N.B.: Take Note(s)

by Bryn Chancellor

During the semester, I often make creative writing students keep a capital-N Notebook, knowing that this is one of the best ways to generate or develop material but also to sharpen observation skills and to activate the writing eye. But with the irony familiar to many writing instructors, I’ve let my own notebook lapse. The poor old thing lolls on the coffee table under sundry mail, a coaster, and a user manual for fairy lights. In its absence, my writing eye has grown cataracts, the world dulled and opaque.

The roots of the word “note” are entwined both in observation, in noticing, and in writing those observations down, taking note. The Latin nota bene, often abbreviated as “n.b.,” means note well. Good advice for readers, great advice for writers. Take note. Pay attention. Or as Susan Sontag put it in a notable speech, “Attention is vitality. It connects you with others. It makes you eager. Stay eager.”

But taking note, paying deep attention, requires active practice. The writer’s notebook is the artist’s sketchbook, the musician’s scales, the dancer’s pliés and tendus. It’s much easier to shutter the writer’s eye, to go about your day and tasks without really looking, to slide right back into the unconscious “default setting,” as David Foster Wallace described it in another famous speech.

So I start over (n.b.: again). My new notes are scratchy, gleaned during walks or while staring out the window: sunlit raindrops suspended from a spindly branch; shredded clouds through a stand of bare poplars; the stain of rusted oak leaves on concrete. Nothing on the surface here is particularly noteworthy. But take that simple raindrop on the branch. When the sun broke through an obstinately gray sky, and the light hit it, I nearly bent in half with the beauty of it, with whatever it touched off inside of me. Even before writing it down, just by noticing, something sparked in me.

In these initial notes, the first moments of observation, I don’t yet contemplate any meaning about what the branch made me see or how it might fit into a piece of writing; that is for later, if I decide to give it to a character or a scene, if I ask it to bear weight as an image.

But I may not use it at all (n.b.: the value is not in the use, but in the seeing). I only know that I noted it well. And that is enough for now.

Bryn Chancellor is author of the novel Sycamore, which was a Southwest Book of the Year, an Indie Next pick, an Amazon Editors’ Best Book of 2017, and among Bustle‘s Best Debuts of 2017. Her story collection When Are You Coming Home? won the Raz-Shumaker Prairie Schooner Book Prize, and her short fiction and creative nonfiction have appeared or are forthcoming in The Southern Review, Colorado Review, Brevity, Crazyhorse, and elsewhere. Her honors include fellowships from the North Carolina, Alabama, and Arizona arts councils, the Poets and Writers Maureen Egen Writers Exchange Award, and scholarships from the Bread Loaf and Sewanee Writers Conferences. A graduate of Vanderbilt University’s MFA program, she is an associate professor of English at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

Little Notebooks, Big Ideas: Tools for Creative Exploration: The road to a story winds through myriad notes and drafts. Making notebooks by hand lets writers immerse themselves in the critical early creative process and helps them commit to a project. We’ll make fun, easy, affordable, and portable pocket notebooks in the spirit of zines, closer to Anne Lamott’s index cards than to store-bought bound journals. Using targeted prompts, we’ll start to fill the pages with ideas for characters, settings, and scenes. Then we’ll play with simple printmaking and collage to make them our own. Saturday, February 25 | 10:00 am – 3:00 pm | Charlotte Lit @ hygge Belmont. Members $90, Non-Members $120. Register