Friday, April 26, 2013

On Not Keeping A Notebook

I've been thinking lately how I've stopped keeping a regular journal (despite telling everyone it's imperative!) - how does it happen? You don't write one morning because you wake up too tired, or you have an early meeting, or a pile of papers to mark, or you forgot to put out the rubbish last night and now you have to run out and catch the garbage truck… and when you get back the moment has passed and your day of necessary tasks already begun. There are other reasons on day two and three, and then one day you find it's been weeks since you've written anything.

Joan Didion wrote in her essay "On Keeping A Notebook" that "It is a good idea, then, to keep in touch, and I suppose that keeping in touch is what notebooks are all about … keeping those lines open to ourselves".

She's talking about keeping "on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise, "she says, "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".

But what if, like Nietzsche's dyspeptic, you'd rather not take note of those things, the things swallowed down from the past, and have them rise up to trouble your daily present? Nietzsche compared the “inability to forget” (that is, to actively engage in forgetfulness) to the man [sic] suffering from dyspepsia, always repeating on himself, trapped by the past, held in its constructions—which could lead to conditions of repression and self-division. A little "tabula rasa of the consciousness", he claimed, was necessary to a healthy constitution. A stern and fully-functioniong "porter at the door" of the mind, of memory.

Is my journal or notebook, then, where I "store" all those things (and events and grumbles and wishes and people, including several versions of me) that I haven't the time now to deal with because of my more urgent and necessary daily tasks? (Which, incidentally, seem to be growing - is that a sign of our times, or just me?)

When I look back at my old journals, I'm astounded by the obsessive attention to detail, the lists, the automatic recording of weather and names of cafes and coffeeshops I'd been writing in, the random description of strangers, the sad spiralling of doomed love affairs, the dizzy or ponderous working out of what I was thinking and feeling. I read them with interest - and sometimes sadness - it doesn't at all seem like me. Thank goodness. Maybe.

In the end, I think I fall on the side of Didion - better to keep on terms with who we used to be, and equally importantly, the times we used to live in, that slung and arrowed us then. Fortune turns, and we forget, and if we forget too well, we are doomed to the effects of tabula rasa - fifty first dates? (That's up there with my other top nightmare: being trapped in a dimly lit multi-storeyed car park, driving round and round unable to find either a park or an exit…)

You can shut your journal, put it in a box in the furthest corner under your desk. You can take a break from it - weeks or months of blank pages. But when you need it, it's good to be able to return. To make sure it's there, to hand - by that I mean this private space that's yours and yours alone, in which you conduct your practice of writing, your record-making and re-cording of the self. And you begin again.

To "record" comes from the Latin recorder, to "remember, call to mind," from re-"restore" re- ("back to the original place, again", also with a sense of "undoing") + cor (genitive cordis) "heart" (as the metaphoric seat of memory, cf. learn by heart). [Online Etymology Dictionary].

I like the thought of the heart as the seat of memory; and of recording as a kind of travelling back to an original place, the heart of something, and of that travelling as a kind of undoing. Unseating. Shaking something loose. But I also like the idea of confining that initial unseating and shaking within the pages of a journal - until, months or years or even decades later, I open it again.