It’s my turn to write this Blog, so I’m wondering what to write. I’m jotting down ideas in my notebook. I could reveal the recipe for Michael Rosen’s Chocolate Cake, or ask why no one seems to want to publish my book of robot poems. But then it hits me. I’ll write about keeping a notebook.
The two pieces of advice I give would-be children’s poets, and to children themselves, is to read lots and to keep a notebook. Writers of fiction, artists, musicians, any creative person – you need a notebook.
I have a poet friend who eschews notebooks. He belongs to the old ‘jot the idea down on the back of a fag packet’ school of writing. But how many of Shakespeare’s sonnets would have been lost if the Bard had used that method? Would we know how to compare someone to a summer’s day? I doubt it.
You never know when you are going to hear or see something that will spark your imagination. Have you ever been woken in the night by a great idea, only to find upon waking in the morning it’s gone, forgotten? You need to keep your trusty notebook by your bed.
You will undoubtedly discover, nine times out of ten, that the great thought you had at 3am is rubbish: an orange table discussing Brecht with a giant turtle was never going to work on the page. But that tenth time, when you see a white chicken in a red wheelbarrow standing out in the rain… well, there you go.
Whenever I’ve been a poet in residence, I’ve always given each student a notebook. You can often find a pile of old exercise books in a school store cupboard.
I tell students (and staff) that what they write will be private. I won’t ever read it, unless they want me to. Their notes will be scribbled ideas and beginnings, not actual poems. Their writing doesn’t have to be neat or the spelling perfect. They can draw pictures or doodles to help, if they like. Their notebook is purely for them to use. But – they must write something every day. Even if it’s just one word.
Not every student will sign up to this. But many children love having a secret notebook and do use it as a creative tool; they see it as a chance to be free of the stress that writing rules can bring. Some brilliant poems have been born this way.
A notebook is a very personal thing. I take a while choosing mine. For a few years, Paperchase sold a thick, hardback A5 plain-paper notebook that was a favourite. Then they introduced lines on the page. I didn’t like them. I had to find other makes. Over the last few years, I’ve taken to using a smaller and more portable notebook. Always non-lined. And into that notebook everything goes: ideas for poems, stories, songs, games, shopping lists, people’s names, drawings and my computer passwords (in code).
The first notebooks I came across, as an art student in the 1960s, were the notebooks of Dieter Roth; they had a great influence on both my art and my writing. Most of us will have marvelled at Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks, full of brilliant drawings, amazing inventions and notes written in mirror writing.
And finally – did you know that Thomas Hardy and his wife, Emma, noted down incidents culled from local newspapers in their notebooks? One entry, barely three lines long, is headed Sale of Wife. Out of that fragment came The Mayor of Casterbridge.
Roger Stevens is a National Poetry Day Ambassador, a founding member of the Able Writers scheme with Brian Moses and runs the award-winning website PoetryZone for children and teachers, which has just been going for more than 20 years. He has published forty books for children. A Million Brilliant Poems (Bloomsbury) was shortlisted for the CLPE prize and his book Apes to Zebras – an A to Z of shape poems (Bloomsbury) won the prestigious NSTB award.