Monday, May 25, 2015

Notebooks and Journals

The New York Times Style Magazine of March 8, 2015 had a cover story, “The Rediscovered Genius of Jean-Michel Basquiat” (then the title of the article was “The Unknown Notebooks of Jean-Michel Basquiat”). Those books, at that time soon to be on display at the Brooklyn Museum, were from 1980 to 1981 (some of his breakthrough years) and contain poetry, notes, sketches, scenarios, lyrics, mantras, and other things that would become raw material for Basquiat’s later art. The article's author discussed the ways Basquiat worked out his ideas and recorded things he learned and observed.

The piece reminded me of another article published almost exactly 28 years earlier, “The Lost Notebooks of Leonardo DaVinci,” in the March 3, 1967 issue of Life magazine. I was in fourth grade, loved science, and felt inspired by this article to pursue science. (Mom probably checked out the issue from our local library.) In the books, rediscovered after being miscatalogued for over a century in a Madrid library, DaVinci sketched ideas for machines and sculptures, explained in his famous mirror-image handwriting. kept many of his sketches and ideas.

THEN, these articles lead me to brainstorm the name of a book that I had given away to a book fair but regretted doing so. The author had kept journals since her youth and had volumes of her words and sketches. The book was a call to readers to set down their own observations and discoveries in their own notebooks, with her own pages (and her life) as examples. I couldn’t remember the author or title. Doing a search for “journals” and “journaling” resulted in many, many other books but not this one. Finally I remembered that I’d purchased the book at a Nature Company store and that gave me a clue for a successful search: A Trail Through Leaves: The Journal as a Path to Place, by Hannah Hinchman (W.W. Norton & Co., 1999). It’s a beautiful book; she is a very talented author and artist.

When I was a kid, I wanted to keep a journal. I also loved the Henry Reed series of young adult novels that featured the eponymous character recording his adventures in a journal (not a diary, the character explained, which he thought girly). I didn’t get very far in journaling because of a contradictory impulse: self-consciously, I wanted to write it well, with a good beginning (which I could never get right). I seemed to be aiming to write my life's story---all eleven years of it. Yet I didn't want anyone to read my private thoughts.

Later, when I was in college and then divinity school, I thought I’d make a journaling effort again---but once again, I didn’t want anyone else to read it, and also, I felt that my thoughts were foolish and self-involved. This time, I typed the entries, which had the benefit of on-the-spot free-writing.

My main effort at keeping a journal was, instead, a file of index cards! I jotted or typed quotations, bible verses, theological explanations, and notes on numerous theological subjects as I, in the grip of a tenacious bout of depression, got through my coursework. I was trying to hold onto the Lord as best as I could, to believe amidst my blues, and these notes helped me focus on the God upon whom I counted for all my well-being.

My father began recording daily observations in diary books, which I kept and have stored safely. Usually his jottings were the day's weather, his blood sugar readings, how my mother was feeling, and things that I (their only child) was up to. He made observations in the morning and evening. The last entry, September 16, 1999, had only his morning entry; he died at around suppertime that day.

Over the years, I’ve carried numerous spiral-bound notebooks for recording thoughts. These have been very helpful as I work on writing projects: stray thoughts and verbal images may be useful later. These aren’t particularly important notebooks to me later, nor particularly private, but I keep them on hand and have a stack in my office.

Beginning in the 00s, blogging became my substitute for keeping a journal notebook. I no longer wince when rereading my own ruminations. So I haven’t minded during the past few years posting my various thoughts and discoveries in what eventually became six different sites (this one the most regularly updated now). Four of those sites became a personal Bible study project that got out of hand, though I was happy rather than despairing when I worked on it. A benefit of on-line personal writing is that I can include website links to whom I may want to return again.

Still, the attraction of a tangible notebook---a hardback book or a solid ring notebook---still holds great appeal. The other day, I went to Office Depot and purchased three journal-books to begin keeping track of random things. I know myself well enough to realize I won’t keep them on a daily basis, but it would satisfy an old, small dream to keep track of events and observations, through words and drawings.

(As I wrote this, I thought of Thomas Jefferson’s account books, famous for their minutiae: )

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