When at home, I arrive at my desk at the appointed time, search for my fountain pen, locate my notebook and begin with date, location, the time of day, and sometimes the weather. Often I read my last entry: It feels like spring even though everything is dead or this morning the word, Selah or Chanel Le Veverns: 483 Vendetta or in Ghent where I raised my children.
A few weeks ago Miriam O’Neal sent me a card from The Writer’s Series, on the front, “Dear Ella,” a pastel by Deborah DeWit Marchant, 1994. For several days after reading and rereading her note, I cut the card in half and taped it to the front and back of my notebook. The image of a desk, paper, lamp, and an unmade bed in the corner, blues against my purple notebook. On the back a quote by Thoreau, “The writer who postpones the recording of his thoughts uses an iron which has cooled to burn a hole with.”
Most writers I know work from notebooks. I carry mine with me, as Jason Shinder was known to advise, along with a folder of poems I am currently revising. Even on my shorter commutes, I carry the pair. They remind me of my heart’s desire no matter what I am doing or where I am going. Is there a difference between a writer’s notebook, a journal, a commonplace book or a diary? I really don’t think so unless the intent is so named. They address the everyday, the quotidian. They may record lists of books read and unread, grocery lists, quotes, receipts, reviews, found objects, letters, beginnings of poems, lines of fiction, descriptions of art, memories, arguments with lovers, photographss, the flow of tides, phases of the moon, words and their origins, and often momentos.
I keep a notebook of found objects. It begins with the poem Quarantine by Eavan Boland, then a reflection on the house fire, a collage of words, then Keats, I am certain of nothing but the holiness of the Heart's affections and the truth of Imagination, then poems by Mary Oliver and Charles Simic, an email from Stephan Sandy, a photo of The Gates in NYC, an eucalyptus leaf from California... ending with photographs of Three Ridges Wilderness.
On my desk this very moment is Virginia Woolf’s A Writer’s Diary edited by her husband, Leonard Woolf and published by Harcourt Brace & Company originally in 1954, 1953. My copy is worn, dog-eared and marked. There are many pages bookmarked with odd scrapes of papers. On Tuesday, September 18th Virginia wrote, a thousand things to be written had I time: had I power. A very little writing uses up my capacity for writing. On Tuesday, December 20th she wrote, We are in the black heart of a terrific frost. And at the heart of all journals: On Saturday, February 27th she records, Who am I, what am I, and so on; these questions are always floating about in me: and then I bump against some exact fact- a letter, a person, and come to them again with a great sense of freshness. Woolf as touchstone as, diviner, as sister.
Alexander Johnson has written two extraordinary books: The Hidden Writer Within: Diaries and the Creative Life published in1997 by Doubleday and Leaving a Trace: On Keeping A Journal published in 2001 Little Brown. The first book gives an historical survey of seven different women and the second a practical guide. The bibliographies are extensive. I began reading about women’s lives as recorded in their notebooks early on. These confessions, reflections and musings have continuously informed my writing life and helped me adjust to feeling other.
Anne Doolittle, Miriam O'Neal and I started rotating a notebook five years ago. Collage, letters, poems, favorite quotes. They have been waiting it's return for two years.
Journal of Solitude by May Sarton opens with Begin here. It is raining. I look out on the maple…I read and realize, I am home. A handbook, a guide. How one lives as a private person is intimately bound into the work. And this has been a bad week. I have accomplished next to nothing, wasted time… and been depressed. A luncheon on Wednesday did not help. Lunches are just not good. They take the heart out of the day and the spaciousness from the mornings work. I often write in my notebook, begin again, begin here.
March 22, 2013, Onancock, 6:25am. A heavy frost. The sun is barely risen. On my desk, The Katherine Mansfield Notebooks, Douglas Crase's AMERIFIL.TXT: A Commonplace Book, The Blue Octavo Notebooks by Kafka, unopened. Downstairs in the kitchen my husband as started breakfast. The dog has been walked and fed. Today, I'm traveling across the bay, returning by evening. In my wallet is Mary Oliver's poem, Messanger, which I read this week at the Lenton Service: My work is loving the world...