In her essay “On Keeping a Notebook,” Joan Didion writes about the odd notes she has taken over the years – on conversations she has overheard (“That woman Estelle is partly the reason why George Sharp and I are separated today”), facts she has learned (“during 1964, 720 tons of soot fell on every square mile of New York City”), and observations she has made (“Redhead getting out of car in front of Beverly Wilshire Hotel, chinchilla stole, Vuitton bags with tags reading: MRS LOU FOX / HOTEL SAHARA / VEGAS). She writes that each note “presumably has some meaning to me …” but admits that she can’t always recall what it is. For her the point is to “[r]emember what it was to be me.”
That’s what I use a journal for – not a notebook. Perhaps these classifications are splitting hairs, but Didion sees a difference, too. She claims that 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?
I would split the hair again and claim that there’s a difference between a diary and a journal – that it’s sort of like the difference between an autobiography and a memoir: in a diary you record each day’s events and in a journal you write whatever you want about your day whenever you want to write about it. For Didion, though, it’s all about the notebook.
I, too, keep a notebook – a writing notebook – and when I mentioned this during a presentation I gave on research in creative nonfiction, a hand in the audience immediately shot up: What did I write in my writing notebook? Some writers are dismissive of these kinds of questions – do you write in a notebook or on a computer, what kind of pen do you use, what kind of paper? But I’m happy to talk about the physical practicalities of craft – I want to know about your Pilot G-2 and your Clairefontaines. And I’m happy to talk about the content, too. When I answered the question many people took notes – perhaps in their writing notebooks. Here’s a version of what I said:
I keep three versions of a writing notebook: a journal, a writing notebook, and a writing planner.
In my journal I write down what happens to me, what I’m thinking about, occasional random observations, lists – the usual stuff you’d write in a journal. But I include this under “writing notebooks” because (especially as a writer of creative nonfiction) I often look back on journals to remember a certain time or place or person or line of thought – although I never write in my journal with this in mind. I write here solely as a person – not a writer.
Here is a journal entry I made on May 11, 2015, after walking through an Elaine de Kooning exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery:
In my “official” writing notebook I jot down ideas for writing projects, make lists for writing projects, and write sketches of writing projects. Often I’ll start writing towards a draft but without any sense of where I’m headed. Writing by hand takes the pressure off: I can’t send ripped-out notebook pages to The New Yorker. But when a piece moves from my notebook to my computer and eventually (sometimes) to publication, I can see that long passages are often exactly the same as when I wrote them by hand the first time.
This is what I wrote in my writing notebook soon after the journal entry above:
Then there’s my writing planner, the newest addition to my series of writing notebooks. It’s a Moleskine “weekly notebook” that has a calendar page laying out the days of the week on the left side and plain lined pages on the right side. I use this for short- and long-term planning. When I hear of a submission, contest, or application deadline I write it down on the calendar side; then I flip back a few weeks (or months) and write a reminder on the notebook side. On Sundays, a day I usually have a long swath of time to myself, I flip to the next week and write some plans. Then, during the week, when I have an hour or two to myself, I open my writing planner and do what it tells me (this is especially useful when the demands of everyday life are so crushing I can’t think straight). If I find that I can’t manage much I flip ahead a week or two and write “don’t forget about [idea]” and try again then. Every so often I flip back to look for unchecked boxes. It’s a lovely tool for preservation – and for looking and planning ahead to, say, a retreat or residency.
Here is a not-so-productive week in my writing planner (with only a deadline reminder for my piece about The Folded Clock):
And here is a very productive week at the glorious Virginia Center for the Creative Arts:
What would Joan Didion think of all these notebooks? I smile/shudder to think. But my writing notebooks keep me writing – through rejection, triumph, inspiration, and disenchantment; in the face of preschooler twins, tantrums, field trips, and snow days; on the crests and in the troughs; at home and away – all the months of the year.
Randon Billings Noble is an essayist. Her work has appeared in the Modern Love column of The New York Times, The Georgia Review, The Rumpus, Shenandoah, Brevity, Fourth Genre and elsewhere. She is a nonfiction editor at r.kv.r.y quarterly, Reviews Editor at Tinderbox Poetry Journal, and a reviewer for The A.V. Club. You can read more of her work at www.randonbillingsnoble.com.