on my computer, a list of similar writing tips from various sources. Some are granular: avoid the words “that,” “while,” and “since;” your first sentence needs to have a hook!, and never use the word “I” except in dialogue. Others are about process: make sure you write in a room set aside solely for that, and that your family knows not to disturb you, don’t revise until you’ve written an entire first draft, and never get up from your writing desk until you have at least 2,000 words. It’s a funny list.
I write in my dining room, and my family interupts me with everything from requests to get up and get them something to drink to the dire need to use my computer to check a My Space page and see what BoyX thinks about GirlY. I have no little notebooks, and I use all the forbidden words — often. I revise things that I haven’t even had time to sit down and write, changing them around in my head while I make dinner, and rarely have the ending to anything before the beginning is largely set.
And I don’t carry around a notebook. Although I have been known to leave myself voice memos on my cell phone. For months, there has been one that says “find a way to use the word ensorcelled.” I no longer remember what ensorcelled means, or why I thought I should use it.
These lists used to depress me, pointing out all the reasons that I should quit dilly-dallying around with all these words on a page and learn something practical like animal husbandry. Now I find them funny. I want to write all the authors who came up with them and say, “Really? Your family doesn’t come barging in, asking if there is any peanut butter left even though they could damn well open the cabinet and see for themselves that there is not? That’s so sad! Does it make you lonely?”