As a writer, I am forever scratching out lists.
During the past decade, I’ve become religious about carrying little miniature notebooks around with me in which to capture all my random, bizarre-ass story and essay and art project ideas. I even keep one in my nightstand for those occasions on which my dreams are so particularly strange and wonderful that I am afraid to fall back asleep and forget them forever.
There is, in fact, an entire episode of Seinfeld devoted to this bedside notebook concept, in which Jerry wakes up in the middle of the night with some hilarious comedy bit having come to him fully formed in a dream. He quickly scratches it down, and then wakes up to find that his writing is illegible, which of course sends him into paroxysms of crazy. It’s pretty hilarious. I digress …
I’ve kept a journal since I was five, but I guess I probably inherited my religious fervor for the pocket-sized notebook in particular from one Madame Henrig, an only-just-ever-so-slightly-unhinged French teacher I studied with when I lived in Paris back in 2002.
She called them her “petits cahiers” – little exercise books – and she loved nothing better than showing her students all the weird shit she jotted down in them throughout the course of the week while waiting in line at the post office, riding the metro, sitting in her apartment, which I always imagined was filled with cats and ashtrays and empty wine bottles: Grocery lists, new vocabulary words, the run dates for art installations and shows, particularly touching song lyrics.
We rolled our eyes at her abiding Frenchness (that and the huge hunks of lipstick and toilet paper that clung inveterately to her chin and teeth), but she forced us to purchase and use our own petits cahiers, and it quickly became a prized habit for me.
By now, I’ve amassed a whole multi-colored collection of little notebooks full of the detritus of my 20s. They are studies in abject randomness – little love and hate letters to various boyfriends who would become exboyfriends, social observations, recipes, threads of particularly interesting conversations that I hope never to forget.
(In fact, one of the best conversations I ever had, years back in a bar in Korea, is still retrievable to me at least in summary thanks to the following scratchy lines: “Mob mentality. Shame teaches. Visually distinct.”)
These are not journals, mind you. In fact, the finished products bear little resemblance to any kind of full-sized journal into which one might pour one’s most personal thoughts. They are, by nature, slipshod and messy and therefore lack the abiding self-consciousness that often creeps into journal entries. They are a record of the immediate, the pressing, the mundane.
Just yesterday, I came across an essay idea I’d forced my sister to jot down for me while I was driving us around Seaside two years ago.
It said: “Soul patch: 20 year increments.”
This nonsense phrase is a reminder that I would someday like to write a piece about those strange cultural trends – such as soul patches – that enjoy brief popularity every few decades or so before being re-relegated to the Incredibly Not Cool camp. Haven’t done it yet. But someday.
It’s like words are like these magical little breadcrumbs we throw down to help us grope our way backwards in time, to help us remember who we were, and who were in the process of becoming when life intervened.
Because really, it’s so easy to go off track. It’s so easy to wake up one day and to realize – to your own private horror – that you are running away from the thing you swore you were running toward, whatever it was. I swear it happens to me like every two years, right on cue. Man.
To be sure, it’s a rather imprecise and one-dimensional method for capturing one’s experience of a dynamic reality, and like Jerry, I make myself crazy sometimes trying to figure out what in the hell I was semantically pointing to when I scribbled down certain words and phrases.
But even when they lose some of their coherence, words are unchanging. It’s only we who have changed. Words can’t lie, don’t lie, and that’s somehow comforting.
The other day, I was thinking about how my life might be different if I never wrote a single thing down, if I didn’t have this infinite storehouse of extentional memory, if I were illiterate. The thought was sort of hard for me to wrap my brain around, but really, it’s not too much of a leap to consider a life without the written word – the literacy rate in many parts of Africa falls below 30 percent. In the Middle East, it’s barely over 60 percent. Some people can’t even sign their own names, let alone tell their day-to-day stories.
I think if this were the case for me, I would most certainly have a different sense of myself as an evolving being, and perhaps far les insight into who I’ve been at previous moments. Anyone who has ever had the experience of reading a story or letter they wrote as a six year can likely relate. You look at the big, loopy lettering and the simplistic lines of reasoning and think, “Who is this strange little person with my nose and eyes and first name?”
I guess if I didn’t write anything down ever again, I’d probably focus on the future more and on the past less, which might well be a very good thing. But a life without written words also reads like an eternal present, and the Zen Buddhists might well smack me on the back of the head for saying so, but how dull would that be?