This Joan Didion Essay Will Change The Way You Feel About Keeping A Notebook

by Kerri Jarema

As a kid, I was a sucker for writing in notebooks. Maybe it was the first sign of the career path I would eventually take as an adult or maybe it was just inspired by a brief but powerful obsession with the Harriet the Spy film. Whatever the case, I would spend hours tethered to my notebooks, writing down my thoughts and feelings and drawing doodles. I even wrote an entire children's book once. But it wasn't long after that, as a teenager, that I quit the habit altogether, and trashed all of the notebooks I had filled up. But even though I'd stopped writing in notebooks, I was actually writing more than ever — articles, essays, features, fiction — and I was surrounded by more writers than I ever had been in my life. And guess what? Almost all of them had notebooks.

They had big, bulky ones on their desks, small spiral ones they tucked into their purses or back pockets, should they need to write some brilliant thought down on-the-go. I read about famous writers who never went anywhere without a notebook, watched fellow creatives on public transportation constantly writing, sketching, thinking. And I started to wonder what was wrong with me. Why didn't I seem to take as much stock in notebooks as everyone else? It was Joan Didion's famous essay "On Keeping A Notebook" from Slouching Towards Bethlehem — basically required reading young journalists everywhere — that made me rethink my relationship with the humble notebook. And it might just inspire you to start jotting things down this year, too.

Didion writes:

"Why did I write it down? In order to remember, of course, but exactly what was it I wanted to remember? How much of it actually happened? Did any of it? Why do I keep a notebook at all? It is easy to deceive oneself on all those scores. The impulse to write things down is a peculiarly compulsive one, inexplicable to those who do not share it, useful only accidentally, only secondarily, in the way that any compulsion tries to justify itself. I suppose that it begins or does not begin in the cradle. Although I have felt compelled to write things down since I was five years old, I doubt that my daughter ever will, for she is a singularly blessed and accepting child, delighted with life exactly as life presents itself to her, unafraid to go to sleep and unafraid to wake up. 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."

This predicament sounded all too familiar to me upon first reading Didion's essay. My first impulse is to write in order to remember. But when you finally get down to the reality of what that means — reliving the hardest days, trying to capture the happiest — it can be difficult to sit down and write. And what happens when you do get past that initial hesitation? Do you want to hold a tangible artifact in your hand that captures down to factual detail, every single day? Yeah, neither do I. And neither did Didion.

Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion, $10.20, Amazon

She writes:

"So the point of my keeping a notebook has never been, nor is it now, to have an accurate factual record of what I have been doing or thinking. That would be a different impulse entirely, an instinct for reality which I sometimes envy but do not possess. At no point have I ever been able successfully to keep a diary; my approach to daily life ranges from the grossly negligent to the merely absent, and on those few occasions when I have tried dutifully to record a day’s events, boredom has so overcome me that the results are mysterious at best. What is this business about 'shopping, typing piece, dinner with E, depressed'? Shopping for what? Typing what piece? Who is E? Was this 'E' depressed, or was I depressed? Who cares?"

So, we're definitely on the same page. Keeping a diary can be droll, and can feel somewhat meaningless. I have always felt that if a memory were so strong that I wanted to capture it on paper, I wouldn't necessarily need to. And everything else? All of the minutiae of my day to day existence? Well, who cares? But if that's the case... what, then, is the point of keeping a notebook? For me, it came down to rethinking what a notebook is supposed to be, and what it is supposed to capture.

Didion writes:

"How it felt to me: that is getting closer to the truth about a notebook. I sometimes delude myself about why I keep a notebook, imagine that some thrifty virtue derives from preserving everything observed. See enough and write it down, I tell myself, and then some morning when the world seems drained of wonder, some day when I am only going through the motions of doing what I am supposed to do, which is write — on that bankrupt morning I will simply open my notebook and there it will all be, a forgotten account with accumulated interest, paid passage back to the world out there."

And, there it was: my own lightbulb moment. There is the real reason why Harriet wrote down all those private goings-on between her classmates and neighbors. There was the reason why all of my co-workers and friends were packing composition notebooks and pens wherever they went. Writing things down is not about capturing every fleeting moment or remembering every experience down to accurate timestamps. It's about figuring out how you feel about your life, what you think about the things you see and the the conversations you have — or overhear. Because knowing what you feel and think? Well, that's knowing yourself.

Didion writes:

"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...It is a good idea, then, to keep in touch, and I suppose that keeping in touch is what notebooks are all about."

And so I tried to forget about all of those old notebooks — all of those old me's — I'd disregarded and tossed away. I let go of my impulse to use a notebook as an hour by hour recap of my day, and instead thought of it as capturing a snapshot of who I am right now, at this very moment. Jotting down the thoughts I have now, the things that surprise me today, the moments that inspire me throughout the year.

I've been going strong with my notebook — a red floral number that I had to work up the courage to write in for the first time — for a few months now. It hasn't helped me remember what I was wearing last Tuesday, or the exact wording of the joke my friend told that made me cry with laughter, but it is helping me keep in touch with myself. And something tells me I'll always be thankful for that, no matter what my notebook says.