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Friday, April 14, 2017

"On Keeping A Notebook" by Joan Didion

I'm nearly finished reading Joan Didion's collection of essays, Slouching Towards Bethlehem. The book was discovered through another book I was reading, Jon Krakauer's Eiger Dreams. If Jon felt this book was good enough to pack along on a mountain climbing expedition, then I'm interested. Took me three tries, but I finally found my copy on Amazon. One of the best book buys I've made.

Joan selected the title of this book from William Butler Yeats' classic poem, Second Coming. The book title is shared with one of her larger essays, a record of encounters with people in the 1960's drug culture. Didion's book is divided into three distinct parts: "Life Styles In The Golden Land," a collection of articles capturing the California experience of the 1960's; "Personals," a few of essays of the first-hand nature; and "Seven Places Of The Mind", some thoughts about those parts of California that are now long gone.

One essay found in the second part made me dive for a highlighter. Her words resonate with me in, "On Keeping A Notebook." Here she thinks out loud about the reasons why one maintains a journal--causing me to re-think and even appreciate more deeply on what keeping a notebook is all about.

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"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. . . . 

 . . . 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. . . .

[T]he 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. . . .

How it felt to me: that is getting closer to the truth about a notebook. . . 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 . . . I imagine, in other words, that the notebook is about other people. But of course it is not. I have no real business with what one stranger said to another . . . 

It is a difficult point to admit. We are brought up in the ethic that 10 others, any others, all others, are by definition more interesting than ourselves; taught to be diffident, just this side of self-effacing . . .  . our notebooks give us away, for however dutifully we record what we see around us, the common denominator of all we see is always, transparently, shamelessly, the implacable “I.” We are not talking here about the kind of notebook that is patently for public consumption . . . we are talking about something private, about bits of the mind’s string too short to use, an indiscriminate and erratic assemblage with meaning only for its maker. And sometimes even the maker has difficulty with the meaning. . . .

It all comes back. Perhaps it is difficult to see the value in having one’s self back in that kind of mood, but I do see it; 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. I have already lost touch with a couple of people I used to be . . .

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. . . ."

Read the full essay here.

I think next I'll read her essay, "Why I Write."


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