Five years ago I met the North Carolina-born painter Beverly McIver in a Creative Capital workshop hosted by my state’s arts council. McIver, who had by then won a Guggenheim for her intimate portraits and self-portraits, led a session about the importance of claiming goals, especially the hardest-to-reach ones. She had recently moved back to her home state to take care of her disabled sister after the death of their mother, and was determined to keep that promise while also advancing her artistic practice and career. She told us that she collected her biggest aspirations in a notebook — literally — and opened a spiral-bound journal, thick with clippings and photographs, to show us the objects of her desire. A bathroom with a claw-foot tub and gleaming brass fixtures. The Louis Comfort Tiffany Award for painting. A red convertible. Check, check, check. She’d once even pasted in a snapshot of Jamie Foxx — potential boyfriend material — but ripped it out, she told us, after he released “Blame It (on the Alcohol).”
I’d been a notebook-keeper myself for years, though I never thought of my journals as repositories for tangible dreams. I identified more strongly with Joan Didion's
concept of private scribblers: “a different breed altogether, lonely and resistant rearrangers of things, anxious malcontents, children afflicted apparently at birth with some presentiment of loss.” I like to start creative writing classes with a discussion of her essay, “On Keeping a Notebook,” which includes that characterization of the compulsion to record everything. I ask my undergraduate students if they keep this kind of notebook, and they often demur — until they realize that a notebook can also be an Instagram account, Pinterest page, or smartphone. Many of them will confess to image-collecting; some like to eavesdrop in public places or write down funny quotes from their relatives. I encourage them to buy a physical notebook, small enough to slip into a pocket, and head out somewhere new and public: a lecture on a topic outside their fields of study, a buffet restaurant, a coffee shop. The idea is to be with the self and in the world at once, thinking about a story or project or essay while also soaking up the sensory details that are easy to miss if we’re staring into a device or focused on where we need to be next.
To an outside observer, the contents of my notebook might seem randomly, messily grouped, but I know that its copious unlined pages kept me sane.
My own notebook collection is copious and disorganized, unified not by subject or even a preferred brand. I have speckled composition books, tidy Moleskines, pretty bound journals given to me by students and friends. I feel naked and ill-at-ease without one in my purse or on my person, though I rarely — unless interviewing someone especially eloquent and patient — wind up writing paragraphs or even full sentences. Instead the pages are full of scraps: words, phrases, chicken-scratch lists. Almost all of these scraps recorded in public.
I like to leaf through them, even if I can barely read what I wrote, to remember the combination of forces at work in my life at the time I was keeping each notebook. That’s when I heard Jill McCorkle
extoll the virtues of telling, at Sewanee. Here’s Beth Henley's
equally perplexing and brilliant advice for “getting yourself off the hook” and into your creative work. There’s that story idea I need to get back to, the book I meant to read. Questions, dates, scribbles.
Like McIver, I can also see desire reflected in my pages. In one journal, its cover bound in a vintage floral fabric, I can read notes from an interview conducted at the North Carolina Zoo, where I’d gone to investigate a rare gorilla pregnancy. See her belly getting a little bigger. Keepers carry stuffed gorilla to show. Cleveland Zoo brought human mothers in to breastfeed at enclosure.
A few pages later, notes from a visit to a VFW dance hall, where 79-year-old Willis Lynch was performing for a crowd. George Jones’s death day. People crossing the room to find partners. Women dancing with women. Couple in white pants and dancing shoes. “Please don’t tell me how the story ends.”
A few pages after that, notes scrawled in a reproductive endocrinologist’s examining room: 4 eggs, poor uterine lining. Try again? What is diagnosis? What is “moderate level of meds?”
Tucked between many of the pages are flattened, graying clovers, as thin and brittle as old newsprint. One I rediscovered recently is almost as wide and symmetrical as a luna moth.
To an outside observer, the contents of my notebook might seem randomly, messily grouped, but I know that its copious unlined pages kept me sane. The gorillas were part of a story I worked on about the experience of pregnancy and infertility among non-human primates. I wanted to see fertility and infertility reflected in the natural world, to see how the childless female gorilla in the troop had responded to her enclosure-mate’s unusual pregnancy and extra attention. Willis was someone I met while researching another piece, about the impact of lifelong childlessness on victims of my state’s eugenics-based sterilization program. I wanted to see what his life was like, how he occupied his days and found fulfillment in work and music. The examining room notes were my own medical history, my own fears: that I might never have a child, that all my dreaming and expensive treatments would come to nothing. And the clovers (all my life I’ve found and collected them): like the interviews and VFW visit, they were a reminder and reassurance that the world is full and green and surprising.
Last semester two graduate students I work with started an outreach program, writing poetry with homeless and at-risk young adults at a day shelter in Raleigh. We have class once or twice a week, and have developed a regular round-table of five or six poets who come to read, talk, write, and share their work. It’s hard for some of our students to get there — they don’t have cars, and are balancing work schedules and child care and the extraordinary stress of being homeless. They carry everything they own — food, clothes, toothpaste, soap — in backpacks. Their whole lives are lived in public.
Alabama Stone, one of the outreach program’s two founders, has worked with North Carolina’s homeless community for years. She knows the best places for street kids to find community, where to sleep outdoors without harassment from police and where to find medical care. She brings in shampoo and baby shampoo, Chupa Chups, fruit. And books, donated by generous friends (Thanks Graywolf! Thanks Copper Canyon!): Skin, Inc.
by Thomas Sayers Ellis, Claudia Rankine’s Citizen
, Ocean Vuong’s Night Sky With Exit Wounds
, The Darkening Trapeze
by Larry Levis. And notebooks — dollar store notebooks, handmade notebooks, notebooks ordered to match the writers’ favorite colors and colleges and sports teams. Dozens and dozens of them, because the students, with all their challenges and peripatetic movement, tend to lose them.
On a recent Wednesday, eight of us sat around the table, brainstorming before starting a writing session. Sometimes we listen to music or recorded poetry, other times we talk about our weeks: frustrations at work or school, funny stories, fears.
“You don’t have your notebook?” Alabama asked Brian, a soft-spoken writer who pops in and out of our workshops. Not because he doesn’t want to be there, but because he also uses his time at the center to shower, do laundry, and listen to music on headphones. “You lost that poem you wrote last week?”
“Nah,” he said. “I’ve still got it.” And he sat down and recited the whole thing from memory.
That’s the other thing that notebooks do, whether we’re writing a poem or pressing a clover or pasting in a photograph of that thing we want next. They seal our intentions and legitimize our desires. They help us remember, years or months or decades later, whether we have them in our possession or not. “How it felt to me,” wrote Didion, “that is getting closer to the truth about a notebook.”
“That was fire,” said YCANN, another writer in the group — not given to unearned praise — before turning back to his own poem. Alabama tossed Brian a new notebook, and he got up to go back into the world.
÷ ÷ ÷
is the author of Mattaponi Queen
. Her stories and essays have appeared in Orion
, the Paris Review
, and many other publications. She teaches in the MFA program at North Carolina State University. The Art of Waiting
is her most recent book.