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Writing what you know
Writing what you know

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2.3 Using your observations

The observations you make in your notebook might not always appear imaginative or pertinent to anything, but the mundane recording of events may have unlikely uses. Writing in my notebook on 15 December 1998, I observed the sky – at the coast on a murky winter's day, when the low cloud seemed to be lit by a churning, subterranean force:

the earth comes to the surface, the soil muddies the sky, clouds the air – it even turns the sea into a sandy mix … the sea, the puddles, the rivers, the sky – all glow brown, glisten, shimmer – but not with the light of any sun.

On another occasion in the same notebook I observed a familiar river, and how the current flowed in ‘one concerted way in the straights but was torn between two directions at the bends’. By struggling to express what I saw on those two separate days, the observations stayed with me, largely because I had taken time to write about them. I later combined parts of these two descriptions in a scene of a novel, The Book of Guardians (Neale, 2012), using the river setting to reflect the inner state of my main character, Philip Eyre:

The swell of the river had caused the current to be perplexed, flowing concertedly in one midstream direction but torn between at least two, whirling between calm and rush, in the shallows and elbows. The rowing boat bobbed and turned uneasily like a gelding on its rope. The cigarette smoke smelt different – and I wondered whether it was because we were outdoors. Now it was fragrant, balmy even, like woodsmoke in the night.

It was one of those days: the earth rising to the surface, muddying the water, overflowing into the sky and air. The world was in spate. The earth appeared to be glimmering with the density of its own substrata.

(Neale, 2012)

What you put down in your notebook can act as a mnemonic, a memory aid, reminding you of the original observation, reviving certain thoughts and emotions. In this way your notebook – as well as being a writing ‘gym’ where you exercise perceptual and linguistic muscles – can also act as a future resource.