On Notebooks

This article orginally appeared in the Et Cetera, Regent College’s student newspaper, on September 6, 2022.

Sometimes you’re asked to name those who’ve inspired you. I’m going to start answering: people who fill up notebooks. The pile of my unfinished notebooks is (I’ve measured) waist-high, though I just realized that I’ve forgotten to add my old journals, none of which reached the last page—oh, the pile just fell over. No structural integrity.

I have a large book filled with pictures of notable diaries through history. I leaf through it whenever I want to look at something beautiful. Eugène Delacroix’s Moroccan travel journal with watercolours that swirl and sway across the pages; Da Vinci’s anatomical sketches and ‘mirror’ writing; what remains of the diary of Murasaki Shikibu from 11th-century Japan, the lines regimented up and down the scroll; Darwin’s field notes from the voyage of the Beagle; Marie Curie’s laboratory records, so irradiated they must be stored in a lead container; Van Gogh’s illustrated letters to his brother, sometimes with a sketch for a painting, or just showing him something beautiful he’d seen; Carl Jung’s record of visions and self-therapy called The Red Book; Che Guevara’s spiral-bound daily account of the attempted Bolivian revolution; and of course Anne Frank’s “Kitty”.

Casting my eyes over the pages of pictures of pages makes me want to grab my own notebook and start scribbling. (I am, in fact, drafting this in said notebook and at this point I have to squirrel around an abstract doodle I made on this page a few days ago.) But the paralysis of a blank page easily strikes leaving me with nothing to put down.

Another large volume: a published reproduction of the binder Francis Ford Coppola made when he was preparing to adapt The Godfather into a screenplay. Here are typewritten notes for each scene’s tone, the characters, the period, and also the pages of the novel itself carefully pasted onto sheets, creating wider margins for handwritten notes. It was his ‘prompt book’ to guide him during production. I’m not particularly obsessed with The Godfather, though I do admire the film—I admire the notebook even more, this testament to a working artist’s thoughtful commitment to his craft.

(I’m on the next page now and these words sit in a border design that I’ve sketched in but have yet to render fully.)

Equally committed is Guillermo del Toro, whose notebooks are both cultivated gardens of film concepts and genuine works of art in their own right—yes, we’re looking at another picture book on my shelf. Shifting between Spanish and English, his handwriting snakes around Lovecraftian monsters, Gothic mechanisms, a Faun’s labyrinth, and a portrait of Hellboy. I’ve looked at these pages more than I’ve seen his movies.

But thinking of movies leads me to remember the notebooks that fleetingly appear in them. Like the Red Book of Westmarch covered in unique calligraphy that records Bilbo Baggins’s adventures. Or the small, well-travelled Grail diary that Indiana Jones is given, stuffed to bursting with sketches, notes, train tickets, and faded photographs—his father’s lifetime of research now a guide that he carries around on his own quest for the Holy Grail. Dedicated and industrious fans have created replicas of that notebook, sold for high prices online (you now know what to get me for my birthday).

Joan Didion, in her essay “On Keeping a Notebook”, admits that she doesn’t maintain a regular diary, finding much more value in the haphazard collection of chance observations: lines heard in a bar one August morning, anonymous people she happens to see on the subway. None of it makes sense to anyone but her (and sometimes not even her), but it still takes her back not only to what she saw and heard but also what she felt and wanted. This, for her, is the purpose of notebooks: “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.”

She’s right. People have whole worlds inside them: landscapes of emotion, galleries of memory, atlases of dream. This is true of you whether or not you keep a notebook. There are those whose inner world is mostly made of images; others, like me, have a voice that narrates it. Some of us feel the need to pour ourselves out, in words or pictures, into these bound blank pages that we carry in our bags or pockets, perhaps to make room for more worlds as we grow into different versions of ourselves.

When I see the handful of pages I’m allowed to look at in someone’s notebook (rarely more than that), I don’t really feel a mystical connection to that person—for all that their handwriting is a haunted trace of their presence—nor do I necessarily see just the record of a life or journey. Rather what I sense is the collection of immediacies all piled up on one another, the string of present tenses that narrated their days, the pictures that are small windows into their world. Unfinished thoughts, ephemeral sketches, passing fancies—yet mysteriously preserved on paper. I look at a notebook and I realize with a start that I’m looking at what goes on inside of someone. And the most indecipherable chickenscratch becomes elegant; the crudest pencil drawing becomes a collector’s item; a banal ledger of events becomes tinged with mystery. And I whisper: “Wow. You’re gorgeous.”

Eager to savour this taste of numinous beauty, I pour some of my own love for other people’s notebooks into five and a half pages of my own.

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