Personal Data: Notes on Keeping a Notebook
“A journal isn’t about the self, but for it.”
Writers’ habits don’t just emerge. We cultivate them—they are first aspirational, and then superstitious. If something works once, we hope it will work again. Years ago, in graduate school, I noticed how certain poet friends would casually, but with intent, remove a small notebook from their jacket pocket or bag and jot something down. I noticed it the way you notice how someone smokes—the glamour in the gesture, and how it is referential; it aligns one with a tradition. I started keeping notebooks so I could be a writer who keeps a notebook.
My notebooks are not diaries because they have no timestamps. Dating the entries would impose a structure, a sense of continuity and narrative, on the writing inside. They capture thoughts, not events; they are lyric notebooks. I’d be having thoughts anyway, but now I write them down. Before I can write one, it has to become a sentence, an object with a shape. When I was seven or eight, I confessed to my mother that I couldn’t stop narrating my life back to myself; I thought it meant I was crazy. “No,” she said, “it means you’re a writer.” I’ve since gotten used to that layer of language like running commentary between my direct experience and the external record of it.
Recently, feeling the urge to write but lacking any urgent material, I flipped through some old notebooks and found a page torn from one, tucked into another. It said, in blue pen:
Check compact, put on lipstick
Play with glass
Sketch? Take notes?
Look at books
My eyes lit first on “Play with glass.” Play with glass? Oh yes—my wineglass. I do this at the dinner table—I twist the stem.
The list, of course, was from our play, The Designated Mourner, by Wallace Shawn. My husband John and I and our friend Aaron rehearsed it for a year, then performed it in our friends’ living rooms. Aaron’s character had a number of long monologues, addressed to the audience, during which I sat silently next to him. This was a list of things I could do, as Judy, that would look natural and prevent me from appearing bored (or boring) until my next cue. That exclamation point after “Crossword” is an A-ha!—I felt I’d hit upon the perfect prop, something intellectual but not too taxing, that I could either pay attention to or just pretend to, as the moment required.
There is very little else in this odd notebook, with its unlined pages and a distracting leafy pattern around the borders of each page. It has a design of bare white trees on the cover and says JOURNAL, unnecessarily, on the spine. I don’t remember buying or receiving it. I like the trees but long for lines; my writing inside is unanchored, on the diagonal. There’s a short list of favorite words (uncanny, inscrutable, chiffonade), and more notes for Judy:
Show love first, then contempt.
Judy can be too knowing—more fear.
Again, on the next page, the word “love” in quotes, and “Choose love—don’t play the obvious emotion.” (This was Aaron’s advice; I must have been playing her cold.)
Then, about ten pages of notes for an essay on Kate Zambreno’s Heroines: “The space between paragraphs introduces poetic space, synapses.”
The rest—95%—of the notebook is blank. A synapse pushed to its logical extreme. Notebooks achieve so much of what poetry tries to achieve, but organically—they begin and end arbitrarily, in medias res. Ready-made erasures with an offhand effortlessness, abstractions interspersed with specifics. Fragmentary profundity. No forced closures. The epiphanies fall where they may.
This was shelved over my desk next to a notebook that my boss brought back for me from Japan, with a cartoon geisha and a cat on the cover. It’s ruled, but there are pale pink cherry blossoms scattered behind the lines, and at the top of each page, the letters S M T W T F S, urging me to diarize. If I’ve ever written in it, those pages have been torn out and disposed of. The word that comes to mind is “destroyed” — a cheap-looking notebook cheapens the thoughts inside. Charles Simic once wrote, arguing against the use of phones for note-taking, “If one has the urge to write down a complete thought, a handsome notebook gives it more class.” I rarely buy notebooks; they just turn up, gift-shop relics, and then I can’t commit to them; they languish abandoned, mostly empty. I should invest in nice notebooks, so I’ll use them more often.
I read in a pop-science book called How We Learn that both hard problem-solving and creative projects work best when started as early as possible and interrupted as often as possible. Starting the project, even if you’re just making notes, flips the brain into a kind of open mode, where everything seems to have relevance to your project. When you’re in open mode, work happens even when you’re not actively “working”—indeed, all evidence suggests that you do your best work when you’re not trying. Maybe you’ve experienced this while working on a problem—you drive yourself nuts over it, finally give up, and then have your epiphany while playing a video game. In many ways the unconscious mind is smarter, and more creative, than the conscious one.
I’ve found this to be true for me. When I sit around trying to think up good lines of poetry, they come out forced. But when my mind is wandering—while I’m lying in bed, out for a walk, at a poetry reading—good lines just arrive, as if from another mind. This is when I need to have a notebook handy, to record those sudden-onset thoughts. I’ll need them later, when it’s time to do the conscious, deliberate part of the work. I’ll edit and collage them, “curating” my own thoughts. (Young writers, be warned: When you get older, your muse dies, then only shows up, poltergeist-like, for a few minutes at a time.)
I have to act on them quickly. Notes have a short half-life, and in a matter of months, they’ll have grown into curiosities, mostly useless. It is hard to imagine that “Am I an ash blonde?” ever felt like an urgent question, but I obsessed over it briefly. I’ve never been sure what “ash blonde” means, but I must have intuited some larger significance—how can anyone see, or know themselves? Could that be it? The urgency is gone; it’s notebook bric-a-brac.
I did buy the notebook I carry in my purse, a very small kelly-green Moleskine that has lasted me for two or three years. The first few pages are occupied by early versions of lines that ended up in a book of poems based on Judy. Most of them I remember scrawling during poetry readings—I now preemptively pull my notebook and pen out before a reading begins. One page has the name of a painting I saw at the Getty Museum in L.A., Van Tromp, going about to please his Masters, Ships a Sea, getting a Good Wetting. (The painting did not strike me, only the title; the artist’s idiosyncratic capitalization is preserved.) There’s a poem I wrote straight out, in almost finished form, in the waiting area of an emergency room, one of those now-rare experiences, a full muse visitation. Two bizarre phrases in quotes I must have heard some poet say: “echo-locative boudoir”; “touch-butter lettering.” A question: “How can art be bad?” (I wonder this often, although I find most art to be bad.)
A few pages later: “A journal isn’t about the self, but for it.” Notebooks other the self, exoticize it. This sentiment got translated into a Judy poem: “When I read old entries in my journal, / it’s easy to imagine they were written / by someone else, someone / I’ve grown fond of.”
The jottings have started to feel foreign to me, unfamiliar, but the notebook isn’t old enough for me to feel fondly toward my thoughts. I want more remove, as much as I have on my high-school calculus tests (how could I have known those things?), philosophy papers I wrote in college. I have no memory of writing the sentences, the arguments, but they sound like me. I used to proudly tell people that I don’t change much, but I’m no longer sure that it’s something to be proud of.
In his recent memoir, I Can Give You Anything But Love, Gary Indiana suggests that reading old notebooks keeps him humble: “If you note things as chaotically as I do, eventually you find that you’ve already written down, months or years earlier, any ‘new’ idea that comes to your mind: on the whole, a deflating discovery.” This reminds me of John, my husband—who has a rare-inner ear disease, and is losing his hearing—repeating a joke or remark that someone else in the room has just made, as though it were his own. He has heard it, but barely, and a little after the fact—his mind taking longer to process the muffled, compressed sounds and understand them as language. Once pieced together, it occurs to him as an original thought. We trick ourselves this way; we mistake the familiar for the worthwhile.
In that classic of notebooking essays, “On Keeping a Notebook,” Joan Didion wrote, “Since the note is in my notebook, it presumably has some meaning to me.” But what meaning? The years obscure it. A theory: We keep old notebooks in anticipation of losing access to superfluous meaning. We look forward to the details becoming pure data.
A few weeks ago, cleaning out my grandmother’s room, my mother and I found a plastic bag of personal effects, brittle and delicate, that had belonged to her father, my grandmother’s first husband, who died in 1956. My mother was six at the time and barely remembers him. A black wallet, containing cards and photos (one of my uncle, her older brother, but none of her). Some old receipts and documents, folded and worn soft. A flat, round object we eventually identified as a bottle opener, rusted shut. What meaning was there? He’s part of my blood, but I don’t think of him as related to me. My mother had never seen any of these things.
More names of paintings, from a 20th century retrospective at the Denver Art Museum:
The Bright Breakfast of Minnie
Self-Portrait with Monkey
George Went Swimming at Barnes Hole, but It Got Too Cold
The Transparent Simulacrum of the Feigned Image
Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash
At this show, I experienced a sudden realization that I hate Abstract Expressionism, its cultish kitschiness. “It all looks like hotel art,” I wrote in the green notebook.“Who cares about your feelings?”
A New York Times profile of Robert Rauschenberg reports: “Rauschenberg wrote mainly in pencil, often on a yellow legal pad, in block letters that suggest both how arduous writing was for him—he was dyslexic and, it would appear, self-conscious about it—and how graphic, how attentive to appearance, were even his private jottings and notes to himself. You can see his brilliance for arrangement even when he’s writing a postcard.”
This strikes me as vaguely disgusting—such narcissism! and we celebrate it! oh, the glorious narcissism of the male artist!—but I’m not above notebook vanity myself. I dislike the messy scrawl of my handwriting in the notebook. It’s so small, I have no room to rest my hand, and the letters come out scratchy and indistinct. They remind me of my father’s writing, all peaks and no loops, like the line traced by an electroencephalograph.
There are only two drawings in the notebook: an ugly, bulbous little man sketched carelessly by Aaron, during some rehearsal I’m sure, and the outline of a floor plan, an apartment John and I looked at but did not get. What I remember of the place is the black and white tile in the kitchen, its intricate vintage pattern, but I didn’t draw that. My memories are visual, three-dimensional like the world, but my notes are always verbal. I fill in the context when I read them.
I’ve always believed that the secrecy of diaries is pretense; with their naked confessions, they seem designed for others to discover and read, unlike notebooks, which are coded, often impenetrable to outsiders. But the more I read the green notebook, the more its diary-like qualities are apparent to me. Despite having no overt timestamps, the notes are steeped in time and place. When I remember where I was when I wrote them, even the nonsense reads emotive.
Throughout are dates and addresses of appointments—for John, all of them; that was the year he kept trying new doctors. A miserable year, and don’t writers always try to assuage their misery by writing? I believe, perhaps naively, that the best art comes from pain; it’s our consolation prize.
There are lists of medical terms and medications, from the clinic in LA:
More questions triggered by poetry readings: “Why do we romanticize fire escapes?” (Just below it, a reversal: “Never mind, it makes sense.”) “Can a not-genius recognize genius?”
More names of paintings, this one from a contemporary woodcut exhibit: “31 Flavors Invading Japan.” (I google it—this time it’s the art I like and not the title.)
A list of must-have, or must-not-have, features for apartments, although we never moved:
Room for desks & books
(John is a writer too; our primary asset is books.)
(No stairs? High ceilings? John is tall, and often dizzy.)
Email addresses, people I met at readings or parties and never contacted. Books recommended to me that I never read.
Private notes that John passed to me in public, at readings or art talks, in lieu of whispering:
The fellow to my left is a man who looks like Kenny Rogers.
Can we make a b-line to the backdoor when this is over?
What is this about?
Crossed-out lines of failed poetry, so often conceived during the introspective, self-pitying stage of drinking.
A complex order for Thai takeout.
Elisa Gabbert is the author of six collections of poetry, essays, and criticism, most recently Normal Distance (Soft Skull, 2022) and The Unreality of Memory & Other Essays (FSG, 2020), a New York Times Editors' Pick and finalist for the Colorado Book Award. She writes the On Poetry column for the New York Times, and her work has appeared recently in Harper’s, The Atlantic, The New York Review of Books, and The Believer.
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To all the wonderful would-be authors out there: Do as I say, not as I do.