Thanks to Nina Lacour’s podcast On Keeping a Notebook, I’ve been reconsidering my previous animosity for Joan Didion. I read The Year of Magical Thinking a few years ago and found Didion to be wholly unrelatable to me by living such a wealthy life in New York City. But Lacour’s allusions to Didion’s essay On Keeping a Notebook had me curious to try again. Besides – Didion is one of the leading essayists of our time and if I want to practice these skills then I may as well study the masters, right?
On Keeping a Notebook can be found in Slouching Towards Bethlehem, a book of essays published in the 60s. The essay is full of random jottings that she’s written over the years and an effort to understand why some of us are compelled to keep notebooks and fading memories — especially when many of those memories are the lies we tell ourselves.
“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.”On Keeping a Notebook
Would you agree with this thought? I think I might, especially ‘children afflicted apparently at birth with some presentiment of loss.’ I think often about my own notebook – I think about whether its value in my life is truly as great as I perceive it, whether it’s all just a waste of time, and whether it actually helps me at all. Sometimes I think it’s just a giant dump of feelings that only allow me to wallow. But I know that without that space to wallow, the feelings start to eek out of every pore and into every corner I find myself in. Those feelings need some place to go. Why not my notebook?
Since reading Harriet the Spy in the sixth grade, I’ve been obsessed with keeping notebooks. Some phases of my life have been more successful than others and I’ve always been plagued with self-doubt about my worthiness of deserving a notebook. I was taught growing up that everyone around me thought they were better than me — a survival skill of my parents that did not serve me well, to say the least — so what was so special about me? Who did I think I was to keep such a record? My thoughts did not and would not ever matter to anyone else.
And even if that were true – that my thoughts would never matter to anyone else – Didion argues that our notebooks are only for us anyway. To stay acquainted with all of our previous selves is the best gift we can give ourselves.
“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…”On Keeping a Notebook
Of course, I’ve done a lot of work since leaving home to restructure my self-talk. I no longer believe that every single person around me thinks they’re better than me and is out to get me. And I can thank my notebooks for a lot of that work. I still glance through my morning pages and snort at what a self-absorbed twit I can be and catch myself thinking who do I think I am? And then those thoughts go into my next round of morning pages and I do my best to give it to the page and let them go, for at least one more day.
This morning I wrote in my notebook that I thought my 80 year old self would look back and laugh at a line I had just wrote. Wouldn’t it be something to make it to 80 years old and have pages and pages and pages of my weird thoughts all lined up on a shelf somewhere? And I agree with Didion – what was my 15 year old self thinking this time 20 years ago? I don’t have a record of that. But 20 years from now, I’ll have a record for my 55 year old self to look back on, and that’s a comforting thought. I hope I do look back and laugh at all of my worries and insecurities and know that everything always works out fine. What a thought! A wish!
I enjoyed this essay a lot more than I thought I would and am looking forward to more Didion essays; I’m glad I gave her another shot! I’ll try to make my way through this collection and dig into my thoughts about them as I go along.