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Keeping a Writer´s Notebook

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As Open University Creative Writing students, we are encouraged — almost commanded — to keep a writer’s notebook. I am the least organised, least disciplined of individuals, but try to be compliant. A notebook is a relatively cheap asset. There are plenty of pens in my house. There is now a multiplicity of notebooks where I live, and frequently I cannot tell one from the other. There are even notebooks with important items in them which I cannot find.

Early during A802 (the first module of the Creative Writing MA course) I took my enthusiastic and compliant notebook for a journey. Unusually, I was travelling solo. My wife was on a break in England. We live in Spain. I took a day off from household chores and study, to ride the coastal tramway from Alicante to Benidorm. Everything I saw and did, I noted in my writer’s notebook. I noted my several journeys. I had driven from home to Alicante airport where I parked the car and took the airport bus into the city. I had lunch within arm’s length of the tram station Luceros. I even noted my visit to a rather narrow, slightly grubby toilet. Especially, I made notes about my interesting journey from Luceros to Benidorm town. Being a public transport enthusiast, I was content. All my preparations, all my expectations were being realised. And I was making copious notes, which would help with my new-found study-interest, Creative Non-Fiction. There were splendid coastal vistas. We stopped briefly at Vila Joyosa, where the Valor chocolate factory is. I noted the crops, the rugged cliffs and precipitous valleys we crossed. I was glad when we reached the terminus. I was absolutely sure that I had more than sufficient material for a fascinating piece of CNF (Creative Non-Fiction) to fill a hole somewhere in my course.

Today, about to start A803, the second module of the MA course, the opening rubric reminds students that a writer’s notebook is an essential part of the writer’s life. I cannot find my copious notes of that journey. Having admitted that I am the least disciplined of would-be writers, I do keep a writer’s notebook — or rather, lots of them. My great problem is that normally I am not very good at making notes. I think, and work, in long-hand. Most of my notebooks contain new articles, new ideas, fresh stories, all written out in full. If I feel comfortable with what I have written, they are then typed up on the computer, a safe and secure copy kept. Frequently, notebooks are then put to one side, forgotten, neglected — and in the case of the Benidorm journey, misplaced.

All this is the result of my working modus operandi. I write quickly. Words pour out. Not necessarily well-disciplined words, but lots of them. They flow — sometimes stagger — onto the page. No one else could read my writing because it is a hasty scrawl, but once scrawled, I have the good fortune to be a fast touch typist. It is a skill I was taught in my youth, a skill for which I am eternally grateful. That skill, acquired when I was eighteen, has followed me through a subsequent sixty-three years of professional and leisure life. The next problem for someone as ill-disciplined as I, is editing and reviewing. Frequently when I re-read what I have written in haste, I regret it in leisure and reflection. I find the edit and review, the writer’s skill of putting the raw material through the refiner’s fire, painful. 

So, having been reminded of the need to keep a notebook — apparently all the best writers, including Hemingway do it, or have done it — my mind turned to the notes for the Benidorm journey. They have never been written up. The journey is fresh in my memory, but the detail is in the notebook, not in the fog of memory. Which notebook, of the many in my desk drawer, is the unanswered question. 

Having been glad to leave the tram and its uncomfortable hard plastic seat, I looked around for somewhere to be refreshed in the station. A search revealed nowhere suitable. Instinct said there would be somewhere appropriate just around the corner. Just before going just around the corner, I thought to check on the time of the return journey. I had a return ticket, and my car would be waiting at Alicante airport. As I bent to peer closer at the timetable displayed on the station wall, a sudden jolt almost knocked me to the ground. As I recovered my dazed senses, I looked to see who had attacked me, and perhaps more relevantly, why I was being attacked. Strange things can happen in Spain. A burly man, younger, fitter and stronger than me, was holding me upright and apologising profusely. He had been standing with his wife, buying tickets for a journey, had taken a step back and cannoned into me, accidentally. His wife, even more apologetic, thought I should sit down. A cup of coffee was more on my mind. Pulling myself together, and knowing the time of the next tram, I staggered around the corner, where there was a very nice coffee shop, well shaded and almost gloomy. Sitting there, I recovered what senses I have left in old age. My surroundings were a little tawdry but sufficient for me to rest, relax, feel the fading point of impact on my shoulder and realise that no apparent harm had been done.

No notes were taken on the return journey. It was a pretty journey with the sun setting over the sea. It was only looking into the setting sun, that I realised all was not well. A shadow was passing over my left eye. The impact had been on my left shoulder. This was the shoulder my French master had torn the muscles of, when we were playing field hockey for the school staff team against the pupils. Fred Weekes had been a big, big man. I suffered for many weeks as the muscles recovered. As headteacher, it wasn’t long before I promoted him. He was a good teacher, if a misguided hockey player. 

On the tram, when the shadow passed to another part of the left eye, looking to the horizon I could see a regular pattern of little dots floating about, rather like looking through the holes in a sheet of perforated zinc. I was glad to get back to the city. I was glad to get on the circular bus to the airport. I was even glad to point two inebriated Scotsmen towards the main railway station. Whether they ever managed to reach their ultimate destination is unclear. My car was safe and secure where I had left it. In the dark drive home, there was no sign of the shadow across my eye, nor of the spots and dots on the retina. They were obvious in the electric light of my living room. Next day, my splendid local doctor didn’t even look at my eye. I was convinced that there was a detached retina. The floating shadow was, if anything, even more obvious. The black spots seemed to have enlarged overnight. He pointed me in the direction of an eye-specialist at the local hospital next day. There were thousands in the waiting room. I put my slip of paper in the box, as instructed, and was called almost immediately. Apparently, my slip of paper said ‘urgencias’ - ‘emergency’. Summoned into the presence of the eye specialist and her pupil, I was impressed with how charming the one was and how pretty the other. Lights were shining, optician’s lights shining in my eyes. The pupil had been dilated and much was blurred. 

‘I fear that I have a detached retina, following a bump two days ago,’ I offered.

‘I will decide that,’ my charming oculist said. ‘See,’ to her pupil. ‘What do you see?’

They both spoke in English for my benefit. The pretty pupil wasn’t sure what she saw. A machine was adjusted. The specialist looked and pointed something out to her pupil.

‘Ah! Si,’ the pupil said and then gave a torrent of description in Spanish. Presumably she didn’t know all the English words for the diagnosis.

‘No, Mr Cooper. There is no detached retina, I am glad to say. You have a burst blood vessel in the back of your eye. It is that which is causing the shadow and the spots. They will all fade with time. Come back in two weeks.’

Although I hate hospitals, I was looking forward to seeing my charming eye-specialist again. This time my slip of paper was not marked ‘urgencias’. I was now ‘routine’. Again, there were many waiting in the waiting room. It took a long time to be called. The shadow was still there but much less distinct. Spots before my eyes were fewer and smaller. Called into the presence of the specialist, I was shocked to find a man sitting there. A quick examination of the back of the eye.

‘Is good. No return. Goodbye,' as he dismissed me.

There is still no sign of the notebook with the notes of the journey to Benidorm.


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