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 at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends. 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. – Joan Didion, Slouching Towards Bethlehem*
I am a serial notebook keeper. I started when I was seven and with a few short periods here and there, never really stopped. Scrawled across various notebooks, from the snap-front Snoopy one I began with to the sleek black notebook currently sitting on my desk, are all my secrets and years of my life, from the time I could remember to write.
Like Joan Didion, Sylvia Plath, Anne Frank and so many others, I keep a notebook as a repository of all my past selves. I think of a future someday when I will look in the mirror and not recognize the person in there. On that day, I’ll take down that dusty box in my old bedroom in my family’s house and crack open a notebook and I will be there. At fourteen, at eighteen, at nineteen and twenty and every year that will come after that.
While it may seem egocentric, the truth is that what it was like for us, to be us, is the only way that we actually experience the world. Our narrative of the world and what has happened to us in it is our reality. The past is largely constructed by the things that we choose to remember and what we choose to write down. This is not, by the way, a universally held view. My mother thinks that obsessive journal-keeping and note-taking are a self-sabotaging refusal to let go of the past. And there were some instances where she was right and I had used my notebooks as a crutch and an excuse to remain in a misery that I should have had the wisdom to move on from. But there were many, many more cases where keeping a notebook and writing down stuff literally kept me sane and preserved my ability to move forward.
I wonder why this is? Why is journaling advocated as a therapy tool these days? What is it about writing things down that is so powerful that it can presumably exorcise your demons? I’m not sure I know the answer, but I do know that part of the reason I keep a notebook is because I’ve never been comfortable with having direct contact with the world. The notebook creates a space between me and the world, creates an inside and outside, allows me a certain detachment to digest my experiences, to sift through them and pick out the ones I want to form my life narrative. Life can seem like a random sequence of events and it is only through looking back can we see any meaning or pattern. Nothing is real until I have written it down and I’ve lost whole chunks of my life when I was either too sad or too preoccupied to keep a notebook. I just don’t remember those parts and it can sometimes seem like I never lived them at all.
These days, the notebooks I keep are the standard black Moleskines that are revered and reviled in equal parts depending on who you ask. I started using them years ago before the hype, which is mostly clever marketing and exaggeration, and continue not because of their pedigree, but because they are extremely functional and nondescript. Also, I’m slightly anal retentive in that I’ve come to hate having trillions of notebooks in different colors, patterns and sizes.
As an object, the notebook has seemed to attain almost companionship status, its heft and weight in my hand a comfort, its quiet black covers imparting an understated elegance and even though it’s difficult to read the words sometimes because it’s not always a pleasant experience to be reminded of who you used to be, the geek in me appreciates the beauty of scrawled words filling a blank page. Keeping a notebook is finally, in the end, a ruthless exercise in self-observation and discovery.