When I decided to move to New York to pursue writing, I took all of the notebooks I’d kept in high school out back of my apartment and burned them on the sidewalk separating my building from my neighbor’s. I didn’t use an accelerant because I expected the paper to burn easily, for the whole pile to go up in flames at the toss of a single match. Instead, I sat on the sidewalk with book after book of matches, tearing the notebooks apart and crumpling them, holding individual pages over the flames so they would catch, watching the spiral bindings blacken but persevere into the eventual pile of ashes and scraps of brown paper left behind an hour later. When my roommate came home, she told me what I’d done was stupid.
I’ve kept a notebook since elementary school. Back then, I called it a diary because that’s what my friend Christina called hers. I remember her reading me accounts of eating hot dogs, meeting a cute boy, doing homework: “factual” records of events that were, whether or not important, beats on which to hang memories. I fashioned my diary after Christina’s but eventually grew bored and abandoned it. I didn’t see the point; I didn’t yet know what it meant to record the story of my inner life. I had a completely different relationship with my inner life then. There wasn’t a sense of anxiety around the need to find words for those things I was thinking and feeling. That anxiety came a few years later, in middle school, when my social life took a downturn and I started to keep a notebook again. The first thing I wrote was a song, the lyrics and melody for which are lost forever, as is the notebook.
Most of my childhood notebooks are lost–begun in a state of excitement but half- or quarter-filled and abandoned after a few weeks. It wasn’t until high school that I began to think about my notebooks as things that needed to be preserved. In Florida, when I took four years of notebooks outside and burned them, I thought of the act as a ritual cleansing. I was shedding my past in order to recreate myself in the present. If there wasn’t a record of it, I thought, the past no longer existed. Or rather, if there wasn’t a record of it, the past could be whatever I needed it to be; could return to a state of raw material to be molded and rearranged, refashioned into new stories, better stories, the stories I wanted to tell, and not the stories that were most accurate.
Whatever “accuracy” meant. Accuracy has very little, if anything, to do with keeping a notebook. Case in point: I took a vacation with my husband’s family recently, a week after I began my most recent notebook. I decided I needed to gain some perspective on notebook-keeping if I was going to start writing about it, so I brought the first volume of Susan Sontag’s journals with me. Reborn: Journals & Notebooks 1947–1963 begins when Sontag is sixteen and about to begin her first year at UC Berkeley. To her credit, even at sixteen she’s far more articulate than I am now. But there are large gaps of time between entries, and entries that consist only of reflections on certain writers and philosophers, and some that are made up of the beginnings of stories, and in one case, only a list of seemingly unrelated words. With so many different kinds of writing and periods of time passing between, how can these notebooks be called in any way “accurate”? What would a notebook accurately or inaccurately portray?
What is a notebook for, anyway?
I began this most recent notebook with the idea that I had lost touch with what it meant to keep a notebook. The last six or seven I’ve kept, covering the span of about three years, have consisted mostly of notes from classes and brainstormed ideas for pieces I was writing. There are few personal entries, and certainly no accounts of daily events. Then again, does a notebook need accounts of daily events in order to be “personal”? An entry from August 2012 reads:
VID00013 March 6
In March 2011, I visited my grandparents in Cleveland and brought a FlipCam with me that I used to interview them. My grandfather was dying of cancer, a horrible disease that he succumbed to the following August after years of suffering. After he died, my family asked me to make CD-ROMs of the videos for them to take home. We sat together at the table where my grandmother used to play bridge with her friends once a week, and watched all the videos together on my computer. The entry goes on like this for another two columns. While it’s not a summary of events, it still succeeds in bringing back the memory of that day.
So maybe that’s what a notebook is for? Memories? But then how do I account for the very next entry?
Q to Harold Sq.
Switch to R?
Get off R at 57th St.
56th St. towards Broadway
211 W 56th St 30G
Is Anita someone I knew once? A restaurant? A store? Actually, Anita is the analyst I saw for a few months after my grandfather died, but I only remember this now because I googled the address and looked at the street view. If I hadn’t done that, Anita would have forever remained a disembodied name with a mysterious Midtown address. This whole spread reminds me of something Joan Didion says in her essay “On Keeping a Notebook”:
We are not talking here about the kind of notebook that is patently for public consumption, a structured conceit for binding together a series of graceful pensees; we are talking about something private, about bits of the mind’s string too short to use, an indiscriminate and erratic assemblage with meaning only for its maker.
For the last two years, my notebooks have been largely places wherein I stage ideas before writing them in a finished form. Flipping through their pages, I see notes about Gerald Murnane, Clarice Lispector, Hilda Hilst, and other writers whose work I critiqued for literary journals. When I went to Florida for a month to write my novel, I bought a brand new, five-topic Mead notebook and filled the whole thing with notes about the birth and death of stars, character arcs, and veganarchism. A few times, I wrote letters to my friends and ripped them out, leaving bits of paper behind inside the spiral. I like to imagine that someday, a conscientious biographer will collect my letters from the far reaches of the country and include them in an edition titled something like: Reassembled: Notebooks and Letters 1985—?.
Which brings me to my next point: What if somebody reads my notebooks? It is a distinct fear that I had to overcome before beginning this latest one. I was deliberate in treating this as a return to my style of keeping notebooks in the past: a place where I would write about my own life, and begin stories, and write down impressions of people I saw on the street, and lines of poems, and quotes, and secrets. It was to be a much more personal endeavor; a writer’s notebook—a place of interest for posterity, and not just a collection of academic fragments and ideas about other writers’ work.
The first few pages are tentative. It took me a long time to write them: several hours spent sitting in a café using several different pens. I had chosen the notebook carefully after considering many options; there were rules about how durable it had to be, how broad the pages, how tall the lines (it had to be lined). I looked at different brands: Rollbahn (an old favorite), Leuchtturm, Moleskine, Rite in the Rain. I didn’t want something with a hard back (although this is ultimately what I ended up with). I didn’t want something too small because I was afraid it wouldn’t encourage longer entries. At the same time, I didn’t want something too large because it would be difficult to carry in a smaller bag. I ended up with a medium-sized, brown, faux-leather Leuchtturm with a pocket in the back for holding photographs.
My hand was tired at the end of four pages.
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, BOMB, Slice magazine, and other publications. Her journalism has appeared in the Tampa Bay Times. She earned her MFA at the New School.