In Defense of the Notebook that No One Ever Sees
“Is it possible that I have had chronic Lyme disease for the past 6–7 years and that my current anxiety and that my current anxiety/depression/paranoia/ADHD is at least somewhat the product of Lyme-induced brain damage?
But everyone has some kind of brain damage, right? It’s just a matter of figuring out a way to rock it.
I want to say this to someone and have them admire me for how plucky and upbeat I am in the face of indeterminate brain damage.” — me, in a scribble notebook circa 2013
I rarely sat still in the “meditation garden” at my alma mater.
The garden consisted of a bunch of rocks, a statue of a woman who donated money to the school in the nude, a few trees, a row of seven-foot-tall hedges, and a long, undulating wooden bench that wrapped around them.
I liked to pace up and down the benches.
When my Animal Behavior class visited a nearby zoo (a weekly pilgrimage at 8:00 am every single Friday morning), we met a pair of lemurs. One of them, a tall female, would always runup and down the length of the longest branches in her enclosure. When she ran out of branch, she would stop and look through the enclosure glass at us humans, as if to say, “What do you people want?! I’m thinking!” …And then resume her pacing.
I remember thinking I was just like her, except with a bigger enclosure and more books to read.
Pacing on the benches in the meditation garden, roving up and down the trails behind the manor that inspired the X-men mansion, traipsing up and down the concrete paths between main campus and home/my dorm/New Media co-op/Suspected Cult, wandering around in the graveyard where Hannah Arendt is buried, this was how I thought. I paced.
I did, however, have one thing going for me: my notebooks.
“But back to love. I want to be a muse, even though I know that’s a male construction. I’m lazy and insecure and doubt my own ability to disseminate my ideas in a way that will reshape my culture. The way I write, I’ve always been told, could be more artistic. And more grammatical.”
Read for three minutes. Pace the length of the benches twice, reflecting. Write a paragraph. Then repeat. I filled a lot of pages that way.
In those writings, even though they were pretty incoherent responses to complex texts, I can very clearly see the writing voice that got me into MIT for grad school. (And got four separate teachers to independently tell me that I should start reading Aldous Huxley.)
Those notebooks are written in my own particular dialect of writer scribble, where every word looks like a doctor’s signature. They weren’t journals; they weren’t diaries. They were open-ended planners, thought-trackers, keepers of spontaneous reactions to stuff that I was reading.
I just broke the spine of this book.
The writing I’m doing now is technically “not productive”. But I feel acutely that it needs to be done. Also that the spine of my journal needs to be fixed.
I continued those scribble notebooks for about a year after graduating and then I stopped. You see, I had discovered that I could post Facebook status updates that clocked in at essay length (some 3500 words or more, productions that took hours to write) and my friends went with it. I’m not sure whether that’s a testament to my writing or to my friends.
Suddenly, my inner voice was part of my public persona; in fact, the inner voice as manifested through scribbles and poundy keystrokes was many people’s favorite part of my public persona. And I can’t complain. Like most essayists and most humans, I ❤ attention.
The problem was my private notebook scribblings gradually ground to a halt. I was too busy. Between managing my essayistic public persona and trying to get a more normal and respectable journalism career off the ground, I didn’t have any time for self-indulgent pacing and scribblings.
As 2014 and 2015 wore on, it got worse. I was choking off not just my private scribblings but also my public essay ramblings, in service of the career. The career which I was fixin’ to spend dozens of thousands more $$ in order to pursue. The career which freakin’ MIT had offered to help me with.
All the reading and all the writing had to be in service of the career.
April 29th (still 2013)
Is the way I write strong enough to make an intellectual impression on the way someone thinks, if it’s not someone who’s enamored of the color of my hair or the shape of my lips, or for some reason my rambling and unkemptness? This is a question.
But the fact is no one becomes good enough at writing to be worth reading (in any genre) without copious scribblings into a private notebook. I forgot that, somehow.
Writing is alchemy. It’s the process of building new landmarks in your mindscape, finding routes between the new landmarks and the old, and then documenting those routes so that others can follow similar but non-identical routes through their own mental mindscapes. I picked MIT for science writing grad school over NYU, precisely because MIT offered more room for alchemy, for reading oddball essays that knock something loose in your idea-scape and make it possible to write something you didn’t know you had in you.
But for some reason, when I got to school, everything became so much about hitting the marks, getting the internship, writing publishable prose sans the benefit of sleep, that I forgot to scribble.
I also forgot to explore, both in the physical sense and in the reading sense.
No more of that. This morning I trudged three quarters of a mile through the rain to buy myself a new notebook, in the exact shape and color I wanted. It’s my new scribble notebook.
I’d tell you what I wrote in it today….But that would defeat the purpose.