The 3 Notebooks of Creative Productivity

How Pen and Paper Tap Into an Endless Supply of Ideas to Fuel Your Creativity

I've worn those gloves while trying to write in an impossibly cold room. But I had to write.

In the mid-70s, when I was in middle school, I hung around the public library a lot. It was close to my home, I loved books, and they showed movies during the summer. Not blockbuster or even well-known movies, but feature length or short films, shot in the 60s or early 70s. One film sticks with me to this day. It was about a middle-school-aged kid who was trying to earn a scouting badge of some kind, and had to go out in the wilderness and survive one night alone.

The scout leaders taught the kid to make shelter, find water, and build a fire. Do it in that order, and you'll survive the night. They gave him some basic supplies like twine and a hatchet. They also gave him three blue-tip matches, the kind you can strike anywhere and light. Then they dropped this poor dumb bastard kid in the woods.

He found a stream, built a shelter, and then gathered wood for the fire. He was racing against the setting sun so that mountain lions or coyote wouldn't gut him and eat him in the dark. It was implied by the story that once it was dark, he was fair game. Or so it seemed because he hustled his ass off.

Don't forget the kindling!

As the sun set behind the mountains, he tried to start a fire. He piled up a bunch of sticks in a pyramid shape. That was going to be the fuel for his fire. Then he took his first match, struck it against a rock, and tried to light one of the sticks.

But the match didn't have enough heat to start the fire. So he tried again, the same way, and again he didn't start the fire.

Finally, he took that third and final match and struck it against a rock to start it, then held it against the stick to light it. Same as before, the stick didn't ignite, the match burned out.

The kid was plunged into darkness, and the movie ended on him huddled in his crappy lean-to, shivering, afraid, and certainly about to die.

That was depressing as hell but it stuck with me for 43 years so far. I think I cling to that story because I'm a writer, and every time I write a story — be it a short, a screenplay, or a novel — I'm like that kid holding a match to a fucking log, hoping it's all going to catch fire and keep me warm through the night.

And, like that kid, I didn't learn how to gather my creative energies together into a proper fire that would spark, ignite, and burn through the dark and cold night, keeping the wild animals at bay.

Never run out of notebooks.

That brings me to notebooks

Notebooks are a way to gather fuel, assemble your sticks and ignite a fire. A creative fire.

If you’re trying to be creative, you may have had a story bugging you that you’re trying to get out, or you are fascinated with becoming a writer, so you’re trying to create something out of nothing. It’s possible to get started as a creative that way, but it’s like wandering into the woods.

You’re going to need to survive in the woods. You’re going to need notebooks.

But if you don’t know how to use your notebooks, no creative fire will spring forth from the pages. They will grow cold beside you in the dark as you wait for the lions and coyote.

Mixed media on bond paper.

Why notebooks and not ebooks

The modern world has provided hundreds of note-taking apps. You can get these apps for your smartphone or your tablet or you laptop computer. But I think you should use old fashioned notebooks and pens.

Using paper and pen directly engages a part of your brain associated with creativity. Cursive writing, doodling, and mind-mapping are a form of play that both captures and generates ideas.

Using paper and pen is a direct connection to your earliest form of self-expression. It’s connects you with your youngest self and your oldest memories, even if you’re not conscious of it.

To play is to create, and to be creative you need to play. Creativity requires inspirational fuel. Collecting your playfulness on the pages of a notebook is a way to gather fuel for a blaze of creativity. 

I’m willing to bet that, if you’re reading this, you already use a notebook. But now I’m going to add just enough structure to your concept of notebooks that they will become the single most valuable tool you have for creativity.

Nay, notebooks are the only tool of creativity.

Grids are fine if dotted-grid is not available.

The first notebook of creative productivity

You must have a notebook you carry at all times for capturing ideas, or to write down weird shit you see on the street. This everyday carry notebook can be big or small. Size doesn’t matter. Only that it is there when you need it.

You may see and hear crazy shit every day. Write it down in this notebook.

You may have weird and wild ideas throughout the day. Write them down in this notebook.

You may have story or design ideas that emerge from the depths of your subconscious. Write them down in this notebook.

At some point, you’ll settle on a story to write (or some creative project to design) and sit at a table to work on that one thing. Even then, more ideas will emerge about still other projects. Write those down in this notebook so you can get back to your primary story/project.

Because it’s a take-with-me-everywhere notebook, I’ve have gone for diminutive dimensions and use the Leuchtturm 1917 pocket-size. I get the dotted-grid pages, rather than lined, because I may doodle or sketch, and the dotted-grid is great for that and for writing line-by-line. The paper takes to pen very well. (You could also go with the Moleskine pocket, which is slightly smaller than the Leuchtturm, and you'll probably love it.)

This notebook is for phrases, bullet lists, or snatches of dialogue. Bear witness to the world you experience and make notes about it. You are gathering wood to build your fires at night. 

You don’t use this notebook for lyrical composition, sweeping panoramic drawings or to design your project. To do those things, you’ll need a second notebook.

Nice firm grip on both the pen and the notebook.

The second notebook of creative productivity

You must have a notebook with paper large enough to establish a flow of ideas on a page. You will use it as part of your work on various projects to develop characters, settings or plot possibilities (if you're a writer) or sketches, designs or whatever (if your creative work is not writing).

I use mine every morning (or as close to morning as I can) to capture dreams from the night, or story ideas that popped in my head upon waking (it happens) and free writing. Also, it should be part of your creative process to engage the brain with the act of writing while thinking about your projects in development.

Thanks to the late novelist Sue Grafton, I now journal specifically about my current project, and use this notebook to do it. Every morning, I journal what part of the story I wrote, how the writing went, and what's next to be written. I'll do a page or two; whatever feels write for that morning.

I will also use this notebook to write up the characters and the story. This may take an hour or more and use up a dozen pages. It's very rewarding to engage your brain this way, especially in the morning after a good amount of sleep, and ponder story problems and how to solve them. Later on, I'll track down these pages when I'm ready to compose the actual story in my writing tool on a computer, flip through the pages, and get busy writing.

You could carry this notebook with you everywhere but I generally don't. I have a place to write in the mornings at my house, and it's mostly to be found there. If I'm traveling, it's with me, and the beauty is that it's easy to take along for the ride.

I use the Moleskine Classic XL hard cover. It's a nice balance between size and portability. The paper is a delight for writing, of course, because quality paper is the main feature of Moleskine notebooks. Over the years, I've used the large size and the cahier covers in both sizes. This classic XL has a few more pages, college-ruled lines, and the paper won't pucker if you use a gel ink pen. It's actually fun to write with the space and how the gel ink flows on the paper.

You can use whatever notebook you love. Once you find one and fall in love, put in a good supply so it's there at the ready. There's nothing more off-putting than waking up early to write and realizing you don't have the notebook you love.

The work you do in this notebook is like chopping wood, getting ready to build your fire. You may recall something you captured in the first notebook, and you'll look there to refresh your memory. Then you settle in and make a little something of it.

To build a fire, you need to plan a little bit, especially if you’re going to wander the woods for more than one night. (As a writer, I hope you will wander the woods for the rest of your life.) To plan, you will use the third notebook.

Nice nib.

The third notebook of creative productivity

Notebooks are great for planning. Yes, there are dozens, if not hundreds, of electronic tools for planning your creative projects. But for my money, a notebook you control with pen and ink is the best approach.

Planning is day-dreaming with a due date. When you sit down to plan, you pick a period of time, and figure out what you’re doing to do. You’re answering the question, “How do I turn fantasy into reality.”

Planning also forces your rational mind into dominance as you identify and prioritize the steps. Using a phone or computer application to help with the work reinforces the use of the rational mind, taking you one more level away from creativity.

You’ll likely need some creativity to make a workable plan, especially if your creative life has to somehow exist outside of (or in spite of) your day-job. Wouldn’t it be nice to somehow tap into the artsy part of your brain?

Writing in a planning notebook with a pen still engages that artsy part of your brain. There’s that thing in your hand you use to make marks. You touch and feel the paper as you mark it, and images appear before your eyes. Sure, it’s called writing, but it’s a specific form of drawing.

That’s why I love using a notebook for the tedious work of planning.

I haven't met the pencil yet that I want to use in a journal.

What notebook should I use?

There are several notebooks designed specifically for planning. The granddaddy of them all (at least in my lifetime) is the Franklin Planner. It’s marketed more for organizing your information and your life, but that’s a form of planning. Using special inserts, you can dedicate sets of pages to planning various projects. Another classic of similar design is the Day-Timer notebooks.

What I currently love and use is the BestSelf notebook, designed specifically for planning in three month intervals. Every page of this notebook is intended for a specific step in planning and tracking the progress of a project. I use it for the screenplay, novels and side hustles I work on.

BestSelf comes with training and tutorials to help you master the techniques. I picked it up quickly, but there are Facebook groups where people help each other out on how to apply the principles to their specific situation or project.

The other recent trend in planning with a notebook is bullet journaling. The idea is you can use any notebook and you make bullet lists, like to-do lists, project plans, short-term or long-term goals. It’s entirely up to you how you want to organize and plan your projects this way. One of the great features of this approach is the flexibility lowers the cost of getting started. You can grab any notebook, declare it your bullet journal, and get started in less than a minute.

My hesitation to recommend bullet journaling as your third notebook is that lesson I learned from that short film I saw in 1975: the kid was sent out into the woods with minimal training and told to build a fire. The cost of getting started was low; but he failed.

Planning your creative projects (or any project), especially something like a novel that may require months or years of consistent engagement, is very difficult. The better your plan, the better you can focus your talent and energy on the creative process.

I carry my planning notebook with me most days, in case I have a moment to refine the plan or advance a project. The BestSelf notebook has space for daily brainstorming and project brainstorming. After four years of using it, I find it indispensable.

I'll have what she's having (as in that cool little Zibaldone-like notebook).

Couldn’t I just use one notebook for all three tasks?

Yes, you could use one notebook. In the Middle Ages, such journals were called Zibaldones, and were used for reminders, to-do lists, design sketches, or accounting ledgers (paper was really expensive then, so any notebook was a major investment and was used for everything except, maybe, wiping your ass).

In more recent times, the idea of a commonplace book was practiced, where a single notebook was used for any and all ideas someone had, whether reading a book, notes to yourself, or any of the many notebook-tasks previously mentioned. Said another way, it was the common place to gather all your thoughts about everything.

Part of the spirit of bullet journaling is that you can dedicate pages of your creative journal to organizational tasks or planning. It allows you to shift gears quickly to capture ideas, shape them, and plan how to use them. That’s fine if it floats your boat. Use one notebook if you only want to have one notebook.


The one thing I hope you embrace is the idea that being creative requires lots of on-going, damn-near constant activity that supports your works of art. Storytellers must constantly look for characters and situations they can use in stories. Artists and designers must be ever watchful for colors, shapes, and compositions that excite their heart and mind. That is to say, you must be searching for fuel for your fire all the time, and use your everyday-carry notebook to gather it.

You must take time to prepare your fuel for the fire and have the proper tool to shape it. Your larger notebook is the tool, and shaping the gathered ideas should be a fun activity.

Finally, you need to plan your creative projects. Using a notebook to plan taps into your creativity, and can also be fun to do if you love your notebook.

Whether you use one notebook to do all of these things or have specialized notebooks is up to you. I suggest you play around with each approach. And I mean play, because it should be fun to mess with notebooks. (For extra fun, I keep a few stencils at the ready, as well, to add simple pictures to the written word.)

He's probably a good boy, but I don't want to meet him on a dark night in the woods.

The End

Just don’t let the short film of your life end on a sour note, like that kid who couldn’t build the fire. Spend some time learning to use the three notebooks of creative productivity so that you can wander the woods, do your art, and never be afraid of the lions or coyote.

Post Script

In up-coming articles, I'll discuss the best pens for each of these notebooks, and various accessories and techniques to help you as creative and as productive as you can be.