by Jeff Oaks
I’ve been keeping something like a notebook since I was 18. I thought it was what writers were supposed to do, on one hand. On the other hand, since I was sure that I’d be super-famous, people would like to have a record of my growth, of my development from scrawny teen to intellectual/imaginative powerhouse, the same reason I kept my “papers”. Someday a library would be full of me.
I like to tell that story to my students in my class The Writer’s Journal, because I want to be clear that my keeping notebooks for 30 years isn’t some pure aesthetic or artistic exercise. There are many reasons, some of which seem silly, some of which seem shallow, to keep writing words down somewhere. I don’t care what gets me writing frankly; I’m grateful for all of it. Sometimes it’s envy of another person’s talent or luck. Sometimes it’s a fear that a sentence that came to me in the shower will disappear before I can think of how to use it. Sometimes it’s to give myself someone to talk to, to “dialogue with” as the businessfolk among us might say. Sometimes I just like to sit and describe, to practice translating some image or sound or feeling into language. It’s pleasurable mostly to do that. At its worst, it relieves a kind of inner pressure that arises when my nerves are overcharged or my memory (or limbic system maybe) is nervous, excited, or bored.
The first notebooks were most like notebooks—occasional collections of words, phrases, lines, quotations I liked, brief sketches or descriptions. In the days before my iPhone, words are what I had to remember with, to take photos with. Back then, I was really afraid I’d get to the age of 40 and have no memory of my life. So the notebooks were also a product of fear, a way of keeping fear in check.
I settled early on on the simple black and white mottled composition books to write in, since there was no pressure to make elegant language (which was what I felt I had to do in the more elegant notebooks family and friends kept buying me, alas). Each one took somewhere between six months to a year to fill 100 pages. And I wrote them in pencil, so some things might have been erased. At some point, when it was difficult to start a new notebook, I simply copied out of the old notebook what I thought worth saving. That started the first few pages and reminded me what I was looking to do.
But at some point, the notebooks became journals in the sense of a daily record, or nearly daily. I want to say that this was around graduate school, or maybe just after, when I hit that moment in which no one was asking me to write anymore and yet I still felt I’d better. I’d also taken a class called The Writer’s Journal from Buddy Nordan by then, and had a set of models for writerly practice, writerly self-reflection, writerly exercise. We’d read Woolf and Nin and Sarton, among others, and I began to get hooked on the form, and on the idea that a journal itself could be a work of art and not simply a piece of miscellany. I liked that idea very much, using it as a way to chart my own development. Pretty soon I was finishing off a journal every four or five months for years, taking notes on love affairs and betrayals, friends leaving, therapy sessions, teaching, utility bills, grant proposals, lectures, and so on. And feelings. I wrote a lot about what I was feeling, so that the journal began to be a kind of practice space where I could write down the subjective world of dreams, rants, and goals. I got used to writing pages, 3 pages a day if I could because I’d heard that The Artist’s Way demanded that. At the end of each journal, I’d go back and read it and again pull out of it whatever I thought I could use.
Which turned out to be quite a lot usually. There was always something in the journal that I thought was pretty good and which I had no memory at all of having written. It was a great solution to writer’s block and it was a nice shot in the arm in terms of my confidence. I was heartened that I seemed to be writing good things almost behind my back, almost beyond myself. So I began to think of keeping a journal as an almost spiritual practice, giving myself up to it whenever I could.
The downside of all this writing is that I wasn’t publishing anything. The writing felt so lovely that I didn’t feel the need to publish. It kept me from having to face the anxiety of sending work out, the stab of rejection, the worry of acceptance. It was just me and my notebook, being faithful to the world and our observations. It was priestly, a daily attendance and audience with the world where I was not being published.
My current notebook is #76, I think. I’ll have to go look because I don’t really carry my notebook around anymore. The internet has changed everything. I write every day now on my iPad, usually in the early hours of the morning when my insomnia kicks in. I don’t feel the need to write down descriptions because I take photos of things I like with the iPhone. I post them, along with my hourly, daily status reports on Facebook. Occasionally I make sketches with a Paint application or Brushes. I actually end up filling the day with more work and of many different kinds of work than I did with just my journal. Facebook also acts as a kind of commonplace book, where I “like” or “recommend” stories or sites to read.
I’ve been writing a lot more lately than ever before. My old goal was to write something every day, but in practice I didn’t usually. Now I actually do. Part of that has to do with The Grind, a group of fellow writers who agree to write something every day for a month, and to send each piece to one another without comment. To know that other people, some strangers, some friends, are going to read something I wrote has galvanized some part of me that a) likes to perform and b) needs an audience to help keep me serious.
But I wonder what’s to come of my notebooks. Already I can see that the students in The Writer’s Journal come in with their laptops; already I can tell that they’re better at typing than writing by hand. I thought I would never give up my pen and notebook for typing, but here I am with a blog. If I had a notebook, I’d probably write about how it makes me feel to be public all the time. Is it possible that the notebook might still be able to hold the secrets I wouldn’t talk about here or on Facebook? My sense is that the notebooks might mark some boundary between the acceptable content and the unacceptable content now, not that I can even think about what that would be these digital days.