I had an amazing day at the annual conference of American Society of Journalists and Authors this past Friday—speaking with agents in the hopes that one of them would be interested in helping me to try to publish my memoir, The Road to Promise. I’ve been posting it online, bit-by-bit, since December, and I mention it here because the post I put up today describes the inspiration for my first (of many) writer’s notebooks—the ultimate roaming tool for anyone who wants to record ideas, perceptions and details while moving through life.
My first writer’s notebook was a steno pad, and I “graduated” to a loose-leaf binder in 1986. It was made by Boorum & Pease, and I filled seven of these notebooks with ramblings about whatever caught my eye during a seventeen-year stretch that took me from Belize and Costa Rica to a handful of Native American reservations. Since 2003, I’ve been using a Moleskine notebook—preferred by authors like Ernest Hemingway and André Breton. I love the creaminess of the paper in these books over any others I’ve ever found. My pen just seems to glide along the surface effortlessly. (I just found out there’s a Moleskine community here!)
It’s amazing how personal the preferences for notebooks can be. I remember a conversation with the poet Tom Absher, one of my professors when I attended Vermont College, during which he said that he’d routinely spend hours pouring over notebooks and pens in the stationary store (I have my own pen obsession!). I thought about Tom as I read the book Writers and Their Notebooks, edited by Diana M. Raab. In it, she presents essays by writers working in a diverse mix of genres—from Sue Grafton and James Brown to Tony Trigilio and Kathryn Wilkens—about their relationships to their notebooks.
In the foreword, Phillip Lopate cites Sei Shonagon, a tenth-century courtier from Japan, as keeping one of the earliest writer’s notebooks, which she called The Pillow Book. Peter Greenaway made Shonagon’s entries into a moving movie of the same name in 1996, and it remains among my favorite titles all these years later. Lopate writes, “Now considered an indispensable classic, Shonagon’s The Pillow Book was also, if you will, an early blog.” I’d never thought about it as such, but he’s right! In her notebook, Shonagon wrote about her experiences in the court and visits from her lovers. She also recorded random notes about things she’d seen. One of her entries is “Elegant Things”: “A white coat worn over a violet waistcoat. Duck eggs. Shaved ice mixed with liana syrup and put in a new silver bowl. A rosary of rock crystal. Wistaria blossoms. Plum blossoms covered with snow. A pretty child eating strawberries.”
Lopate compares writers’ notebooks to the finger exercises done by pianists, and he declares, “No one can expect to write well who would not first take the risk of writing badly. The writer’s notebook is a safe place for such experiments to be undertaken. In her preface, Raab likens a writer’s notebook to an artist’s sketchbook, calling it a writer’s studio and workshop. I agree with James Brown, who wrote in his essay: “I believe you discover what it is you want to say during the writing process. In fact, what you originally thought you wanted to say, and what you actually end up writing, aren’t always the same thing.”
That was certainly the case with The Road to Promise, which I thought would constitute a conversation about the cultural impacts of organized religion and actually turned out to be the odyssey of a young woman determined to become a writer at all costs.
A new book by Nobel laureate José Saramago, titled The Notebook, records a year of his ruminations, which began on the eve of the 2008 U.S. presidential election. On page seven, the entry dated September 18 and titled “George W. Bush, or the Age of Lies,” reads: “I wonder why it is that the United States, a country so great in all things, has so often had such small presidents. George W. Bush is perhaps the smallest of them all. This man, with his mediocre intelligence, abysmal ignorance, confused communication skills, and constant succumbing to the irresistible temptation of pure nonsense, has presented himself to humanity in the grotesque pose of a cowboy who has inherited the world and mistaken it for a herd of cattle…”
Writing this post has brought me a great deal of satisfaction because it has helped me see ways I can broaden and deepen the use of my notebooks. Like Shonagon, I have many entries that represent vignettes of beautiful things that have caught my attention. Like Saramago, I have a fair amount of president bashing in my book, though no entries as eloquent as his. Quite simply, I’ve seen by reading what other writes have written that it’s time for me to up the ante in my own journaling!
While I was bumping around online, looking to see if the Boorum & Pease notebooks I used to love are still made, I came across this blog. I thought it would be a good companion to this post and provide a little “roaming” around the World Wide Web! Happy gallivanting, and don’t forget to take notes!