On Notebooks and Joan Didion

Leather Journal by ForestNine on Etsy.
Leather Journal by ForestNine on Etsy.

Beginning when I was a little girl with a little girl diary – you know, the one with the little lock and key and the unicorn on the cover?  Well, back then I tried to keep a journal.  I would sit down with a pencil and my diary and try to record the day’s events.  I tried to be factual but I hesitated to record the poetic observations that came with those events.

To be truthful, I was always painfully aware of my audience.  A fictional audience, years in the future, who I imagined would pick up my journal and inflict upon it the harshest of criticism.  This audience would criticize my words.  My imperfect penmanship.

My penmanship was in fact, perfect.  And the audience was never allowed to read my words because I destroyed that diary as I have done every notebook and journal since.

I think this tendency is a result of having been raised around old things.  Antiques from eras long past, whose owners had no clue that their most intimate belongings would someday be scrutinized by a seven-year-old girl at an antique fair.

An ivory handled gentleman’s shaving kit.  A locket with a golden lock of hair hidden inside.  Tiny blue baby shoes.

All of these remnants of lives in a distant past we now admire as relics.  Always, in the back of my mind, has been the acknowledgment that my belongings, my notebooks, and my words would outlive me.  Nothing ever truly seems to belong to me, but to some audience of the future.

Wild Animals Notebook by Clap Clap Design on Etsy.
Wild Animals Notebook by Clap Clap Design on Etsy.

Now in my mid-thirties, I am much kinder to myself and I long to meet the person I once was.  I love to find notes I wrote on pieces of paper as a twenty-something-year-old woman and have been lucky enough to find the occasional poem that I have since stashed away in a folder in a box in my closet (still slightly aware of the audience, but unwilling to let go of my words).

I recently picked up Slouching Toward Bethlehem by Joan Didion.  I was struck by the sameness of feeling I hadn’t realized I possessed until reading her essay.

I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind’s door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends. We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget. We forget the loves and the betrayals alike, forget what we whispered and what we screamed, forget who we were. I have already lost touch with a couple of people I used to be; one of them, a seventeen-year-old, presents little threat, although it would be of some interest to me to know again what it feels like to sit on a river levee drinking vodka-and-orange-juice and listening to Les Paul and Mary Ford and their echoes sing “How High the Moon” on the car radio. (You see I still have the scenes, but I no longer perceive myself among those present, no longer could even improvise the dialogue.)

-Joan Didion, On Keeping a Notebook

I too wish I could remember more clearly what it felt like to listen to music on a levee as a teenager.  A Bob Dylan album.  While smoking an illicit cigarette.  Surrounded by fields of corn.  I once had it written down, but now, do not.

Zodiac Sign Notebooks by CaribouMilk on Etsy.
Zodiac Sign Notebooks by CaribouMilk on Etsy.

I realize, now that I have gotten a little older, that the gems in those notebooks were not the details of a day that had nothing remarkable to recommend it.  The style I ended up favoring is much like that described by Didion.  A sort of telling of the tiny events and hidden symbolism that placed me within a story of my time…

The details that placed me in a cafe on Columbus Ave, listening to a string band and drinking a coffee from a white ceramic cup which I had purchased with my last two dollars.  And what I overheard the woman at the table next to me saying.  And the sparkle in the old man’s eyes who was playing the fiddle.

And, all these years later, being transported back to that very moment by the romantic one line I had written about the cold outside and the terrible coffee tempered by the sparkling eyes.

At the time I wrote these things, it was merely a reflex to grab my pen and write the words.  But in retrospect, and perhaps made more valuable by the dearth of words I have from my younger self, I see symbols and stories that unfold as a whole.  I see the framework that has been filled in to create the person I am today.

Joan Didion writes:

I sometimes delude myself about why I keep a notebook, imagine that some thrifty virtue derives from preserving everything observed. See enough and write it down, I tell myself, and then some morning when the world seems drained of wonder, some day when I am only going through the motions of doing what I am supposed to do, which is write — on that bankrupt morning I will simply open my notebook and there it will all be, a forgotten account with accumulated interest, paid passage back to the world out there…

-Joan Didion, On Keeping a Notebook


So now, as a thirty-something, I have a new appreciation for the words I have written and the words I will write.  Someday I will see that the words I write today were the building blocks of the story I have lived.

Stack of old notebooks

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