In her excellent book The Art of Slow Writing: Reflections on Time, Craft and Creativity Louise DeSalvo talks about the power of keeping a notebook (different from her tip of keeping a “a process journal“). She gives the example of how Joan Didion uses her notebook: “Into her notebook, Didion writes descriptions of people she observes, random observations (the sign on a coat in a museum), facts she’s learned (the tons of soot that fell on New York in 1964), recipes (one, for sauerkraut).”
Didion believes that a notebook is critical because it’s a record of “how it felt to be me” at a particular time. It’s a record of the people we used to be (as we are ever-evolving), she says. And we tend to forget these people we were. We tend to lose these parts of ourselves if we don’t have them written down.
We think we’ll remember ourselves when we first tasted certain moments — especially big, loud moments. The really challenging times. The times it feels like the joy or pain will destroy us. We think we’ll remember these moments in general. How could we not?
But, as Didion says, “We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget.”
In The Art of Slow Writing DeSalvo shares a personal example of this. In her own notebook, DeSalvo wrote about a particularly painful time in her life — when her mom was in a psychiatric ward and her sister died by suicide. Ten years later DeSalvo returned to these entries while penning the essay “My Sister’s Suicide” for a volume.
In those earlier entries she found words she didn’t remember writing. They were pivotal to creating her authentic piece. While DeSalvo was devastated over her sister’s death, she also found words of relief. She also felt a sense of freedom because she was no longer responsible for her sister.
As DeSalvo writes in the book:
That entry, and several others, captured something I’m not proud of, something my memory erased, but something that invited me to write “real” about my experience — my parents’ making me responsible for my sister when I was just a girl because of my mother’s mental illness. Without that record, I might have written a knee-jerk essay about the loss of a beloved sister. Instead, I was forced to write something more complex about my reaction to her death in light of my family history because my notebook made me remember who I was then. There, too, I found an image comparing myself to a hermit crab carrying too heavy a burden for its small size that related precisely to how I’d felt at the time.
Of course, you don’t have to pen essays or other writing to keep a notebook. You might want to keep one to explore who you are — the many layers that make up who you were at different points of your life. To become more self-aware — to listen to your thoughts, feelings, beliefs and reactions. To examine them. (This makes me think of Socrates’s famous quote: “The unexamined life is not worth living.”)
Because when we delve deeper into ourselves, we can make better decisions that honor who we truly are. Because we actually know who we truly are. We can spot patterns and practice healthier habits. We can craft meaningful lives. We can minimize our tendency toward knee-jerk reactions. We can think things through.
Consider keeping your own notebook. List the things you think you’ll never forget. List the things you say often. List the thoughts regularly occupying your mind. List your reactions to different situations and events. Get to know yourself better.
Return to your notebook regularly to see the lessons you can learn, to see the people you once were, and the person you are today. The real you.