In early June, I was meandering through a cobbled side street in Rome swollen with fellow tourists and the feverish afternoon heat. Traveling with my husband and another globetrotting companion, I was grateful when the latter suggested slipping into Il Papiro for a few moments’ respite. “You’ll like it,” my friend told me. “They’re famous for their beautiful journals and stationery.”
And so we filed through the door. The shop—small, gently lit, and wood-paneled—beamed a polychromatic welcome from its shelves. Lining the walls were blank books, with covers delicately patterned and vibrantly colored. My stomach seized with covetous excitement as I approached to graze their spines—marbled pink, blue like peacock feathers, watery green—with my fingertips. I opened one or two and gulped their sharp scent.
I hadn’t kept a diary since college. But these freshly bound, incandescent masterpieces bewitched me. “You will create something glorious inside of us,” they seemed to confide. “Something worthy of our splendor.”
I settled on a beautiful lined hardcover gleaming with liquid turquoise and gold peacock feathers.
Nearly three months have passed and my blank book remains in its original plastic cover, tucked inside a brown paper shopping bag. I’ve contemplated many uses for it. I could return to journaling, as I have so often intended. I could draft essays or commit my creative fancies to its pages. Were I an iconoclast, I might jot down grocery lists, phone numbers, other flotsam of quotidian life (but I’m not—at least where blank books are concerned—so I won’t).
I refuse to so much as inscribe the book with my name; the very thought of leaving a mark delivers tremors through my fingers. Superstitious, I interpret inspiration like an orgasm: If I’m not sure, it didn’t happen. So I resolve to wait, as if a cartoon lightning bolt will strike, igniting me with the right reason, the right words.
The paradox of the blank book is this: It invites our most intimate scribbles while its creamy, pristine pages cast doubt upon the merit of our words. What ideas burn so brightly that they should besmirch generous, bare pages? Yes, blank books promise—but they also protest.
Throughout girlhood I devoted hours to my diary, the self-serious record of my fury and fears. Anxious, with a brain always teetering on the edge of obsession, I would inscribe my worries—once, twice, perhaps three or four times—in order to carefully dismantle them. In those days, keeping a diary seemed a sacred task, but not one to be conflated with Writing: my poems, stories, and ultimately abandoned novel were housed in spiral notebooks, easily transported and, in fits of insecurity, easily trashed.
Journaling supplied me with the tools to dismantle the monstrous, terror-filled castle looming in my head. Of course my entries would be frenzied and slapdash. I needed, more than anything else, a space where I could be ugly. That was all the more reason for them to be housed with care and delicacy, in floral hardbacks tucked in crevices only I knew. In a talk on the history of blank books, Consuela Metzger explains that those who sell them “market a feeling.” The diaries of my childhood, bedecked with ribbons and blossoms, assured me that all the roiling, contorted emotion within me, no matter how hideous it appeared on the page, could be assuaged and, eventually, become something else—something beautiful.
I continued to journal through my teenaged years. On holidays and birthdays, my friends would often gift me with decorative journals, each one mesmeric in its blankness. Their varying scents—vanilla, soap, or wet, tousled earth—nestled deep in my throat. I wanted to write in them, tried to in a few, and yet most remained blank.
Sometime in high school, committing anything to ink had become dangerous. To this day, I shake my head in dismay at the two or three journals I allowed myself to vandalize with a few fanciful lines.
“Ruined,” I mutter.
In 1919, Virginia Woolf deciphered— in a diary entry —the anxiety that so often accompanies journaling:
I got out this diary and read, as one always does read one’s own writing, with a kind of guilty intensity. I confess that the rough and random style of it, often so ungrammatical, and crying for a word altered, afflicted me somewhat. I am trying to tell whatever self it is that reads this hereafter that I can write very much better; and take no time over this; and forbid her to let the eye of man behold it.
Woolf proceeds to delineate the virtues of keeping a diary. After all, the more one writes, the more limber one’s imagination becomes. “It loosens the ligaments,” she avows. But what if one cannot surmount that initial shame, the “guilty intensity”?
Theoretically, a book is only as good as its contents. I have eyed resplendent covers with disdain when the titles marching across them dredge unpleasant memories. (No cover, no matter how glorious, could ever induce my love for Tristram Shandy. ) But these books are not mine, not really—they are manufactured copies upon which I may leave stray marks, a “ha!” or a “hmm” or a “yuck.”
With specific exceptions, most of my books are replaceable; their value transcends the object. But blank books, the ones we populate with our words and sketches, beg for individualized significance. At best, they become confidants and talismans—vessels for inspiration, desperate love, and all the miserable shit clogging our hearts. Yet, in later adolescence, I feared lapsing into vulnerability. No longer a little girl powered by whimsy and frets, a self-absorbed disquietude had taken hold. The world seemed especially panoptic, and I always imagined myself exposed, even in the most sensitive journaling exercise. Surely some wicked, omnipresent judge was reading over my shoulder, laughing.
Writing freehand was no longer a salve for me. My stage fright twisted inward, deepened, and I succumbed to Woolf’s plight. I dreaded perusing old entries, reencountering myself in the pages of my diary. I began to lose faith in the whole journaling enterprise. To write was only to burden my future self with pages I would deem amateurish, perhaps even shameful.
When desperate, I still scrawled my sophomoric torments—in a cheap notebook or a Word file, where they could be swiftly erased. My precious blank books peeked at me from my bookshelf. “There is an incentive to make your life interesting,” says Anais Nin, “so that your diary will not be dull.” But how could I ensure that I would always find myself interesting? Or, more pressingly, that anyone else would? Ultimately, I contrived an impossible scenario that conflated grandeur with truth. The conditions for writing required words that would satisfy me—impress me—in perpetuity. And that—well, that was impossible.
One night during my senior year of high school, I succumbed. Desperate to write something , no matter how inane, I crept like a prodigal daughter to my pile of vacant journals. I snatched a hardback spiral decorated with a crush of white and violent blossoms, gifted to me at Christmas. It was late, and I was supposed to be asleep, but I fumbled for a pen.
“I never know what to do with myself when I feel inspired,” the first line reads. “Bits and pieces fly through my head just shy of coherence, so by the time pen meets paper, it’s gone. And I think, that’s just another part of my soul slipping through my fingers.”
The book contains just a few more entries, most roughly a year apart, crude mélanges of confession and naively self-serious speculation. As the gaps indicate, I made a few spare attempts to experiment with memoir, but by sophomore year of college gave up in disgust. Nonetheless I’ve since carried the book with me in self-protective shame.
I never know what to do with myself when I feel inspired.
Have I learned?
In the tenth century, ladies of the Japanese court kept “pillow books,” which, in addition to housing the details of their lives, contained fantasies and works of fiction. The authors often stored them underneath their pillows, thus the name. Seventeenth-century parliamentarian Samuel Pepys maintained a diary for religious confession and travel records. Anne Frank hoped to publish her diary as testimony to the condition of Jews in hiding and, because she did not survive the Holocaust, her father fulfilled her intention. I assume these diarists did not quarrel with self-imposed notions of value and inspiration—or, if they did, they tamed the beast and let the ink dry.
Scrawling in a journal gives body not only to prose, but also to memory. A blossom of ink in the margin of one of my old diaries recalls an anxious pause: my father, walking into the room to issue his nightly order: “Bedtime.” Those strikethroughs? I had borrowed heavily from a recent SAT vocabulary list and was determined to break the habit. Sloppy handwriting hearkens back to black, soul-aching nights, and the pell-mell of an adolescent heart. In hindsight, amateurish prose fumbles across the page, garish and crude—but it also reminds me of the life I’ve lived in my body.
Nowadays, the only pages I confront are rendered by a laptop. This essay, tweaked and reassembled, betrays no hint of its disheveled origins because I have swept the trail clear with the “delete” button. If I wanted, it could be expunged, cast away to some irretrievable blankness in the ether. I could keep to my computer always; vow not to write longhand again. My journal from Il Papiro could become a relic, unblemished and admired for its beauty. If, on the other hand, I want to leave something behind—if I want to let the ink dry—I must contend with the red herring of inspiration, and whether what I produce is worthy of the page.
For years I’ve recited the same lies: There’s a moment, a tremor, a three a.m. summoning that whispers into your bones, “Now is the best time.” Mythologies can be fear-mongering beasts, and I still hesitate, cowering at the thought of recording something hackneyed and uninspired in my precious blank book. But my patience is receding, and I’m reaching for my pen—and maybe I shouldn’t have been patient in the first place. I’m weary of writing ensconced in a fear of permanence.
Sometimes I recall seven-year-old Rachel, who brandished a wild hand as she poured her vexations and triumphs into Mary Engelbreit journals. My diaries hold my heart, and I want to honor its every inch. After all, whatever is beautiful inside me would wither without the grotesque, without the imperfect. I hope I will—soon—scribble something ugly, rough, and true, and claim it as my own.