This, of course, is a classic. When being introduced to Didion for the first time in my class on the essay, we started with the Preface to Slouching Towards Bethlehem and none other than “On Keeping a Notebook.” Apparently, this seems to be an academic ritual of sorts, a common practice: a friend of mine, who teaches creative writing at a university, mentioned that he always starts his class with this essay.
For good reasons, of course. I remember feeling this sense of illumination, of self-discovery and validation, with each sentence of the essay – She wrote in notebooks, too? It thrilled me to read the words, “ I have felt compelled to write things down since was five years old.” It flooded me with wonder, excitement, and relief to know that this was a common thing amongst writers big and small, and I felt privileged even, as if I had unwittingly gained entry into this world I always knew I wanted to be part of, and because it was so unwitting, that somehow made it all the more authentic.
Here are notes I made in an early reading of this essay a few days ago:
— Use specifics to unite, e.g., “Estelles”
— Estelle becomes window to understanding others
— What specifics can I use to unite? Who am I uniting?
For those unfamiliar, the “Estelle” of the essay – which, I should note, becomes into “the Estelles” of us all, or at least many of us – is the “other woman” that’s a cause of separation. Didion, who is sitting at a bar in Wilmington, Delaware, hears a woman tell this to the bartender, who’s heard it before. But Didion’s attention is sharp, and her eye is drawn to another woman at the bar, or more accurately, “a girl”:
“She is talking, pointedly, not to the man beside her but to a cat lying in the triangle of sunlight cast through the open door. She is wearing a plaid silk dress from Peck & Peck, and the hem is coming down.
Here is what it is: the girl has been on the Eastern Shore, and now she is going back to the city, leaving the man beside her, and all she can see ahead are the viscous summer sidewalks and the 3 a.m. long-distance calls that will make her lie awake and then sleep drugged through all the steaming mornings left in August (1960? 1961?). Because she must go directly from the train to lunch in New York, she wishes that she had a safety pin for the hem of the plaid silk dress, and she also wishes that she could forget about the hem and the lunch and stay in the cool bar that smells of disinfectant and malt and make friends with the woman in the crepe-de-Chine wrapper. She is afflicted by a little self-pity, and she wants to compare Estelles. That is what that was all about.”
But beyond that, and despite my diligent notes, the essay ended up highlighting something else for me entirely: the thought that the things we write about, or the things we choose to write about, or the things that choose to be written about say infinitely more about ourselves than they do about anything else. Most importantly, it defines who we are versus who we are not – Didion shows us this with her parallel of opposing worlds as personified by Mrs. Minnie S. Brooks and Mrs. Lou Fox.
In that sense, then, she seems to begin making an argument that notebooks are self-serving, self-indulgent things; essentially, a way to cope with the very fact that, as adults, we cannot be seen as self-indulgent, as it’s not acceptable. But this argument is lessened in the face of the fact, which is that all human beings, no matter what their stage of life, are self-indulgent:
“But our notebooks give us away, for however dutifully we record what we see around us, the common denominator of all we see is always, transparently, shamelessly, the implacable ‘I.’”
With that aside, she seems to christen the notebook as a time machine of sorts, a way to “keep in touch” with our former selves, a vessel through which to channel them and, after time, even attempt to reacquaint ourselves with them:
“It all comes back. Perhaps it is difficult to see the value in having one’s self back in that kind of mood, but I do see it; 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. Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind’s door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends. We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget. We forget the loves and the betrayals alike, forget what we whispered and what we screamed, forget who we were.”
The notebook, then, is a guard against that. And with that, I’ll finish with a few more of her lines:
“It is a good idea, then, to keep in touch, and I suppose that keeping in touch is what notebooks are all about. And we are all on our own when it comes to keeping those lines open to ourselves: your notebook will never help me, nor mine you.”