The stationery thing


At the start of each academic year, usually when I have known them for a week or so, I make this confession to my students. I say to them: ‘I have the stationery thing.’

The point of telling them is not confession for its own sake, but to make the very serious point, hidden in plain view in the form of a personal anecdote, that if we do not note down that which amazes and inspires each day we will lose it in what Ted Hughes called ‘the crush of information’ of living.

I can always predict how this will go down. Half of the room will look at me uncomprehendingly. ‘Stationery? What’s he on about?’ (being polite, they do not say this, but I know it is what they are thinking.) The other half of the room are nodding and making small squeals of approval. They get it.  They look as if they want to curl up with a bowl of hot chocolate.

Then, to make my point more memorable, more personal, and strange, I go into a riff about Great Stationery Shopping Experiences I Have Had (France: a supermarket; Switzerland: a department store; Bureau Direct: naturally; Pen to Paper: ditto). Just as half the room are zoning out and thinking about coffee, and the other half are starting to make orders on their mobiles, I read them random (always random) pages from a notebook I have pulled from my shelf that morning.

It will say things like:

Carrots, butternut, Car MOT (?) check

Dentist family or just me?

Metaphor article by Cheryl -where is it?

‘Crystals of purpose’

Peter’s Book.

There is a silence.

Even those who have zoned out are now paying attention. The thing is, I tell them, some of this may not lead to anything, but nearly all of it nearly always does, because it teaches me to pay attention. Not just to the things I discuss over breakfast with my wife that need doing, but the really important leads like Cheryl’s marvellous article on metaphor (Cheryl Hunt Metaphor Article) and the fact that Peter’s new book is amazing and I need to spend some time with it.

Over time, this makes quite a library of snatched moments of attention, what DH Lawrence called the ‘effort of concentration’ of looking at and capturing the world around me. Not to mention colourful Clairefontaine (of course) notebooks, with their grid lines and smooth 90 gsm paper. There I go again.

I thought about this yesterday recalling the lifesaving book of Michael Baldwin, who advocated the same, along with Julia Casterton and Peter Finch, long before there were such things as productivity blogs.

It is a secret poets have known for centuries.


  1. Oh yes!
    I have a sequence of notebooks on the go at any time. The one in my handbag will contain anything and everything from short lines of observation (“Old lady with hair like carrot-coloured candy-floss”) to lists of things I need to remember to buy, to scribbled down poems and ideas for stories and sometimes even whole stories if I am stuck somewhere long enough to write it.
    Other notebooks are more focused. One is my daily ramblings before bed, a few lines usually. One is a gratitude notebook where I make entries on the good things that happen. One is specifically for planning notes for books still unwritten. You get the picture. As you say, flipping through them brings back things we’d otherwise have lost.
    Great post. I can’t understand how anyone who considers themself a write/poet doesn’t have a minimum of one notebook for this purpose.


    1. Hello Viv
      This is it, absolutely.
      It sounds like we do very much the same thing.
      One book for nutty lines, one for quotes, one for insane ramblings.
      Love it -and your post on the same,
      Thank you again


  2. Oh Anthony, I’ve always had the stationery thing and I didn’t know it was a thing. If I ever feel down I can lift my spirits by looking at notebooks, even on line. The consequence of course is that I have many too many beautiful often expensive new blank notebooks in a cupboard. And never too many but a lot of used, wine and coffee stained, full of shopping lists, todo lists, whole poems and bits of and eavesdroppings which might come in handy. Me and Viv above, we’re with you all the way.


    1. Hello Meg
      Great to know you do the same and I am not alone.
      The thing I feel about them is not to make them too expensive -otherwise the filter of perfectionism is just too high at the outset.
      Sometimes I doodle on the first page just to take away those nerves.
      As ever with thanks


  3. People buy me beautiful notebooks and I want to fill them with beautiful things, but they intimidate me because I don’t want to write rubbish and lots of crossings out. I have to force myself to use them. In my notebook at the moment are the lines “fourteen whistles from the long bones of birds” and “he takes a risk with the littleness of the light”.It’s nice to know that other people also write about carrots and dentists in their notebooks. They may seem too mundane to sully the pages, but it’s like a zen practice – if you note them down, you can let them go and clear your mind for the creative stuff.


    1. Hi Judi
      I try not to make them too expensive so the filter of perfectionism is not too overawing -otherwise it can take months just to do a doodle. Which kind of defeats the point.
      I have other notebooks for other reasons, which is maybe where my next post is going to come from…
      Above all I’m so pleased it is not just me who does this.
      I’m feeling less alone today.
      As ever with thanks


  4. Great post. Alleluia, alleluia. The real excitement of notebooks, for me, is having at least twelve on the go at once and using them all randomly, and finding the magical synchronicities of what they come to contain!

    If there is a heaven, I think it resembles a kind of department store where you don’t have to pay for anything, but can choose from a vast and colourful range of stationery and food. 🙂


    1. Hi Clare

      This is it, yes, synchronicities, absolutely.
      I think my perfect store is very much the same, as you describe it, and I visited several in France recently.
      All I would add is a large poetry section and we’re home.
      All best as ever


      1. I think teaching is close to poetry in this regard.
        There is no point writing about what you already know about -Michael Longley calls it versifying opinion.
        Same with teaching. If there is no discovery along the way -for everyone- what is the point?
        As ever with thanks


  5. As so often in your posts, you went off in a different direction from what I was anticipating. I thought it was going to be a post about the joys of stationery shops, of the kind that had virtually disappeared until Paperchase came on the scene, and which now still survive in France more than in the UK – with not only a wonderful selection of notebooks (and it looks as if we all enjoy the variety of possibilities for those – I’m just finishing a very swanky one I was given from Smythson’s, with bright blue pages, bound in flexible emerald green leather that I moaned about to begin with because I’m a Moleskine groupie, but am now beginning already to dread finishing, rather like a good novel you don’t want to end) but also small boxes, drawing pins and paper clips nicely packaged, labels for suitcases and jam jars, staplers in different sizes and the possibility of ordering beautiful paper for home, with lined envelopes and the address crisp on cards…oh the joy of them But the notes – so much in this dense texture of daily life that one wants to capture, like a store of jams, chutneys and preserves that you can dip into in the winter months, so that you begin to feel like those Japanese tourists snapping everything in sight so that they can look at it when they go home. I’m with you on both counts.


    1. Hi there.
      Thank you so much for commenting.
      I am kind of not really a Moleskine fan, not any more at any rate, too much bleed through on the paper.
      Leuchtturm is more my thing -but for everyday it is Clairefontaine all the way.
      More than anything I am pleased I go in directions you did not predict. That is high praise.
      Thank you
      and good wishes


  6. Oh, I love notebooks and other stationery items! I buy many stylish, lovely ones I then feel terrible writing in, and some slightly blander ones I don’t mind scribbling in. I always have more than one going on. At the moment I have a poetry notebook (for poems, but also ideas and strings of words), my drawing notebook, and I had three sketchbooks but misplaced two by tidying my room and forgetting where I tidied them to. They were a bit of a mix, but now I definitely want to start an ‘observations only’ notebook!


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