joan didion on keeping a notebook

Joan Didion on Keeping a Notebook

I keep notes in a lot of places.  I have Moleskine notebooks with thoughts, sketches, business notes, to do lists, and snippets of prose in my briefcase everyday.  I have older notebooks that are full and aging on bookshelves in different rooms.  I have a box of note cards with quotes from books I’ve read that make up my commonplace book.  I have an electronic archive of articles and photos I’ve clipped from the web in an Evernote file.  As a keeper of notes, I do puzzle over the source of the compulsion to record the instant moment, our impressions of the past, the hopes for the future.  Why do we write things down?

Why Do We Write Things Down?

I found simple and wonderful insights into this question in Joan Didion’s essay “On Keeping a Notebook,” part of her 1968 anthology Slouching Towards Bethlehem.  The essay was written nearly fifty years ago, but feels perfectly modern, arguing that a notebook allows us to return to our former selves and visit, if just for a little while.

joan didion on keeping a notebook
Joan Didion, 1970

Didion begins by describing the moment when she found a random story scribbled into a notebook.  She asks herself why she wrote it in the first place:

Why did I write it down? In order to remember, of course, but exactly what was it I wanted to remember? How much of it actually happened? Did any of it? Why do I keep a notebook at all? It is easy to deceive oneself on all those scores. The impulse to write things down is a peculiarly compulsive one, inexplicable to those who do not share it, useful only accidentally, only secondarily, in the way that any compulsion tries to justify itself.

Keeping a Notebook Lets Us Remember How We Felt

Didion supposes that her instinct to record is not shared by all, and that her compulsion is borne of some underlying anxiety.

I suppose that it begins or does not begin in the cradle. Although I have felt compelled to write things down since I was five years old, I doubt that my daughter ever will, for she is a singularly blessed and accepting child, delighted with life exactly as life presents itself to her, unafraid to go to sleep and unafraid to wake up. Keepers of private notebooks are a different breed altogether, lonely and resistant rearrangers of things, anxious malcontents, children afflicted apparently at birth with some presentiment of loss.

Didion begins to peel back psychological layers when she admits that “the point of my keeping a notebook has never been, nor is it now, to have an accurate factual record of what I have been doing or thinking.”  Instead, she says that her recordings were about “how it felt to me.”

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.

The Beauty of Visiting Our Own Histories

Didion ultimately admits that the practice of keeping a notebook is inward-facing.  While she imagined that “the notebook is about other people,” she admits that the point was always to “remember what it was to be me.”

Only the very young and the very old may recount their dreams at breakfast, dwell upon self, interrupt with memories of beach picnics and favorite Liberty lawn dresses and the rainbow trout in a creek near Colorado Springs. The rest of us are expected, rightly, to affect absorption in other people’s favorite dresses, other people’s trout. And so we do. But our notebooks give us away, for however dutifully we record what we see around us, the common denominator of all we see is always, transparently, shamelessly, the implacable “I.”

Didion’s best advice to us is to never overlook the value in “remembering what it was to be ourselves.”  As she says, “It all comes back.”

Perhaps it is difficult to see the value in having one’s self back in that kind of mood, but I do see it; 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. 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.

Intuitively, I’ve always felt that my notebooks were about remembering ideas so that I could return to the facts of times past.  Didion convinced me in this short essay that I was completely missing the point.  I returned to some old notebooks this week and realized that in reading the entries, I can’t recall the factual details of events or entries.  But the feeling of who I was, what was important, why I was writing was as clear as the day I wrote them.

Didion ultimately reminds us that, “it is a good idea, then, to keep in touch, and I suppose that keeping in touch is what notebooks are all about.”

The entire collection of Slouching Towards Bethlehem is full of similar insight and wit, touching on self-respect, morality, and marriage.

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