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First Person

On Keeping a Notebook, Part 2

August 29, 2013 | by

SARAH_JOURNALlarge

Read part 1 here.

People often ask me whether, as a writer, I prefer to write by hand or on a computer. Realistically, it depends on the kind of writing I’m doing, but for a long time I responded that I preferred writing on a computer because it’s more difficult to write by hand and because writing on a computer is faster. “My thoughts move faster than my hand,” I would say, as if one part of my body was smarter than the other. Of course, this was just an excuse. The first entry of my latest notebook includes the following passage:

How much time every day will I have to spend getting all of my thoughts down on paper? But they don’t have to be all of my thoughts. But some may be left behind. Are they really that important? How important are my thoughts? That is the real question here.

The question of how much time every day is required for keeping a notebook is—like the question of the difficulty of writing by hand, or that of whether or not someone will read my notebooks, or the question of accuracy or inaccuracy—just a way to keep myself from making work that is “unpresentable.” I don’t mean unfinished—I mean not good. Over the last two years, I’ve managed to scare myself out of treating my notebook as a private space, and trick myself into using it only as a place to reflect on other peoples’ public thoughts under the guise of intellectualism. It is the same fear that beset me three and a half years ago when I took my high school notebooks outside and burned them. What was I afraid of? Of someone I respect seeing work that I found embarrassing, maybe. Of being exposed as a fraud, as if, because I once filled entire notebooks with “free verse” poems about underage sex and drinking, I could never be considered a serious writer. Of someone thinking—proving—that I’m not good enough.

I began my latest notebook on June 27, two days before I left with my husband and his family for Sedona. I wrote the first entry immediately and then forced myself to write in the notebook every single day after that, with a few exceptions. At this point, it’s already almost half full. The entries consist of everything from daily summaries, or reflections on certain events, to dreams I had after reading Georges Perec’s dream diary, La Boutique Obscure, to notes on how to edit my novel, to lists of words, phone numbers, and book titles, and notes taken while talking with friends. In the last case, I leave off trying to write down the most important parts and just write down whatever I hear. These entries read something like:

- Empathizing with another entity or film
- Literature is something you take whereas music and film are given to you
- The act of reading is an exercise
- Book: putting together elements of diction, semantics
- Film should just be presented to you
- Technicality of film is meant to be seamless for the viewer
- The more technical literature is
- A three-act film is just a three-act film
- Started looking at film as a wholly technical thing

The process becomes an appropriation of language rather than an effort to make sense. At some point, I had to work through the idea that there would always be holes in the story of this notebook; that I could never collect everything that happened, and that furthermore, that wasn’t at all the point. Learning to love and accept what doesn’t make its way into my notebook is a matter of making peace with the physical limitations of writing. An earlier conversation with my husband and two of our friends while driving in Los Angeles, the first of its kind in the notebook, includes a brief interjection by me:

Is that the gay Mexican club
I miss this place very much
What can I arrange with all these sounds
Find their own phrasing
Find their own rhythm
A semblance, rejoining
What the fuck is that, holy Jesus Christ

There will always be holes between them

This was two days before I accidentally deleted all of the pictures I had taken thus far on the trip, which itself occurred the day before we were to fly back to New York. Of course, I was devastated. But I realized quickly that not all was lost, that I could use the notebook creatively to salvage some of the memories I feared I would lose along with the pictures. I started writing down one-line descriptions of as many pictures as I could remember. At some point, I realized it was easier to say “Several taken down into the Grand Canyon” rather than describe each picture in detail. And this is good enough for the purpose, because all that I need, when I look back over those entries, is the spark of a memory to set the whole scene in motion again.

The impulse reminds me of a French writer I wrote about recently, Marie Chaix, whose novel The Summer of the Elder Tree was released by Dalkey Archive Press in June. It’s the product of Chaix’s weaving together notebooks she kept over the ten years she “wasn’t writing,” following the death of her editor. There are gaps between events, sometimes lasting several months, but Chaix cinches together entries and then novelizes the in-between. Where the story doesn’t follow linearly (and it really never does), she manifests a relationship between entries with the use of metaphor or anecdote, or by drawing a conclusion before moving on to the next challenge.

I’ve spent the last few years thinking that I wasn’t the kind of writer who kept a notebook; that, because I don’t often journal in it, the book that I carried around every day and wrote in wasn’t enough of a notebook to be able to wear the name. I’m not sure what I called it, but it certainly wasn’t allowed among the ranks of Sontag’s, Kafka’s, or D. H. Lawrence’s bound companions. Of course, this is ludicrous; looking at the stack of books I pulled off the shelf just to write this essay, it’s clear to me that the relationship I have with my notebooks isn’t just strong, but lively. It happens in small and larger sizes, different colors and textures of paper, bindings and frequencies, styles and methods, to say nothing of the letters and pieces of mail art sent to friends, and notes scribbled in the margins of every book I read. In answer to the question of whether I prefer to write by hand or on a computer, then, evidence would suggest that it doesn’t make a difference. Where I write is beside the point. As long as it happens, it can happen anywhere.

Sarah Gerard is a writer and a bookseller. Her fiction, criticism, and personal essays have appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Review of Books, BOMBSlice magazine, and other publications. Her journalism has appeared in the Tampa Bay Times. She earned her MFA at the New School.

 

9 COMMENTS

4 Comments

  1. Chris | August 29, 2013 at 2:48 pm

    I am quite enjoying these little essays, Sarah, and I’m thinking of starting some journaling of my own.

  2. OJ | August 29, 2013 at 11:25 pm

    You might like: “Joe Gould’s Secret” a 1965 book by Joseph Mitchell, based upon his two New Yorker profiles, “Professor Seagull”, (1942) and “Joe Gould’s Secret”, (1964). It was also made into a movie.. You ca watch it on Netflix. Gould kept the oral history of the world in notebooks!

  3. David | August 30, 2013 at 12:36 pm

    These essays have been great. I bought a notebook yesterday and am looking forward to seeing how it’ll integrate into my life. Thanks sharing your experience!

  4. Jenny Bhatt | August 30, 2013 at 1:50 pm

    Ms Gerard, another lovely add to this series that I’m enjoying.

    I agree with the “where I write doesn’t matter” sentiment as well. That said, I’ve often wondered, with the technology now, with a journal that might be fully digital, allowing us to analyze, over time, say, the words / phrases / people that repeated the most. You know, like some writing software apps do. It might reveal some interesting subtexts and sub-conscious thought patterns. Then we’d have the “meta-journal” that might give us even more insights (or, worst-case, induce a sort of navel-gazing). The techie in me gets carried away sometimes.

    Looking forward to future installments. And, hoping that you will share your list of best published journals. I have my own as I went through a phase of reading many several years ago. The usual suspects – Woolf, Nin, Sontag, Plath, Thoreau, Emerson, Henry James, Pepys, Gide, Wordsworth….. I don’t know what draws us to read journals of others (particularly writers) even when we know they’ve been edited for publication.

5 Pingbacks

  1. […] The Paris Review has Sarah Gerard’s latest column on writing in a notebook. […]

  2. […] The Paris Review has a lovely two-part series On Keeping a Notebook Part 1 and Part 2 […]

  3. […] relation intime aux carnets de notes. Impossible de ne pas se retrouver dans la première comme la seconde partie de cette chronique…  ;-)  Si cette auteure vous intéresse, vous pouvez suivre son […]

  4. […] – Sarah Gerard, from On Keeping a Notebook, Part 2 […]

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