â€œGood Christ,â€ I can hear him muttering. â€œNot another ramble on the meaning of notebooks.â€
As usual, I mostly agree with Hector (my pet name for the imagined reader in the shadows, always a little bitchy, never prepared to give me an inch). â€œDidnâ€™t Ms. Didion cover this subject pretty splendidly about four decades ago?â€ H asks. â€œYou really think you might have something to add?â€
Probably not. But letâ€™s find out.
In Jill Krementzâ€™s photo book of writersâ€™ desks, we view more than a hundred pages of scribes at their main lab stationsâ€”each one in some way utterly suited to its ownerâ€”before we come to Richard Ford, whose desk differs somewhat from those of his colleagues. â€œMy â€˜deskâ€™,â€ writes Ford in the commentary that accompanies his photo, â€œis more of a concept than a thing. Itâ€™s like the â€˜Belize deskâ€™ at the State Department; an idea more than a place you actually sit at.â€
While Iâ€™ve worked at the same desk since 1975, Fordâ€™s definition fits well with my own sense of my notebook.
The notebook, to me, is an idea, an all-encompassing repository for my quirky consciousness as it winds its way forever upriver. Itâ€™s a continuously evolving incubator, inherently messy, fragmented, idiosyncratic, loquacious, forgetful, quixotic, and occasionally (okay, often) full of half-witted and badly expressed notions.
I admit it openly: I have had a notebook fetish since I learned how to write. (Iâ€™ll save the treatise on my pen fetish for another time. Though let me just note that Iâ€™ve been enamored of the Uniball â€œSignoâ€ gel-grip 0.7 for several years now.) You know that feeling of explosive, greedy joy you experience as kid whenever you entered a toy store? I still feel that way when I walk into the local Staples. When I walk down the notebook aisle and spy that glossy oversized engineerâ€™s notebook and imagine the novel that could be planned inside that baby.
And yet, I will also claim that I have an ambivalent relationship with the notebook. Twice a year, I fight a desire to obliterate the lumpen beast, to spend a day feeding it into the fireplace. I imagine the satisfaction of watching the flames free me from all that wrongheaded history. (But when I hear of other writers express plans to destroy their notebooksâ€”itâ€™s a more common compulsion than the non-writer might imagineâ€”I become apoplectic.)
At some point in my early 20s, my desk already crammed with bits of the notebook dating from my 8th or 9th year, I began to think of the various yellow legal pads, hardback ledgers, loose leaf piles, rubber-banded index cards, and spiral-bound journals as chapters in one expansive notebook. Began to think, that is, of all my private, non-fictive scribbling as part of one ongoing meta-notebook. And so, though I might have three different notebooks (lowercase â€œnâ€) running at the same time, in my head they were all part of the same unified archive, â€œThe Notebook.â€
For years, I started each day, pre-dawn, with a legal pad tally of word/page counts for the work-in-progress. Leaving my desk at 8 a.m., I ran around the city with my 3×5 inch spiral-top pocket notebook, scribbling in it on lunch hour and while idling at red lights. I have kept reading notebooks. Travel notebooks. Dream notebooks. Memory notebooks. There are notebooks filled with genealogies of my characters, with sketched maps of the streets in the fictional city of Quinsigamond, with timelines of the cityâ€™s history. With proposed story titles and overheard lines of conversations. With factoids and metaphors, imagined product names and death notices for obscure TV actors of my youth. When traveling, I sometimes randomly throw open the hotel room phone directory and study the page until I find a potential character name.
I just impulsively flipped open the current notebook chapter to this line: Question: when did hotel maids begin wearing surgical masks? A fine idea, no doubt â€“ but unsettling to behold.
I think thereâ€™s a common belief that the purpose of the notebook is to captureâ€”and just maybe, sometimes, to understandâ€”the nature of oneâ€™s life as it unfolds. But I donâ€™t think thatâ€™s why I maintain the beast. I think I do it because, many years ago, a compulsive habit formed out of the pleasure derived from, as Updike once phrased it somewhere, â€œmaking sentences march down the page.â€ And Iâ€™m fairly serious when I venture that, in some ways, it has been a destructive habitâ€”overdeveloping the left hemisphere of the brain and bringing a chronic unbalance into my life.
Forced to guess, Iâ€™d say the Notebook contains about 3.5 million words at this point. And most of it, sadly, is so much inside baseball. As time has passed, Iâ€™ve made myself a slave to a shorthand system that involves copious use of neologisms (â€¦ the dreamlife; the Autumnal Ache; The Od; The Idd; The Idia; The Merkabah; Sanctum; Fay; The Surges â€“ S1, S2, S3; Herr Doktor or â€œDok;â€ The Night of Ultimate Chastisement (NOUC); the membrane; Hacktus â€¦). And so, the Notebook becomes a universe where the sole inhabitant talks to himself in his own invented tongue.
And yet, I continue to scribble and scribble.
Just like this.
- Jack O’Connell