Harriet the SpyHarriet 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.”

Kathy Rhodes and Darnell Arnoult

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?” 

  1. Gale Martin says:

    I enjoyed this post a lot. I regret the fact that I was too old for Harriet the Spy, but I was heavily into Nancy Drew, Little Women, and Black Beauty. I can sympathize will all the should-ing that’s done to the caste of the unpublishing. Noah Lukeman is a big should-er on would be writers with his pronouncements about that and the and question marks and explanation marks. He sees one and throws out the manuscript. I can’t tell you how many published authors break those rules. Nicholas Sparks must drive him nuts with all his thats. Janet Evanovich uses tons of -ing verb constructions. I do keep a little notebook in my pocketbook and a journal in my car and now have a voice recorder. At nearly 50, my recall lets me down when I need it most. I began doing that after a few glimmers of pure genius completely left me, ideas that I’ll never be able to retrieve. Lovely post. I’m adding you to my blogroll. Gale

  2. Greg says:

    I go to the ninety words a minute typing admission, and I started to cry. I was a newspaper reporter for years. Carried around one of those official spiral-bound, narrow-enough-to-fit-in-a-back-pocket, ‘Reporter’s Notebooks’ everywhere I went. I filled one of these a week, mostly gibberish little of which ever made it into the paper. I type with two fingers, at tremendous speed, possibly fifty words a minute, or sixty typos a minute. It’s fun being the laughing stock of the newsroom each day right up until the days fishwrapper comes sliding of the big King press. That’s when your peers realize that reading your stuff is, unusually interesting. I never let on it was because of all those little notebooks I filled up. I still write faster than I can type, but like you, I can’t read any of it. Oh, and thanks, now I have to look up ensorcelled.

  3. Ivey Banks says:

    Oh, I saw myself in this post!

    I never had the discipline to carry a notebook. To this day, though, I find myself jotting thoughts-as-they-come on scraps of paper, napkins–whatever might be handy, including my palm, if nothing else is available.

    I’ve always wondered about those writers with families who are able to sequester themselves and not be called upon for every little thing that comes up. How do they do that? Maybe they’re just scarier to their kids than we are?

  4. sarahemc2 says:


    You were a reporter who couldn’t type? I’m either impressed or horrified; I’ll have to let it sit a few days and get back to you…

  5. sarahemc2 says:


    Yep. Have you read (or seen) One True Thing? This “writer’s rule” always makes me think of Quindlen’s father, and what a rat bastard her version of him turns out to be. I want never to live in a house where people tip-toe around me; that would be my definition of failure

  6. Sherry Walker says:

    It’s all about Harriet, my friend. At age 11, I started my first novel after reading that book. As I recall, the story rambled for 30 pages in an old (math?) spiral notebook until I got tired of it…or maybe I just discovered boys. I’d add Emily of New Moon (LM Montgomery) to your list.

    Writing tip: Lamentably, a fiction instructor once demanded we avoid elaborate attributives.

  7. Kat Nove says:

    I can’t decide if this alarms me or not. I know nothing of rules and lists and haven’t read a single article or book on what I should and should not be writing. I couldn’t find a notebook in my purse if it had been rolled in uranium and I used a geiger counter to search for it. I’m thinking of impersonating a proctologist, as my handwriting is completely illegible. Should I start taking advice ahead of time before I write? Or will that turn me mental?

    Great post, Sarah. I’ll take writing advice from you any day of the week. Except Wednesday.


  8. Claude Dumont says:

    Sarah, what a fun piece. I don’t have the patience to carry around a book. I lose everything I own half the time and it would be a terrible thing to have by “spy” book found by somebody in it. I could always buy a book with a lock and wear the key around my neck. Some days I wonder why I am not learning more about animal husbandry as well. I’ve actually discussed it with my partner. It almost makes sense for a writer. Feed/milk/sheer/write/write/write/feed/write

  9. Hi, Sarah. I love this post. I’m all about process and yes, I do carry a notebook with me. I don’t play Harriet the Spy; but sometimes, especially when I am driving, I think of things. Those phrases or insights are too good to let them slip so I record them, no not when I am actually driving. I remember turning from Route 131 in Waldo County onto Route 7 and thinking that Belfast has some really awesome Gothic architecture, but the teen years aren’t exactly a girl’s architecture years. I haven’t used that in my memoir yet, but I will.

  10. Troy Allen says:

    I carry around my man purse now, the “Bailey Works”, small currier bag. It contains a nice spiral bound notebook, pens and pencils in the front pouch, I got mini umbrella somewhere, (that will never be used, hell I’m a guy), camera and a few miles of different Ipod wires.

    Why? Because I know that I’ll never amount to squat in writing unless I capture the fleeting thoughts that make the writer’s mind. After reading this, I looked in the notebook. There are, lists for the grocery store, all kinds of insurance contacts, (our condo burned to the ground in Feb, and lost my little macbook with all my half written stories), to do lists, doodle pictures….

    I hope this will make me a better writer, cause all it it’s doing now is making my shoulder sore carrying it around and is an invitation for friends and relatives to call me gay and queer.

    But, I’ll keep it awhile longer, just in case.

  11. Mike Mullen says:

    I also loved Harriet the Spy. I have always needed to know what is going on, which was a detriment to my marriage. So was what I found. I was influenced to writing a journal by Boswell, and I have kept a journal since the spring of 1988, My handwriting deteriorated in medical school (no surprise), and I have learned not to start entries with the word “Well,” because I did it so much.

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