When I was younger, I kept a notebook in my pocket to jot down unusual sights and record snippets of dialogue to use in a novel someday. It’s a method that works for many people, and it taught me discipline. It also taught me how to move through the world as an observer.
I loved the sheer writerliness of the ritual–pausing to scribble a few lines, then tucking the notebook, enriched by a few phrases, back into my pocket. The physicality of that routine gave me a great sense of connection to other writers, past and present, looking at things in their own ways.
But actually writing novels—rather than thinking about writing them someday—rid me of my note-taking obsession. These days, I focus on what I’m trying to accomplish with my characters. A snippet of overheard dialogue, no matter how fascinating, doesn’t help unless it fits into the scene I’m crafting. So I don’t carry a notebook any more.
What’s amazing, though, is if a real-life moment relates to my novel, it surfaces on its own during a writing session. I ate an amazing leek souffle last night and couldn’t finish it. This afternoon, that very same souffle heaved itself onto the page in a dinner scene. Henri, my protagonist, first hears about a famous musician who will inspire him during a long-winded speech by his brother, who recently returned from London. Henri swallows the souffle and his brother’s bragging with a growing heaviness. Ta da! After a quick stop here to check the history of the dish, my scene is now richer in egg whites, cheese, roux and emotion.
Perhaps my newspaper training has taught me to trust that what’s in my head. The color, the scene, the subject’s inflections and a hundred other little details that aren’t anywhere in my notebook will inform how I choose to tell the story. I’ll remember those things and let them play out on the page.
In any case, I’ve seen some interesting things in the past few days that I don’t think will make it into this particular novel. The high heel abandoned midway up the wall of an apartment building. The female biker wearing nothing but shoes, socks and a backpack, hopping off her bike to rearrange her, ahem, supplies. The man on his way to a family wedding wearing a black tux and white sneakers and later, hearing the wedding bells. They didn’t chime; they blazed, gobbling oxygen, and infecting those of us within earshot with hope, joy and goodwill.
The waiter who served me the delicious souffle apologized for the crumbs on the floor, then announced that they were dropped by the previous night’s diners. Instead of sweeping, he kicked the mess around a little and proceeded to list the specials. That bit might make it into the book. Or it might not. That’s why, even on days when writing feels like slogging, I keep going. To surprise myself. To remember the details of my daily life and use them, embroider them and cherish them.