Telluride Daily Planet, Wednesday, February 3, 2010
Every year, after I make the same self-absorbed resolution to keep a journal (25 years and counting), I go off to buy a great little book that begs for the scratches and loops of elegant, urgent writing.
Let’s see, will it be the chunky spiral-bound 99-center or the Hemingway-approved Moleskine? A blank book wrapped with leather cord? Sheets of rice paper with funky twig “pencil”? During the holidays, under a spell, I pluck one of these beauties off the shelf like a sugarplum. This will undoubtedly turn my life around, I think. Because this year I will find out who I really am.
Then, in January, I’ll go to Peter Beard’s Web site and stare at his fantastic entries; I’ll read a few pages of Virginia Woolf; I’ll think about the English patient’s tattered copy of Herodotus — his sketches, and ruminations, and the paper bits of life he’s shoved into it. This is my three-pointed constellation — the Bermuda Triangle that should be so kind as to suck me in, psychically wash me, and then spit me out, flushed and ready to write.
This year, I’ll do better than I did during my New York days: “October 19, 1983: No mail. Bronchitis. Too much chocolate. Rage.” (Printed in pencil next to an entry about following Woody Allen for three blocks.)
This year, I’ll do more than I did in the fabric-covered dream journal a decade later: “I am somewhere foreign and given two secrets to decipher — and who to see to decipher them. One man is a laborer who has gone nuts with the secret and the other is some kind of former monk. Kitties swimming.”
And this year, no travel-journal thing, which is a few pages of wan airport observations followed by a swift de-evolution into meals, menus and exotic foods ingested. Sure, it’s proof that my taste buds were on vacation, but where were my other four senses? Where was I? Who was I? The soft white bun of a lobster roll remains mute on the subject.
Lastly, I’ll reconnect with my handwriting — even though I know very well it will never approach its absolute pinnacle, reached at the age of seven, in France, where I learned to write at a wooden desk with a dip pen, blotter, and purple ink from a well. When I tell people this, they look at me as if they’ve just met someone from Leo Tolstoy’s village, someone familiar with astrolabes, bloodletting and peasant shirts. A person straddling two centuries — and not even contiguous ones.
Frightened by the looks, I usually go back and recheck the cahiers, make sure it actually was me. I’m rechecking them now. Trying to figure out if these French notebooks are the root of my fractured journal-writing gestalt. Here we have tidy sums with illustrations (calcul); writing practice (Cécile, Chantal, Christine, Claude); dictation (Mireille is conscientious: she swept her room and dusted the furniture.). And something I’ve not noticed before: Mardi 6 avri. Menu de la dînette. Potage au vermicelli. Omelette aux fines herbes. Côtelette d’agneau. Galette lorraine. Mirabelles. A menu! An indication of time, place, quotidian life, and the fact that my lunches might well have ended with plums. Should I go back to menus?
This year, I’ve copycatted a friend of mine with the purchase of a red Moleskine daily planner, which cleverly breaks down the days and hours, encouraging simple notations and observations. Also cleverly, with its elastic band, it encourages shoving things like fortunes and stubs into it. It seems perfect for me, absolutely perfect. This will be the year.
But as February arrives, the majority of January pages are still blank. It’s unsettling. Bothersome. In fact, deeply irritating.
I drink some Sleepytime Extra and flip through it again, able to admire the breezy feel of the months flying by. Suddenly, in mid-flip, I recall advice I’ve recently given Celine on the importance of details in her school writing assignments. “You have to stud your writing with little nails,” I say one night sternly, while admiring the development of her brain. “Because details? They’re everything.”
Now, the words come back in revelation form, a white-light-of-knowledge boomerang from my Bermuda Triangle pulpit. Any journal I am able to write consistently for more than one day at a time must be pared down to essential ingredients only. Details. Observations. Lists. Calculations. Bits. Drawings. Paste-ins. No interference from adverbs, adjectives, plotline, metaphors (see pitfalls above), or, worst of all, analysis.
It’s got to be all former monks, Woody Allens, conscientious Mireilles. All kitties swimming.
“What sort of diary should I like mine to be? Something looseknit and yet not slovenly, so elastic that it will embrace anything, solemn, slight or beautiful that comes into my mind. I should like it to resemble some deep old desk, or capacious hold-all, in which one flings a mass of odds and ends without looking them through.” Virginia Woolf