We are coming to the end of January, so you’re probably just getting your head around the concept of another year. Perhaps you’re contemplating ways to be more mindful, organised, present and all the words that belong to beginnings.

In any case, if you don’t want the year to speed off in the stolen car of your life, you’re going to need to make lists, take notes, journal and record your flashes of brilliance so you know they happened at all. You’re going to need to write things down. It’s time to get a new notebook.

I’m a fervent note-taker. Writing down observations is a way of marking presence in the world. It’s how I remember to pay attention. Besides, recording thoughts, plans and ideas supplies an instant illusion of organisation. I find the trick gratifying even while understanding I may never again remember why I took that note, or what it meant.

A notebook, unlike a dated diary or calendar, is anarchic in genre and searchable only with the eye, but setting up mysteries for your future self is part of the appeal. “Remember what is was to be me: that is always the point,” Joan Didion wrote of her own obsessive notebook keeping.

There are many kinds of notebooks; lined, unlined, decorated, emblazoned with affirmations, outrageously expensive and less than 50c. Choose carefully, lest the materiality turn you off the practice. No one wants to sit down and write a depressive screed in a sparkly book that screams “you’ve got this!”.

I’ve noticed that among my creative writing students the once-hip Moleskine has been usurped in popularity by a plain, recycled-composition type in the style of a mid-20th century school notebook. What does this trend say about our regard for the practice of recording our thoughts? For years they were leatherbound and portentous. Now we pay visual tribute to their elementary character.

We live in humbling times between plagues, floods and wars. We do not wish to elevate the importance of our inner lives. Yet we still live them and as they must be tended, a humble notebook is a good place to begin.

‘A5 notebooks of this kind take up two shelves in my office. Not much space for 25 years of life.’ Photograph: Briohny Doyle

I favour spiral-bound notebooks without lines because I don’t like using my coffee cup to hold my page or taking suggestions about the size of my handwriting. As a teenager, I worked at an art supply store where one of my duties was to make these spiral-bound notebooks with nice, heavy GSM paper. I’d usually make one for myself, too, and decorate it with band stickers and magazine collage.

I committed to the bit and now A5 notebooks of this kind take up two shelves in my office. Not much space for 25 years of life. The covers became less expressive over time but the binding is always the same. To pull one from the collection at random might be to meet the me that copied out the lyrics to Doll Parts, or scawled, bizarrely, “no gene for mortgage: socially constructed”, or the me who wrote that they had “100 years to start appreciating ballet”.

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During the Covid-19 lockdowns, I wrote most of a novel on notebooks while walking.

The A5 format became cumbersome, so I shifted to tiny reporters’ notebooks with spiral binding at the top. Sadly, these have lines and provide little-to-no protection from the elements. The notes they contained are now smeary, dissolving in time.

These tiny notebooks are hard to stack on the shelf but I’m glad to have them; damaged little documents from a stretch of damaged time. This year, I’m back to A5; no lines and no expectations, though the format implies some continuity.

I might not know what I meant 25 years or even 25 hours ago, but I do recognise the same essential impulse: to grab at life, tug at the details and hold on to them in the knowledge that although each moment, each thought may be fleeting and tenuous, together they make up the substance of our lives, day by day, year by year until we reach the final page.

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