NOTEBOOK PEOPLE: An Interview with Suzanne Alterman // Trina O’Gorman

NOTEBOOK PEOPLE: An Interview with Suzanne Alterman // Trina O’Gorman

When I was a young girl, I was always writing something in a notebook. The desire to keep a notebook began after I read Harriet the Spy, a children’s book by Louise Fitzhugh. After reading the book, I asked my mother for a composition notebook like Harriet’s notebook, which she bought for me. I tried spying on people like Harriet. My spying didn’t yield anything nearly as interesting as Harriet’s spying, so I eventually started writing other things. I remember trying to write a book about the Stafford family that “consisted of eight children.” That was the first sentence of Chapter 1, and though I remember toiling over that sentence, I never got much further with that story. I do remember being so chuffed with my use of the word “consisted.” However, looking at that sentence now, it’s quite clear that the more common word “included” would have worked much better. I wouldn’t have been nearly as impressed with my nine-year-old writerly self, though. 

My mother, though she didn’t understand my compulsion to write or my need to always have to always have extra notebooks (she would often say that I was single-handedly responsible for deforestation), would always oblige me by supplying me with new notebooks. From that composition book, I moved into a big three-ring-binder that I carried in addition to my school notebook. In the binder, I kept lists of categories and notes that I took about obscure things, questions that I had, and lists of things that I made just for the sake of making lists. 

I have always been a notetaker and notebook keeper of some sort. I am sure that some of my readers, perhaps many of my readers, get it; but some people come to practice of keeping a personal notebook or planner later in life, often once they enter into their professional careers. Such was the case for the lovely subject of the next story in my Notebook People Project, my childhood friend, Suzanne Alterman. 


I met Suzanne in grade school when my family moved to the quiet and quaint suburban neighborhood of Maplewood, NJ, and I started attending Clinton Elementary School. It was only

about 20 minutes away from the city we’d moved from and where my Dad was a police officer, but it was worlds apart from what I was used to. At my old school, a Catholic school in that city, many of the kids and some of the teachers looked like me. But at Clinton School, there were only a handful of other Black kids. I can still remember most of them by name. In my grade, there were about six or seven, I think. That said, most of the kids were great. Even though they didn’t look like me, they were welcoming and friendly and accepted me into the mix. One of those new friends was Suzanne. I probably met her in the 5th grade in some activity, but we were definitely both in Mr. Wolf’s sixth grade class, and though we didn’t keep in touch after high school, thanks to magic of social, we were able to reconnect many years ago (one of the few things I love about social media), and we remain connected all these years later. 

I’m not sure what prompted me to ask Suzanne if she carried a notebook, but it's possible that I will eventually ask everyone that question. I was excited, of course, to learn that she used a daily planner AND notebooks for work. That was all I needed to hear. I explained my Notebook People Project to her, which sounds really strange to the uninitiated, but she was intrigued (my kind of people), and agreed to an interview. I am so glad; our interview was full of laughter, and I learned a lot from her. 

Suzanne uses her daily planner to stay organized, which is something in which she takes great pride. She first learned about the Franklin Day Planner in 2002 from a work colleague. (Franklin Covey and their daily planners were very popular in the corporate world in the early 2000s. I actually worked for the retail branch of their company for a short time.) Suzanne’s colleague told her it was the best thing she could use to stay organized, but at the time, she said she couldn’t justify spending the money on it. It wasn’t until 2012 that she finally invested in her own Franklin Day Planner, after trying other solutions. She has had the same black leather binder Classic-size binder since 2012, only replacing her annual planner system each year. 

The distinctive practical layout of Franklin Day Planner keeps her coming back. Even though she’s tried other planners, mostly because of the bulky size of the system, she always comes back to the Franklin Day Planner because it is so utilitarian. For readers who utilize other daily planners or use bullet journaling, you might be surprised to know that such systems have been around for decades. Each page of Suzanne’s day planner has a daily checklist, an appointment calendar, and a space for notes. There is a notation key to help her keep track of tasks, as they are completed, forwarded, delegated, etc. The layout is exactly the same as it was when I worked for them over 20 years ago. As Bert Lance, close advisor to Jimmy Carter, once said, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” These pages have helped keep Suzanne organized for the past 11 years. 

As a very busy clinical research associate, her days are busy and each project that she’s on is different, but they all have many moving parts. She described a recent study that she just completed to give me some idea of what her days and weeks are like. For this project, she was assigned to four different sites, two in her state of New York, within driving distance, and two in Virginia, which required her to fly. She had to visit each site every two weeks, for one or two days at a time. Some are within driving distance, while others require her to fly. In an average week, she is only home one or two days, and traveling the other five or six days. To say she is busy is an understatement, but her system helps her stay on top of everything. 

In addition to her planner, when Suzanne is visiting research sites she takes notes in spiral notebook. When she is working on projects that are nearer to home, she might have a notebook for each site, but when she is required to fly, she has to pare down what she takes with her because she’s only allowed two carry-ons. To make this easier, she’ll use just one notebook for all of the sites, taking notes for everything in one place. For each visit, she might take as many as seven or eight pages of handwritten notes. She uses color coding to keep these notes organized. For color-coding, she uses adhesive dots that come in four colors - red, blue, green, and yellow. Each site is assigned a color. She places a dot on the corner of the pages of notes, so she can easily find the notes for each site. Additionally, these same colored dots are used on her calendar and her emails are flagged with matching colors to keep everything organized. 

Because of the nature of her job, Suzanne often finds herself at a computer a lot, and really appreciates taking her notes by hand. Like so many of us find, it’s often easier to work with handwritten notes. Even with the volume of field notes that she’s taking, she finds it easier to find things when they are written by hand. She prefers graph-ruled spiral notebooks because she loves writing on graph paper (I do too!). And for pens, she’s a huge fan of fine point Zebra ballpoint pens. For now, her color-coding system needs have not exceeded four colors, but if they ever do, she’s thought of a solution. There are sets of pastel colored dots, and if need be, she will expand her color choices by using those. We had a good laugh because she said it would bother her because they were not primary colors, but she would make it work. I completely understood.

I appreciated learning about the simplicity and effectiveness of Suzanne’s tried and true daily planning and note taking systems. 

Getting the chance to take a peek inside of other people’s notebooks is Big Trina making Little Trina’s wish come true. When I was a kid, I always wanted to look inside other people’s notebooks, but never had the courage to ask because I was afraid that people would think I was weird. And the more I ask people if I can see what’s inside of other people’s notebooks, the more I realize that my fascination is not with the physical notebooks themselves, though they are cool, but my interest is actually with the notebook keepers and their creative processes. I love learning about how other people think. 

I’m so grateful to Suzanne, for allowing all of us to take a glimpse inside of hers. (Since our interview, I’ve purchased a package of colored dots for color-coding my system.) Thanks, Suzanne.



1 comment

  • Mirna Cannon: January 21, 2024
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    I always love reading your articles, Trina, because they inspire me to continue using my notebooks and planners. I also have that curiosity about what other people put in their notebooks, so your articles feed that need! Thank you so much.

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