Write it all down

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My three 1980 notebooks

I am a great fan of notebooks. I have always kept what I call an Everything Book: just one journal that I carry everywhere with me in which I put everything: notes taken at meetings; ideas for stories;  word or line sketches of things that take my fancy; eavesdroppings; doodles (rather too many doodles, if truth be told).

Why an Everything Book? Well, I am an alphabetiser, an organiser, a categoriser. By recording everything in just one place, I save a lot of energy that would otherwise be wasted by deciding where to put it. I make a clear heading about what the note is about, and then leave it there for future reference.

I have kept every single Everything Book I have ever made. And now I am a writer, I am extremely glad I did so. I have notes made in the 1970s, for goodness sake – valuable primary source historical material. Want to know how it felt to be too much in love with Donny Osmond at age 12? it’s in my red hardback one. How much a campsite cost in France in ’79? It’s in the WH Smith one. Or how a hostel full of hippies smelled in 1980 in Athens in August? If you must, it’s in the French one with the squared paper. Or how lonely a young woman, travelling on her own around Europe can sometimes feel? Plenty of that sort of thing in all  three books in the picture above. Probably rather too much, in fact. Teenage introspection and all that…

I used the idea of the Everything Book for Tarnished – Nan calls them her Commonplaces. But when I came to write my new novel, The Long Fall, (a story partly told in diary form of a girl who travelled Europe alone in her gap year in 1980, out June 2014), I plundered my three books of that year for authentic detail.There are even a few sentences I have lifted verbatim (but mostly, it has to be said, my 18 year old self needed heavy editing to become a palatable fictional 18 year old).

It was an unsettling experience, reading them through (over the intervening years, I had hardly ever revisited them). At times my past self made me cringe. There is some truly awful poetry, some really soppy, masochistic stuff about boys who I can now see were just really treating me badly, and loads of borderline eating disorder neurotica.

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Plenty more material in here…

If I could have a stiff word with my younger self now…

Other passages made me wonder how I managed to return alive and in one piece – hitching through France with a Dutch girl, rolling our sleeping bags out at the back of service stations to get a bit of kip, hooking up rather too closely with complete strangers who I then had to escape from, bowling into places completely alone, very, very late at night. The drink. The substances. The being attacked, flashed at, chased. Frightening stuff.

But I did live through it, and the positive experiences completely outweighed the negatives. I met some truly wonderful people, saw heroism, slept on Greek mountainsides, ran a disco in Athens, had laughs, fell in love more than once, learned so much about everything (including my introspective teenage self), saw first-hand all the art I had learned about and come to love thanks to my amazing art history A level teacher, read loads and loads of novels and wrote and wrote until my hand hurt.

And, good or bad, it all helped shape me. It was, if you like, a sort of crash course in life. And, thank God, I wrote it all down, unflinchingly. Perhaps I knew one day it might come in useful…


5 thoughts on “Write it all down

  1. Hi Penny! And we should mention here that we have more or less established that we were probably in that same Athens hippy hostel probably at the exact same time!

  2. Great encouragement, Julia! I’m always writing ideas down on post-its, but that can obviously become such a mess very quickly! I’m going to try using an “Everything” notebook. 🙂

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