The empty pages of my notebooks mock me at this time of year, as they have done ever since I was a child.
I loved those little vinyl-covered diaries with the date printed at the top of every page and a lock and key. They were frequent birthday presents if you were a girl growing up in the 1960s, maybe especially a bookish girl.
I had been deeply impressed by “The Diary of Anne Frank,” which I had first read and cried over at the age of 8 or 9 (I can still see the cover of the paperback with the black and white photo of her face), and I attempted to imitate her format — writing letters to an imaginary friend — but was always sadly aware that I lacked her narrative and descriptive abilities.
Anne Frank’s diary had characters, people with personalities. Mine ran to lines like “I went to Becky’s house. She is one of my best friends, and is very nice. We had cookies.”
No wonder I lost interest. And losing interest was such a shameful process: First I would skip a day, and then the next day, fill in the blank page, and then fill in the proper page for that day, and maybe keep it up for another couple of days — but eventually, I would skip a whole week, and decide to just pick up the “narrative” and leave those pages blank, perhaps telling myself that at the end of the year I might come back and paste in a photo.
Then after a few more days of writing, with those blank pages a silent reproach, I would let the diary and the year slip away, and it would leave me with a notebook I would then feel I could not discard (it had the only record I had kept of the year, paltry though that might be — what if a biographer needed to know that Becky was nice?) but knew I would never write in again.
Instead, I would make a new resolution in a new year — to write every day. As I got older, I outgrew the little vinyl diaries, and I started resolving not just to write more but also to write better. I never lost sight of Anne Frank, but eventually read the diaries of Virginia Woolf (Characters! Narrative!). What the new year needed, I knew, as a child, as an adolescent, and as an adult, was a new clean notebook.
Mostly, I must confess, I did not fill them. Mostly, I must confess, I followed exactly in my own tracks. Write faithfully for a little while, even if not every day, start skipping, feel guilty, try to fill in what I skipped, skip more and decide to leave gaps in my own story, and then finally skip so much that it was clear the journal was done, and, there would be another notebook I couldn’t throw away but would never write in again.
I have started many notebooks that I didn’t finish. In addition to attempted journals, I kept a succession of spy notebooks, modeled, of course, on “Harriet the Spy.” When I grew up a bit, though not as much as I would have hoped, I repeatedly started little notebooks in medical school and residency training, where I meant to keep track of “clinical pearls.” I started a notebook once to keep track of every book I read, and another to track my knitting projects.
And don’t forget the diet resolutions to write down everything I ate. When those little notebooks trail off into blank pages, you can guess what’s actually happening. But what if a biographer someday wanted to know that for two whole weeks in the 1990s, I ate salad for lunch?
When I was looking at one of my mother’s notebooks after she died, I saw that she had dropped it and then dipped back in, sometimes after intervals of months or years, now picking it up as a journal, now using it to make notes for something she was writing. She was profoundly utilitarian; she would have scorned spending money on a fancy notebook, or hesitating to use any available blank page.
And I have a daughter who loves notebooks as much as I do, but finishes what she starts. I am the one in the middle, the one with piles of notebooks where a page or a few pages at the beginning denote a careful master plan that was not followed.
In recent years, inspired in large part by my daughter, I’ve made some progress — I still don’t create narrative or characters, but I sometimes write down some of the boring details of my day. I have my life sorted out into four or five or six notebooks these days (one is just for daily to-do lists and one is a calendar and one is notes for a book I want to write … and I don’t think I’ll tell you about the others). Most important, I try to be gentler on myself when I skip a day or two — or more.
Late in November, I counted the pages left in my notebook — I mean, in the major notebook, the one in which I keep notes on my life, or write what I have stopped calling my diary (well, actually I have two diary notebooks, but I don’t think I’ll tell you about that). For the first time in my life, I thought, it was going to come out perfectly: all I had to do was fill a page every day and I would be all set to start a new notebook on Jan. 1 — and if ever there were a new year that called for a new notebook, this would be it, coming up.
That first time I counted, I actually had more days left than pages, so I could be gentle on myself if I slipped up once or twice. The next time I counted — a week or so later — that was no longer true.
Spoiler alert: I didn’t make it. I didn’t even come close. I will start the new year on a new page, but not in a new notebook. The only personal growth I can point to is that I will keep on writing and fill the notebook, even if it takes me some disgraceful number of days and even weeks.
I love notebooks. And yes, I mean real notebooks, with paper pages. I love the feeling of turning to a new page. The feeling of actually filling a notebook — and starting a new one because I have filled a notebook — is probably the single life transition that gives me the greatest satisfaction.
But as so often before, I face the turning of the year without feeling entitled — or ready — to take out that new notebook (do I need to tell you that I have it ready?). I touch my mother’s battered spiral notebook and I tell myself not to give up even if I lapse. I congratulate my daughter, on a perfectly coordinated new year and new notebook.
You probably think this is a metaphor, but I am the person who reacts badly to anyone using “journal” as a verb, let alone as a tool for personal growth. When I say, I don’t want to be the person who leaves pages blank in her notebooks, I am not expressing something profound about my life, except perhaps that I make myself promises I can’t keep, and there are so many words I could have written and didn’t.
Again, I am hesitant to reach for the metaphor, but there will indeed be a new year. And at some point into the first month of it (or, oh horror, the second month), I will open my new notebook. I am not and will clearly never be the diarist I wanted to be — or even the to-do list maker I want to be — but I am determined not to be the person who for that reason leaves the pages blank.
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