Joan Didion’s On Keeping a Notebook

“What is a recipe for sauerkraut doing in my notebook? What kind of magpie keeps this notebook?”

On Keeping a Notebook, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, page 138, Joan Didion

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.

“It is a good idea, then, to keep in touch, and I suppose that keeping in touch is what notebooks are all about. And we are all on our own when it comes to keeping those lines open to ourselves: your notebook will never help me, nor mine you.”

Joan Didion, On Keeping a Notebook

4 thoughts on “Joan Didion’s On Keeping a Notebook

Add yours

  1. Loved this essay and introduction to Didion — someone I’ve always found daunting, and maybe don’t quite so much now. So thanks! I loved this passage that you quoted: “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…” and very much agree.

    I have two notebooks that I keep: One is my newly-minted bullet journal and the other is a much rawer book where I pour feelings that are unedited and from-the-gut. This is where I ‘take the top off’ whether it’s airing a current frustration or ventilating a memory. What goes into this book is often repetitive and raw and is truly ‘just’ about releasing feelings. These books I don’t save — their function is pure venting. But used well, they often open the door to other writing, where I can connect dots, consolidate insights, and express (hopefully more meaningfully) whatever I was venting about.

    Oh, and I don’t think you’ll ever find a recipe in any of my notebooks. But I suppose one should never say never. Thanks for this interesting post!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I was daunted by her too — but I don’t think she’s quite as bad as I’d made her out to be! There were so many great quotes in that essay and it was hard to narrow it down!

      Your ‘rawer book’ sounds much like my morning pages. They’re full of venting and hurt and anger — it feels like I’m going in circles most of the time! And you’re right – those venting sessions are so useful.

      And never say never is also correct! You’ll be using your bullet journal for collecting recipes in no time now, ha!


  2. Oh, I also loved Harriet the Spy and it led to a desire to keep notes (and maybe also to spy on people.) Thanks for a lovely post! I keep a notebook sporadically. (I seem to be off right now) but tend to feel better when I do. Although it’s hard to pinpoint why exactly. As for Didion, I’ll read her nonfiction but have steered clear of her fiction.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think Harriet the Spy kickstarted a lot of notebooks! And there are so many of us who feel better when they are actively keeping a notebook! Thanks for stopping by and commenting!


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