The Writer’s Notebook

Absolute Blank

By J. Walke (jaywalke)

“I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read on the train.”
—Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest

I’ll begin with a confession: I have a stationery problem. It started small, ring binders mostly, but as the years went by I began to hit the hard stuff: leather covers, gilt edges and heavy stock. I had outdoor journals for writing in the rain, little pocket cheapies for a quick thrill, and others so pretentious they refused to go out of the house unless I wore my blazer with the leather elbow patches. All of them, however, shared the same difficulty—they arrived empty. That creamy blankness daunted me like a young boy facing a centerfold. It was beautiful and I knew I was expected to do something with it, but I wasn’t sure exactly what. So, the fear of creating something trite or useless kept me from writing anything.

It took a Rorschach test to snap me out of it. I received an expensive journal as a gift and refilled my fountain pen to write something inspiring on the first page. I hovered too long and a drop of ink fell, creating a blot that soaked through to the second page. It was ruined. It was a catastrophe. It was a giraffe with a glandular problem. Turned sideways it was the profile of an angry woman. She set me free. Since the beautiful blank page was “ruined” I had permission to fill it without worrying about how it would look. I had finally gotten past the notion that I had to write something worth reading every time my pen touched paper. My notes would never see publication, at least not in a recognizable form. That is what the drafts are for, and the time at the computer. The purpose of my notebook became collection rather than creation.

Do me a favor. Take out your notebook (I am assuming you have one, be it gilt-edged or not). Lay your pen across the top. Now put a screwdriver and a hammer next to them. They are all simply tools. Do you lament the screws unturned, the nails unpounded? Perhaps you shouldn’t sweat the words unwritten. They are everywhere. Say it with me: “They are everywhere. “Life offers you a multitude of truth at every turn, but (and here is the magical part) it is your job to capture it. Best of all, there are no rules on how you go about it! No grammar, no spell-check, no outline necessary and it need only make sense to you. Just grab them; the bits of conversation, snatches of reality, pieces of pain. Scribbling and doodling are encouraged. Write down story ideas before they evaporate, argue with yourself, list life goals, books to read, and what you need from the grocery store. Cut out a page with a penknife to leave a love note on your significant other’s windshield. Write imaginary letters to Attila the Hun and your favorite auntie. It is just a tool, and you can’t use it incorrectly unless you try to be someone you are not. A straight read of your notebook may well get the relatives together for an intervention, but you can’t worry about that because it is not for them. It is yours, and you are busy pouring ink onto your life to preserve it until you need it.

Let me elaborate on that last thought. Imagine a canvas. It’s modern. If you mailed it, it would be post-modern. It’s white, objectively speaking, with no frame. Closer inspection reveals three tiny red dots lounging in the upper left corner. Can you see it? Now, answer a question for me: Is it still a white painting? Why? Do the red dots make it red, or do they simply point out the whiteness? This is the part in the show where you ask yourself: What does this have to do with writing? The point, if there is one, (and I think by this point we all hope there is one) is that miniscule dabs of color can create art. Just as a few red blotches can make you realize the value of white, a few drops of reality can ground your fiction in a manner impossible by imagination alone.

That is where my notebook serves me best. I steal dots for my art. When I see things that move me, or read or hear words that are alive I try to capture them in scrawl. Here’s a representative puddle of my brain leaking onto the page:

  • NYT printed on leftover cockroach DNA
  • 45 billion billion molecules in one cubic centimeter of air
  • energy is liberated matter
  • chiropractor’s office: purple carpet, lime green walls, stuffed rhino collection, elevator music—”Please sign in and get ready for a superspectacular adjustment!”
  • graffiti on a newspaper machine—”LIES”
  • graffiti on a telephone switchbox , white paint only one foot off the ground—”Mutate or die”
  • heard from one aisle over – “You best stop messin’ with them snack cakes. You know I’ll whup you in the grocery store.”
  • “Laughter is the psychical discharge of energy.” —Freud.
  • Ducklings following their mother across the busy road during commute. Confused, scared (anthropomorphism), trapped on the concrete median. Wanted to stop. Hesitated and went on. I can’t stop thinking about them.

Any of these could be the basis for a story. It is obvious, for example, that my home town has some opinionated gnomes with spray paint. Even if the bits do not stand alone, they are grist for the mill of other works. It is not the normality of life that is memorable, it is the strangeness. Which character is more vivid: the drunk, bald man in a white sweater, or the drunk, bald man who eats the dip at a party by scooping it up with his hand? [That little tic, by the way, is courtesy of a fellow at college who was possibly raised by raccoons.] The important thing is that they moved me, and when I finally sit down to write I want to use them to move my reader. They are the notes that ring true and convince the reader that they are indeed listening to a fellow traveler on this wobbly voyage.

So, here is the homework assignment: take a notebook with you everywhere. Carry two writing utensils. Live with your senses wide open, and when something makes you laugh, cry, vomit, love, hate, bridle, sweat, whatever… write it down. Do it for a week. Then sit at your computer and leaf through the ramblings. Ignore the chocolate smears and drops of… is that blood? Where have you been? Never mind, never mind… just give it a shot. Remember, you can’t be wrong. Now get out there and do your job—collect some truth.

I can’t promise this will work for you as well as it does for me. There are no guarantees. However, even if it doesn’t work, look on the bright side: you have a neat new notebook and you have finally stopped eating dip with your hands.

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