Rereading Writer's Notebooks To Extract New Ideas

I am forever rereading writing pieces from my notebooks. It is amazing how often such rereading assists me to dig up a new idea to feed my writing addiction. Virginia Woolf defines rereading as a chance to find diamonds in the dust-heap. I am definitely covered in dust and constantly looking for precious gems.

My numerous notebooks are a critical part of my reading library. The role they play in my writing life changes upon completion, but the influence is sustained. 

I am acutely aware that rereading is vitally important to me as a writer. Apart from the possibility of finding a new writing thread, I am also reliving the moment in time when I first captured a particular entry. What a buzz.

On some occasions rereading connects me with previously overlooked memories or ideas. So, apart from reading to revise or proofread, rereading for the express purpose of excavating fresh ideas is important too. This rereading is akin to rummaging through a toy box as a child and discovering a lost treasure. It provides a rich opportunity to mine new ideas from old words.

Ralph Fletcher in his great little book, ‘Breathing in Breathing Out’ talks about this very act of rereading:

'Some writers claim they never revisit their notebooks. But most of us go back incessantly, rummaging, rereading, looking for- what? For me, I don’t usually know what I’m looking for until I find it. And then: Aha!'

Like Ralph, I don’t always know what I am specifically looking for as I reread, but I am generally confident that I will find something useful to me as a writer.

One of the many things that need to be modeled for young writers is the way other writers excavate ideas. When students lament that they have no idea what to write about, you are doing them a huge favour by suggesting that they go back to their previous writing.

You could encourage your students to reread for a number of purposes:

• Reread consciously looking for something to write about, or something to rewrite.

• Reread randomly hoping to land on a line or image that inspires you to write. This rereading is skimming in search of a chance landing.

• Reread to find your voice. Rereading notebook entries written in different voices can assist the writer to find the voice, the tone appropriate for a new writing piece.

• Reread to find material related to a particular theme or idea.

The writer’s notebook is not the place where you bring your unpolished gem of an idea to polished completion, but it definitely provides a place to begin shaping and reshaping selected pieces and rereading supports this process.

What does this mean for you and your students? Well, for a start they will need plenty of notebook entries. This implies the writer is holding a well nourished notebook. Multiple entries are essential. It is after all, a collection zone. 

By this time of the year notebooks should be brimming with lots of different writing pieces, experimental pieces and writing lists and ideas. If student notebooks have been sparsely used, and intermittently visited, then rereading for new ideas isn't going to be all that fruitful I'm afraid. In these situations, neither the teacher, and as a natural consequence the students, have developed a perception of the notebook as a gathering point for writing. Notebook rejuvenation would appear a most timely intervention at this point. Otherwise the writer's notebook is falling well short of its intended purpose. When it comes to notebooks, being overweight is quite acceptable.

The notion of rereading for ideas relies on the writer being able to choose from a veritable feast of ideas and thoughts previously recorded -and this rests on a foundation of regular writing opportunities. It's hard to make discoveries when the toybox is practically empty...


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