I will teach a class on writers’ notebooks on Tuesday afternoon. I’ve taught this class more than a hundred times before, but this time I will try to make a different point.
Notebooks aren’t only a tool that writers use to remember and develop material that may or may not make it to publication. That’s what I usually tell my students—that notebooks help me remember and think about things that may make good story material. But after thoroughly rummaging through my old notebooks this past weekend in preparation for Tuesday’s class, I’ve decided that my notebooks are more than just vessels that hold my ideas. My notebooks are a way of life. A way of seeing life. They are at the heart of what my colleagues and I mean when we talk about “the writerly life.”
Why? Because my notebook entries aren’t a series of well-executed assignments. They are evidence of what I’ve noticed, what I’ve wondered about, what has touched me, what I cherish in the life I live everyday.
I believe that keeping a writer’s notebook has helped me pay attention to each moment. My notebooks have taught me not to take simple things for granted. They’ve taught me to see something beautiful in the mundane, even in the tragic.
I can’t articulate everything that I’m thinking right now, though I can offer one huge example. Last Friday I sat in my sunroom, trying (failingly) to write about how I felt in the hospital room with my sister immediately following her second miscarriage, which happened to take place the week following our brother’s unexpected death. I’ve struggled with this part of my memoir for many years, but last Friday was even harder. I’d had a miscarriage of my own just days prior. I forced myself to keep stringing words together on the laptop screen, even though they felt inadequate. Tears puddled on my keyboard. Thinking and writing were gut-wrenchingly hard, but I also had the sense that it was necessary to do the work right then. That I shouldn’t walk away, not even to get a tissue. A police siren startled me to attention, and I looked up to see a funeral procession pass by our home. I watched as the 4-minute line of cars paraded by, white flags waving in the autumn wind.
Had I not already trained my mind to notice such things, I likely wouldn’t have thought twice about this coincidence. But since that’s exactly the sort of occurrence I’d record in my notebook, I now can’t stop thinking about it. It’s a beautiful reminder, actually, that grief and loss are universal. I don’t know whose funeral procession I saw, but I know there were people in those cars who are heartbroken, like I am. And I hope at least one of them writes about it in a notebook.