Book, Pen, Notebook: The Use of Transitional Objects


Notes apps, voice memos, and–obviously–keyboards and screens are great ways to capture your thoughts. But sometimes a pen and a notebook can help turn those thoughts into a more resonant conversation.

Slate movie critic Dana Stevens suggested this when she noted that she always watches movies with a pen and notebook in hand. She described them as her “transitional objects”–evoking Donald Winnicott and his use of the term. For Winnicott, a baby’s beloved and ever-present transitional object–a lovey, instance–helps them negotiate their subjective experiences and the objective world.

Transitional objects aren’t just for babies. Many of us rely at least a little bit on talismans to mediate between our inner life and the world’s objective insistences.

Like Stevens, I prefer a pen and notebook. I want to write down nearly everything I hear, and many things I see. I do this to stay focused in the present, to keep from daydreaming, to keep my roving mind in line, literally on the line.

It’s a medium-useful habit for life–that issue of focus, which the habit both fosters and divides–definitely requires further analysis.

It’s a maximally useful habit for work, however. When it comes to making books, a pen and notebook can make for an incredibly useful intermediary intervention.

You don’t need to use pen and notebook to write (unless you want to). Instead, you need to use them when you run into trouble. For example, when your sense of your argument diminishes in proportion to your growing pile of pages, take out a pen and notebook. Then:

  1. Identify the draft’s rough sections.
  2. Distill each rough section into a sentence.
  3. Collect the sentences into a rough paragraph.
  4. Test out a few different arguments such a paragraph could support.

The most powerful argument is (usually) the one that resonates most strongly. When it asserts itself, use it as a throughline to join your loose sentences into something tighter. This means:

  1. Using the throughline to write a connection between each sentence.
  2. Circling these new connections.
  3. Breaking the connections out as the start of new rough sections: This is the material left to create.

A pen and paper can help to mediate between our instinctive (internal) knowledge and our readers’ (external) needs. Though the merits of assimilation and the ideal balance between subjective and objective experiences must still be determined, transitional objects can help us expand beyond ourselves.