I just read “On Keeping a Notebook,” which Joan Didion wrote in 1966, and which was later included in Slouching Toward Bethlehem, and I am beginning to think that this woman never wrote anything that wasn’t specific, a little mournful and a little whimsical… and gesturing toward some kind of higherreflection, either on the human nature or the human experience. At her best, it’s totally arresting, stunning, enveloping writing. At her worst, it’s a little tough and dry, but still nutritious. I admit that her writing must not grip every soul as immediately and fiercely as it does mine— much of her effect on me stems from her ability to eerily echo my own thoughts, experiences and even foibles. This, for example:
“That’s simply not true, the members of my family frequently tell me when they come up against my memory of a shared event. “The party was NOT for you, the spider was not a black widow, IT WASN’T THAT WAY AT ALL.” Very likely they are right, for not only have I always had trouble distinguishing between what happened and what merely might have happened, but I remain unconvinced that the distinction, for my purposes, matters.”
My family might complain in the same way about me— I’m always remembering events of dreams like they actually happened, or recalling situations with strains of dialogue or details that I apparently added post-facto. The gap between what really happened and what I remember is somewhat irrelevant, and the reason for that is echoed in Didion’s confession about why she fills notebooks with seemingly meaningless names, dates, sketches and snatches of conversation:
“My stake is always, of course, in the unmentioned girl in the plaid silk dress. Remember what it was to be me: that is always the point.”
This is, at the heart of it, why I keep a notebook as well, and especially why I feel so guilty when I fail to record things in my notebook as I think I should. Past selves slip away if not pinned down in ink somewhere, whole years of your life, whole incarnations of you in the world evaporate from memory (how quick the person you were your first three weeks at college disappeared) unless memorialized on some piece of paper. Notebook keepers, Didion says, are a different breed, “children afflicted apparently at birth with some presentiment of loss,” and, for me at least, it’s the loss of self and of time that notebooks gard against. This is why grown men cry when they lose their notebooks, why I have “$100 reward to the finder” scrawled next to my cell phone number in the front flap of mine.
Despite all the heaviness there, in notebook keeping and in Didion’s rendering of it, there’s whimsy too, which is why her essay brought me such joy today. We are strange, changeful, and funny creatures, which comes out in the scraps we choose to hold onto.
“What is a recipe for sauerkraut doing in my notebook? What kind of magpie keeps this notebook?”
This sentence also had me shaking the paper and looking around wide-eyed the way people do when they get their palms read, as if to say to someone “That’s exactly me! How does she DO that!?” No one was there, which was a stroke of good luck for my dignity, so I grabbed pen and started underlining, like the former type-A student that I am. I could fill this page up with all the targets of my scribbling, but it would take up quite a bit more page space and it’s probably better if you just go read it yourself. Deal? Deal.