This Writer's Life

The Danger of Notebooks

“A journal always conceals vastly more than it reveals.” – Verlyn Klinkenborg, The Rural Life

In “Notes on the Danger of Notebooks,” an essay in Synthesizing Gravity, Kay Ryan writes, “Isn’t it odd to think that in order to listen we must be a little bit relieved of the intention to understand? This, of course, is the danger of notebooks. They are the devil’s bible. They are the books of understanding later.”

Notebooks are “a shell to protect us from loss,” Ryan declares, in an existence where “almost everything is supposed to get away from us.” As beings constantly moving through time, we keep notebooks as letters to our future selves about what’s already happened. 

Ryan, a practitioner of what she calls “derichment,” the opposite of enrichment, advocates radical simplicity. Only then, she says, will we really notice change, which leads to ideas and creativity. “Change will enter and twist like a drop of ink, the tiniest bit of new per old.” About enrichment, Ryan asks, “Children, it is often maintained, must be enriched; bread must be enriched. Weren’t they rich already? Wouldn’t you have to degrade them somehow in order to make them need enrichment?”

It’s not notebooks, or “spiral hinged objects,” as Ryan calls them, but “getting stuck in them.” We write things in our journals that strike us at the moment, but upon reflection, these notes to our future selves may or may not—usually not—deliver on the promise of a new idea. 

I say this as a dedicated journal-keeper for many years, with stacks of notebooks filled with my jottings, lists, sketches, and freewrites to prove it. I absolutely advocate and am a practitioner of journal-writing, but, as Ryan notes, with some caveats.

My journals are not diaries. I don’t keep them to record my life, or for mental clarity, or to chart my moods, or to vent when terrible things happen. I keep journals with one goal: to harvest the little bits of my days that might turn into poems, essays, or other pieces of writing. To this end, I’ve learned to listen, without trying to understand: to bits of conversation, to my own thoughts, no matter how chaotic, and to the voice in my head when I read.

I don’t have a regular journal-writing routine. I don’t write things down every day, or even once a week. I tend to write in streaks: every day for a week, say, and then nothing for a month. 

For example, on January 13, I wrote, “a series of poems which are ‘frames’ of something in the garden, garden as art piece.” Two days later, I wrote, “Portrait of a ______ with ______ and ______.” And on January 19, I wrote, “misread ‘Girl at Piano’ as ‘Grief Piano.’” Each one of these entries is the result of something that struck me at the moment; time will tell if any of them find their way into a finished piece of writing.

I do love finding some jewel in a notebook whose origin I’ve long forgotten; the forgetting is precisely what makes keeping notebooks valuable. In an entry from 2018, I wrote, “it’s winter as I write this I think I see you in the grocery store in the library sitting next to me at the doctors office but what’s mine to tell?’ I can’t remember who I thought I saw, nor even writing those words, but that’s the beauty of finding them. 

So—keep a notebook. Write in your journal. I certainly do. But remember, “We must be careful what we do because we value our actions so highly,” as Ryan puts it. “We are very self-conscious and therefore we must be vigilant about what we let ourselves see of ourselves. We can see too much.”

Categories: This Writer's Life

2 replies »

  1. Another danger is that of quoting without attribution. The poet thinks, I can’t remember writing that … and in it goes! It can lead to big trouble.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.