The Writer’s Notebook

Absolute Blank

By J. Walke (jaywalke)

“I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read on the train.”
—Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest

I’ll begin with a confession: I have a stationery problem. It started small, ring binders mostly, but as the years went by I began to hit the hard stuff: leather covers, gilt edges and heavy stock. I had outdoor journals for writing in the rain, little pocket cheapies for a quick thrill, and others so pretentious they refused to go out of the house unless I wore my blazer with the leather elbow patches. All of them, however, shared the same difficulty—they arrived empty. That creamy blankness daunted me like a young boy facing a centerfold. It was beautiful and I knew I was expected to do something with it, but I wasn’t sure exactly what. So, the fear of creating something trite or useless kept me from writing anything.

It took a Rorschach test to snap me out of it. I received an expensive journal as a gift and refilled my fountain pen to write something inspiring on the first page. I hovered too long and a drop of ink fell, creating a blot that soaked through to the second page. It was ruined. It was a catastrophe. It was a giraffe with a glandular problem. Turned sideways it was the profile of an angry woman. She set me free. Since the beautiful blank page was “ruined” I had permission to fill it without worrying about how it would look. I had finally gotten past the notion that I had to write something worth reading every time my pen touched paper. My notes would never see publication, at least not in a recognizable form. That is what the drafts are for, and the time at the computer. The purpose of my notebook became collection rather than creation.

Background Image: Garrett Coakley/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

Do me a favor. Take out your notebook (I am assuming you have one, be it gilt-edged or not). Lay your pen across the top. Now put a screwdriver and a hammer next to them. They are all simply tools. Do you lament the screws unturned, the nails unpounded? Perhaps you shouldn’t sweat the words unwritten. They are everywhere. Say it with me: “They are everywhere. “Life offers you a multitude of truth at every turn, but (and here is the magical part) it is your job to capture it. Best of all, there are no rules on how you go about it! No grammar, no spell-check, no outline necessary and it need only make sense to you. Just grab them; the bits of conversation, snatches of reality, pieces of pain. Scribbling and doodling are encouraged. Write down story ideas before they evaporate, argue with yourself, list life goals, books to read, and what you need from the grocery store. Cut out a page with a penknife to leave a love note on your significant other’s windshield. Write imaginary letters to Attila the Hun and your favorite auntie. It is just a tool, and you can’t use it incorrectly unless you try to be someone you are not. A straight read of your notebook may well get the relatives together for an intervention, but you can’t worry about that because it is not for them. It is yours, and you are busy pouring ink onto your life to preserve it until you need it.

Let me elaborate on that last thought. Imagine a canvas. It’s modern. If you mailed it, it would be post-modern. It’s white, objectively speaking, with no frame. Closer inspection reveals three tiny red dots lounging in the upper left corner. Can you see it? Now, answer a question for me: Is it still a white painting? Why? Do the red dots make it red, or do they simply point out the whiteness? This is the part in the show where you ask yourself: What does this have to do with writing? The point, if there is one, (and I think by this point we all hope there is one) is that miniscule dabs of color can create art. Just as a few red blotches can make you realize the value of white, a few drops of reality can ground your fiction in a manner impossible by imagination alone.

That is where my notebook serves me best. I steal dots for my art. When I see things that move me, or read or hear words that are alive I try to capture them in scrawl. Here’s a representative puddle of my brain leaking onto the page:

  • NYT printed on leftover cockroach DNA
  • 45 billion billion molecules in one cubic centimeter of air
  • energy is liberated matter
  • chiropractor’s office: purple carpet, lime green walls, stuffed rhino collection, elevator music—”Please sign in and get ready for a superspectacular adjustment!”
  • graffiti on a newspaper machine—”LIES”
  • graffiti on a telephone switchbox , white paint only one foot off the ground—”Mutate or die”
  • heard from one aisle over – “You best stop messin’ with them snack cakes. You know I’ll whup you in the grocery store.”
  • “Laughter is the psychical discharge of energy.” —Freud.
  • Ducklings following their mother across the busy road during commute. Confused, scared (anthropomorphism), trapped on the concrete median. Wanted to stop. Hesitated and went on. I can’t stop thinking about them.

Any of these could be the basis for a story. It is obvious, for example, that my home town has some opinionated gnomes with spray paint. Even if the bits do not stand alone, they are grist for the mill of other works. It is not the normality of life that is memorable, it is the strangeness. Which character is more vivid: the drunk, bald man in a white sweater, or the drunk, bald man who eats the dip at a party by scooping it up with his hand? [That little tic, by the way, is courtesy of a fellow at college who was possibly raised by raccoons.] The important thing is that they moved me, and when I finally sit down to write I want to use them to move my reader. They are the notes that ring true and convince the reader that they are indeed listening to a fellow traveler on this wobbly voyage.

So, here is the homework assignment: take a notebook with you everywhere. Carry two writing utensils. Live with your senses wide open, and when something makes you laugh, cry, vomit, love, hate, bridle, sweat, whatever… write it down. Do it for a week. Then sit at your computer and leaf through the ramblings. Ignore the chocolate smears and drops of… is that blood? Where have you been? Never mind, never mind… just give it a shot. Remember, you can’t be wrong. Now get out there and do your job—collect some truth.

I can’t promise this will work for you as well as it does for me. There are no guarantees. However, even if it doesn’t work, look on the bright side: you have a neat new notebook and you have finally stopped eating dip with your hands.

Final Poll Results

Pique-a-Boo-Boo: Commonly Confused Words

Absolute Blank

By Theryn Fleming (Beaver)

Submitting work riddled with spelling and grammatical errors is a sure way to turn off an editor. It cannot be emphasized enough: spellcheck, proofread, and then proofread again. If you can, have a friend read your work over before you send it out—someone else will often catch the mistakes that you miss.

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But words can be tricky, especially ones that sound (or look) alike. While reading submissions, I’ve noticed that even conscientious writers trip over certain words or phrases. Here are some of the more common errors that appear even in well-written work.

Background Image: Tim O’Brien/Flickr (CC-by-nc-sa)

  1. PIQUE (Not to be confused with PEAK or PEEK)

A peak is the top of a hill or mountain. When you peek, you look furtively or glance.

To pique means to provoke, stimulate, or goad. If something excites your interest, you’d say “my curiosity was piqued.”

If you are piqued, you are irritated or annoyed. When you are passed over for a promotion at work and bang out a blog entry about it as soon as you get home, your entry was written in a “fit of pique.”


To bait something is to lure it, e.g. one baits a fish hook.

To bate means to moderate or reduce. It is a shortened version of the word abate. Today the word bate is rarely used except in the expression “with bated breath.”

  • Max baited his hook, then waited with bated breath for a fish to take the bait.

To be vain means to be proud of one’s looks. A weather vane is a movable device that shows wind direction.

Vein has several meanings, the most of common being a blood vessel. Things that resemble blood vessels are also called veins, e.g. a vein of ore.

But a vein can also be a mood or attitude (“in a lighthearted vein“), as well as a style or tone of expression (“a vein of melancholy ran throughout the story”).

  • Professor Snarky began his lectures on an ironic note and continued in that vein throughout the term.

Rain is water that falls from clouds. Something can rain down on you.

To reign is to rule as a sovereign. When something reigns, it is predominant or prevalent.

Reins are what one uses to direct a horse. When you rein in something, you check or direct it. When someone has complete freedom or power, they are said to “have free rein.” When you act on a whim, you “give rein to” your impulses.

  1. E.G. or I.E.?

e.g. (exempli gratia) means “for example.” Use it when you want to clarify the preceding statement by providing an example:

  • Toby likes to read blogs, e.g. Gawker, Miss Snark, and Go Fug Yourself.

etc. should not be used with e.g. Since both e.g. and etc. (etcetera) indicate partial lists, it would be redundant to use them together.

i.e. (id est) means “that is.” Use it when you want to clarify the preceding statement by restating or expanding on it:

  • Toby likes to read blogs, i.e. online journals that are updated frequently.
  1. RACK or WRACK?

To rack means to strain by force, to torment. (Think of the rack, i.e. the medieval instrument of torture.) If you are worried, you are “nerve-racked.” If you are in agony, you are “racked with pain.” If you are stumped, you “rack your brains” for the answer.

Wrack is a noun that indicates violent or total destruction. It is related to wreck and is most common in the expression “wrack and ruin,” meaning total destruction.

  • Hurricane Katrina left New Orleans in wrack and ruin.

To reek is to give off a strong or offensive odor.

To wreak is to avenge; to inflict vengeance or punishment (“wreaked vengeance”), to vent anger or malevolence (“wreaked his wrath”), or to bring about or cause (“wreaked havoc”).

  • In 2005, natural disasters wreaked havoc on the planet.

Anxious means worried or uneasy. It implies nervousness. If you are “anxious to please,” you are concerned about doing the right thing.

Eager means keen or enthusiastic. If you’re an “eager beaver,” you were the kid in school who was always waving his hand and half-jumping out of his seat yelping, “I know! I know!”

  • Even though Jenny was anxious about how well she would do on her math test, she was eager to get it over with.

To affect something is to have an influence on it. It can also mean to pretend or adopt.

  • Do you think those attack ads will affect the results of the election?
  • Since moving to the UK, Madonna has affected an English accent.

Effect is a noun meaning consequence. When you affect something, you have an effect on it.

  • Matt was affected deeply by the film his Social Studies teacher showed on the effect of the Nazi regime during WWII.

To effect something means to bring it about or cause it to happen. When something “takes effect,” it becomes effective.

  • The new mayor and council started effecting changes as soon as they were elected. Their first new bylaw took effect only weeks into their mandate.

Effects can also be property or possessions.

  • After she fired him, Bob’s ex-boss gave him ten minutes to gather his personal effects.

Fewer indicates a smaller number of persons or things. The sign at the express checkout should read: “8 items or fewer” (not “8 items or less“).

  • There are fewer students in Ryan’s class than in Rhiannon’s.

Less indicates a smaller portion or amount (of something uncountable). Note: references to time and money are treated as amounts, e.g. less than a day, less than a dollar.

  • Because of the portable in the schoolyard, there is less playground space this year.

Farther refers to a greater (literal) distance in space or time.

  • We’ll have to go farther if we want to find a parking space.

Further means to a greater degree or extent (“Let’s take this further.”) or in addition (“This situation requires us to take further measures.”).

In informal writing, the two can be used interchangeably except that farther cannot be used to mean “in addition” (you wouldn’t say “take farther measures”).

  1. WHO or WHOM?

Who is the subject of a sentence (like “he” is); whom is the object (like “him” is). If you’re in doubt as to whether to use who or whom, rewrite the sentence using he and him: To whom it may concern. (It concerns him.)

  • Who sent the invitations? (He sent the invitations.)
  • The company invited everyone who has worked in the past year. (He has worked in the past year.)
  • I forgot to whom we’re supposed to RSVP. (We’re supposed to RSVP to him.)
  • Whomever my boss chose will be the guest speaker. (My boss chose him.)
  • Whom is Frances bringing to the party?* (Frances is bringing him to the party.)

*This sentence is correct, however, nowadays whom is not generally used as the first word in a question (unless you want to sound really pretentious), so this sentence would normally be written: Who is Frances bringing to the party? Alternatively, you could re-write the sentence like so:

  • I’m curious whom Frances is bringing to the party.
    • If something is elusive, it is evasive; it escapes your notice: Despite being featured on America’s Most Wanted, the suspect was elusive.
    • Illusive is synonymous with illusory. If something is illusive, it is deceptive or unreal. The magician made it appear that he sawed his assistant in half, but of course his act was illusive.
    • To ensure means to make certain or guarantee: Can you ensure that the meeting will take place on Friday as planned?
    • To insure means to provide insurance, underwrite: Roy needs to insure his new car. (According to some authorities, insure can be used interchangeably with ensure, i.e. to mean guarantee. However, ensure cannot be used to mean insure.)
    • To elicit means to draw out or forth, evoke, extract: The police officer tried to elicit a confession from the suspect.
    • Illicit is means unlawful, illegal: Trafficking in narcotics is illicit behavior.

If you can substitute the full pronoun-verb combination (e.g. they are, who is, you are) into the sentence, then you want the contraction. If that doesn’t work, then you want the possessive.

  1. THEIR / THEY’RE (and THERE)
    • Their is a possessive pronoun: Their favorite sport is hockey. (“They are favorite sport is hockey.” doesn’t work.)
    • They’re is a contraction of “they are”: They’re going to the game tonight. (“They are going to the game tonight.” works.)
    • There refers to location: The arena is over there.
  2. WHOSE / WHO’S
    • Whose is a possessive pronoun: Whose bag is that? (“Who is bag is that?” doesn’t work.)
    • Who’s is a contraction of “who is”: Who’s ready to go? (“Who is ready to go?” works.)
  3. YOUR / YOU’RE
    • Your is a possessive pronoun: Let’s go to your house. (“Let’s go to you are house.” doesn’t work.)
    • You’re is a contraction of “you are.” When someone says thank you, the correct response is: “you’re welcome.” (“You are welcome.” works.)
  1. And a Few More Quick Ones:
  • BRAKE / BREAK: You brake to slow or stop a vehicle using the brakes. If something separates into pieces, it breaks. An interruption of continuity is a break, e.g. coffee break, commercial break.
  • CITE / SIGHT / SITE: You cite references. A police officer might cite you for speeding. You go sightseeing (and see the sights using your sense of sight). A site is a location, a place (“campsite“).
  • COMPLEMENT / COMPLIMENT: If something complements something else, it fills it up or completes it: Jack and Jill make a good couple; they really complement each other. A compliment is an expression of approval or admiration: Thank you for the compliments.
  • CONSCIOUS / CONSCIENCE: If you’re conscious, then you’re awake. Your conscience is the awareness of the morality of your actions: Jiminy Cricket was Pinocchio’s conscience.
  • COUNCIL / COUNSEL: A council is an official body that deliberates, e.g. city council. The members of a council are councilors (or councillors). When you counsel someone, you advise them. Anyone who offers advice is a counselor (or counsellor).
  • LOOSE / LOSE: Loose means free, unrestrained, untied: She wore her hair loose. To lose something is to mislay it. If you fail to win (or tie) a game, you lose it.
  • PEDAL / PEDDLE: You pedal a bike by pushing your feet on the pedals. To peddle is to sell. A peddler is a salesperson, particularly a street vendor or someone who sells door-to-door.
  • PORE / POUR: To pore means to read studiously or attentively: You pore over a book. To pour means to flow or stream: It pours rain.
  • PRINCIPAL / PRINCIPLE: Principal refers to someone or something that is most important, e.g. the lead in a play, the head of an educational institution (“Principal Smith”). A principle is a rule or code of conduct: Though tempted by the bribe, he stuck to his principles.
  • STATIONARY / STATIONERY: If something is stationary, it’s fixed, immovable, static. Stationery is the paper you write letters on.


Final Poll Results