February 2010

Kelsey Osgood

nonfiction

Writers and Their Notebooks edited by Diana M. Raab

In his preface to Diana M. Raab’s collection Writers and Their Notebooks, the benevolent patriarch of the personal essay Philip Lopate writes, “That a would-be author often nurtures to life a professional literary voice, as [tenth-century Japanese courtier] Shei Shonagon did, through the act of keeping a notebook, is a phenomenon to which many writers in this sparkling, splendidly useful anthology bear witness.” It is in those two words -- “splendidly useful” -- that the direction and theme of this collection is best encapsulated and, I believe, best served.

Writers and Their Notebooks is a compilation of twenty-four short essays and musings by writers on writing, specifically on writing notebooks, journals, diaries, blogs, etc. It belongs to that curiously introspective genre, writing about writing, a sort of meta-category that can be, by equal turns, didactic and mind-numbing. In this book, a bevy of writers give the reader a glimpse into their private spaces. It is like peering into the rehearsal hall before the big opening performance where a ballerina does pirouette after pirouette, hoping to perfect the move before she must execute it in public. Imagine videotaping such a practice session, and having to watch the finished product: upwards of three hours of tired ballerinas bunching their faces in frustration, messing up repeatedly, sipping from their water bottles, shaking their sore legs, getting back in line and doing it all over again. You could find strength in this, the confirmation that we all toil, even for the things that seem so divinely natural and inspired, but you could also be disappointed, your illusion of grandeur cracked at the edges. Knowing all the fumbling that goes into making a beautiful piece of art, you might find the art itself not as enigmatic, not as intriguing and layered. You have traversed the kingdom of Oz, and pulled back the curtain to discover that the Wizard is stumpy, cantankerous, smelly and at times, downright annoying. You long, again, for the mirage of him as deific and more-than.

This is a bit analogous to how one may feel reading Raab’s collection: writing as an Art (capital A) form is brought back down to this earthly realm, which is on one hand comforting, but on the other, slightly like being given too much information -- and not very thrilling information at that. Now: imagine replicating that same taping session, but this time affixing the camera to the wall of a writer’s room. Odds are you’d get hours upon hours of the writer chewing on a pencil, pacing, sitting momentarily and stabbing at a keyboard, looking something up in a dictionary, blowing bubbles with flavorless gum, sitting still, staring at the wall, hands clasped together and eyes wide with frustration. It’s not a terribly exciting or interesting process, and writing about it is, in some ways, a grainy Xerox of something-not-terribly-exciting-or-interesting. What saves many of these pieces from being pure navel-gazing is that this fact is not lost on the writers who contributed to this text.

“There is nothing grand about it,” writes private-eye novelist Sue Grafton, of A is for Alibi fame. Nothing grand about journaling or about writing except perhaps the outcome, the product. As a very intelligent writing mentor named Suzannah Lessard (The Architect of Desire) once said during a class (I’m paraphrasing here, because I did not -- gasp! -- write it down, or I did and have since lost it), “Works of originality often look very awkward in their early stages.” Through this book, the reader sees his fair share of awkward moments, ones that occur in the act of writing and ones that belong to the writer’s life. We see the idea in its nascent stages, all gross and covered in utero-fluid like a newborn, through the terrible twos but rarely, except in the case of a few poet contributors, in its glorious materialization. Occasionally there are gripping moments, or tiny, extractable prose poems, but other times the play-by-play of the writer’s process is painful, tedious and dull, as it often is for the writer himself or herself. But what do we expect? What is a notebook, after all, but the unedited (or so advised by many of these contributors) tracking of one’s daily life? The “miniature infinities,” as poet Kim Stafford so beautifully puts it? The scrawling of a recipe for sauerkraut does not have eternal qualities for the reader as it does for its writer, as Joan Didion once wrote on her practice of keep notebooks. “Your notebook,” she states plainly, “will never help me, nor mine you.”

But I dare to disagree with the great Joan Didion, at least on this point and in the context of this book. While Writers and Their Notebooks may not be the most thrilling and salacious read for the layperson or the non-writer (there is no plot, only short-lived characters, little drama, and a good deal of the text covers the same subjective ground), it could be a gift of awakening for the young scribe whose talent is unknown to himself, or one who is just beginning his or her writing life, or one who is in the midst of a crisis of confidence and needs a boost, creatively and emotionally. Writing is a curious and anomalous art for two reasons. The first is that it can be used to discuss and analyze itself; one can only in the most abstract of ways explore the concept of music through a symphonic work, or comment on sculpture vis-à-vis a marble bust. The second is that it is a skill can be claimed by so many. Not everyone can dance ballet, and it’s pretty clear to anyone with eyes when someone lacks the talent and/or training to do so, but everyone who passed the fourth grade can write, if only shabbily and with the smallest level of depth.

So: how do we determine who is a “real” writer and who can simply write? Who has the “single-minded devotion to a religious calling,” as Katherine Towler writes of literature in her piece “A Life Observed”? Writers and Their Notebooks does not attempt to answer that question, nor should it, but rather seems to be squarely aimed at fledgling wordsmiths who may be unsure of their processes or innate abilities. It urges them onward, begs of them “Swift! to the head of the army! -- swift! spring to your places, / Pioneers! O pioneers!” It doesn’t ask them to question their identities or authenticities as writers, but demands simply that you accept it. “You’re a writer now,” states John DuFresne in his contribution, “and a writer writes. Any time, any place. That’s his or her job. So take your tools with you wherever you go.” Individual contributors sometimes put forth their personal habits (Mead brand notebooks, fountain pens, spiral bindings, morning, evening, when the moon is full) as gospel, but if taken as a whole, the collection puts forth only one rule of journaling, and that is that you should do exactly what feels right to you. The writers in this book talk about how journaling has given them the appropriate vacuumed space in which they could flex their muscles unabashedly (with the only outlier being Peter Selgin, who describes his compulsive journaling as a corrosive habit.) In their notebooks, the bards could banish the pesky editors (both internal and external) and be as free, as silly, as redundant or as irreverent as they wished. They could plant a verbal seed in their journal, as children do with watermelon seeds in their backyards, and see if it grows to be a formidable, fruit-giving novel. And perhaps they might inspire another young person stricken with hypergraphia to do the same, and we laypeople will be endlessly grateful for it.

Writers and Their Notebooks edited by Diana M. Raab
University of South Carolina Press
ISBN: 157003866X
208 Pages