Teacher to Teacher: Mining Your Writer’s Notebook
By Lynne R. Dorfman
According to Ayres and Shubitz (2010, 101), “Writer’s notebooks are the open-arms that pull students into writing.” They talk about the value of reflecting on everyday living and ordinary moments. Every human being is a story teller. Each day we wake up with a brand-new page to write on. It is a page in the story of our lives, making our day-to-day experiences important and worth writing about. Fletcher (2001, 26) says that most professionals consider a writer’s notebook as essential to their writing process. For us, it is a place where we can write and share pieces of our writing with our students so they can see us as writers, too. For our students, it is a place where they can engage in risk taking since notebook entries are not graded. As we guide students to return to their notebooks as often as possible, we are helping them to lead a writerly life and establish their unique writer’s identity.
The value in a writer’s notebook is not simply writing in it every day or nearly every day. The true value of a notebook is to be able to return to it whenever you like, for myriad purposes. To mine a notebook, you probably should keep one for at least three weeks or so. Try writing in it to record observations, make lists, try out memory chains, hand maps, heart maps, and neighborhood maps. Create snapshots with words of people, places, and objects.
As you reread your notebook entries, find excerpts, lines, and passages that speak to you. Try writing something new, beginning with these lines. Choose entries that are noteworthy, look for patterns, and ah ha moments! Sometimes, you will find a piece that you are now ready to develop into something else or change a description into a letter or riddle. You may find that you have written snippets here and there about a friend or a vacation spot. Are you ready to use these pieces to create a larger piece of fiction or nonfiction?
Take note of your “fingerprints” as a writer. What do you seem to do quite naturally? Do you find metaphors, appeal to the senses, alliteration, anecdotes, and telling details in most of your entries? Do you use strong verbs and exact nouns? Whispering parentheses? Do your sentences vary in length to create a rhythm that belongs to the piece of writing?
Here, too, is a place where we can study craft. For example, Linda Oatman High uses similes and verbs that fit her writing topic. In Beekeepers, for example, she says “The springtime sunshine pours like warm honey from the sky…” and “Goosebumps sting my arms….” In my notebook I try it out:
Beaming and glowing like a shiny teakettle, I traipse across the sun-soaked kitchen and whistle a slow, low tune – monotonous and comforting – to greet the day.
Here is another example from my notebook, imitating the syntax of Jane Yolen in her book, Nocturne, to create a taffy sentence while using an idea from In November and The Relatives Came by Cynthia Rylant.
Occasionally, you will find a gem of an idea – something in your life that needs to be written – a memoir, essay, or poem. Take a few minutes to write a one-page reflection about the usefulness of your notebook for you as a teacher of writers and about how you’ve grown as a writer. The writer’s notebook is a way to lead a writerly life – a friendly place to return to now and then to discover what you care about, what you like to write about, and how much you’ve grown over a semester or year.
Share ways you use your writer’s notebook with us here.
Ayres, Ruth and Stacey Shubitz. 2010. Day by Day: Refining Writing Worskhop Through 180
Days of Reflective Practice. Portland, ME: Stenhouse Publishers
Fletcher, Ralph and Joann Portalupi. 2001. Writing Workshop: The Essential Guide.
Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Lynne R. Dorfman is a Stenhouse author and Co-director for PAWLP. She will present at ILA 2017 in Orlando with her co-author, Rose Cappelli and at NCTE this fall. Mentor Texts (2nd ed) will be out in June!