Jack O’Connell / Resurrectionist Week: O’Connell on “The Notebook”

“Good Christ,” I can hear him muttering. “Not another ramble on the meaning of notebooks.”

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). “Didn’t Ms. Didion cover this subject pretty splendidly about four decades ago?” H asks. “You really think you might have something to add?”

Probably not. But let’s find out.

In Jill Krementz’s photo book of writers’ desks, we view more than a hundred pages of scribes at their main lab stations—each one in some way utterly suited to its owner—before we come to Richard Ford, whose desk differs somewhat from those of his colleagues. “My ‘desk’,” writes Ford in the commentary that accompanies his photo, “is more of a concept than a thing. It’s like the ‘Belize desk’ at the State Department; an idea more than a place you actually sit at.”

While I’ve worked at the same desk since 1975, Ford’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. It’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. (I’ll save the treatise on my pen fetish for another time. Though let me just note that I’ve been enamored of the Uniball “Signo” 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 engineer’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 notebooks—it’s a more common compulsion than the non-writer might imagine—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 “n”) running at the same time, in my head they were all part of the same unified archive, “The Notebook.”

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 city’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 – but unsettling to behold.

I think there’s a common belief that the purpose of the notebook is to capture—and just maybe, sometimes, to understand—the nature of one’s life as it unfolds. But I don’t think that’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, “making sentences march down the page.” And I’m fairly serious when I venture that, in some ways, it has been a destructive habit—overdeveloping the left hemisphere of the brain and bringing a chronic unbalance into my life.

Forced to guess, I’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, I’ve made myself a slave to a shorthand system that involves copious use of neologisms (… the dreamlife; the Autumnal Ache; The Od; The Idd; The Idia; The Merkabah; Sanctum; Fay; The Surges – S1, S2, S3; Herr Doktor or “Dok;” The Night of Ultimate Chastisement (NOUC); the membrane; Hacktus …). 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

7 comments on “Jack O’Connell / Resurrectionist Week: O’Connell on “The Notebook”

  1. Rebecca says:

    What your loyal readers wouldn’t do to get a glimpse inside your Notebook … Don’t even think about feeding it to the fire! Keep on scribbling – we just can’t get enough of your “quirky consciousness.”

  2. The Notebook is of course one of Nick Sparks best tear jearker novel. Nick is really very talented guy ‘*-

  3. The Notebook is of course one of Nick Sparks best tear jearker novel. Nick is really very talented guy :`~

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