Joan Didion’s ‘On Keeping a Notebook’


Now that I’ve read this, I wish I’d written in notebooks during my life. I’ve kept some ill-fated diaries, books of bad writing, scrapbooks, teen boredoms and notebooks of mundane lists from time to time, but nothing resembling Joan’s slivers of everyday life that obviously honed her acute powers of watching and her sense for the weighty and the dramatic in minor events between people. The fact that reading this essay first made me feel awed and then ashamed for not being as cool as her pissed me off because what that says about me is that the first thing I do with a thoughtful, wonderful piece of writing is to wish that I had written it and despair that I never will. Which may just be a sign that I am a writer and therefore a solipsist. Or it may be a sign that I don’t yet have self respect, as characterised in ‘On Self Respect’. But since the latter remains a bit opaque to be, I can’t be sure. Explain it to me.

“Keepers of private notebooks are a different breed altogether, lonely and resistant rearrangers of things, anxious malcontents, children afflicted at birth with some presentiment of loss.” I can understand the urge to rearrange the truth by writing down a version of it that better suits yourself, but how does keeping a notebook indicate you are afflicted with a presentiment of loss? I suppose Joan’s referring to the creative impulse of those who are compelled to write or draw or carve wood or be creative in whichever way necessary – the urge to remake the world. What I like here is the slightly neurotic inference that notebook-keepers are a bit belligerent, that they are grumpy to find that everything is as bad as they had suspected and are intent on making a new truth as a sort of correction, an antidote to disappointment. Notebook keeping or storytelling as a rebellion, a refusal to accept things as they are.

I think this essay is about the act of writing as a way of remembering. “To remember what it was to be me.” Joan distinguishes between the boredom of writing a diary and the act of keeping a notebook by equating diarising with recording mundane events and large details, and note-keeping as observed details, the embroidery of experience, the moments caught then lost, the breaths of truth, the shit that we don’t remember. I think she was saying that not only did she keep notebooks to remember what it was to be her, but to remember what it was to be alive, what it is to be alive – to grasp onto the greasy pole of mortality by recording a moment even as it slips through our fingers. Like grains of sand through the hourglass, so are the days of our lives.

Some random extracts from the notebook I currently keep in my handbag so as to always have somewhere to write things down:

– A story idea during my placement at the Taranaki Daily News: “Waitara river entrance improvements: feasibility of reinstating half tide wall at Waitara following submissions from users”
– Description of a bar I was reviewing: “Fabric of a Lisa Ho dress, granite, cross section of turd, ant farm, lava, chain mail curtains”
– “For a certain group of young NZers, Helen Clark is not just a political figure, she’s a cultural icon”
– pina colada necklace
– Leonie: “Relationships are all about bringing the other person down.”
– $73.78


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