08/28/2015

Notes on note-taking

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On the subject of keeping a diary, or any topic that involves jotting down personal accounts with vague reasons in mind, we turn first to Joan Didion, because: of course. “Keepers of private notebooks,” she wrote, “are a different breed altogether, lonely and resistant rearrangers of things, anxious malcontents, children afflicted apparently at birth with some presentiment of loss.”

“On Keeping a Notebook” was an essay I read back in college, responsible for imprinting upon me truths that seem so obvious now, but were, for whatever reason, pivotal and sparkly back when I was 19 or 20. Memory can’t be trusted, writing is an exercise in finding patterns where there once were none, and our inner lives don’t make for particularly fun small talk.

I don’t know if the habit of writing in a diary is a lost art. In preschool, I assumed — the way small children with small brains do — that chronicling my day-to-day and keeping those accounts to myself was an immature preoccupation. The idea of jotting down “Dear Diary” with knees and elbows on the floor seemed awfully unmasculine and impractical, so I never quite got the hang of writing for just myself. On top of that, diary-keeping was something boys just didn’t do. Try comparing the notebook of an adolescent boy with the Starbucks planner of a girl from a private all-girl high school. Those of the latter, at least the ones I’ve seen, were always adorned with recollections, snippets from conversations among friends, and other Things That Happened. And these things were taken down without the presumption that these musings would be shown to anyone. A study by the American Psychological Association says that keeping a diary can and usually does improve your mental health and your cognitive abilities. Pair that with the observation that the girls I know who handled their planners in this way are pretty well-put-together human beings, far from the “anxious malcontents” of Didion’s description, and I conclude that maybe keeping a diary does something good for your brain.

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Keeping a diary is pretty cool, but it’s not something everybody does. You know what everybody does? Blogging.

I was never one to keep a notebook for the purpose of journaling (unless you count hours in class spent doodling giant robots and scribbling terrible poems) but I did keep a blog. A bunch of blogs. I had a Multiply (now dead), a reblog-free Tumblr (also dead), and a WordPress (currently dying from neglect), kept not for the sake for chronicling my life, but for sharing my thoughts and putting out palatable pieces of writing, on the assumption that these public reflections would garner praise, or engaging discussion, or at least a bunch of hits. I suppose that is the central concern here.

Writing is an exercise in finding patterns where there once were none.

That is to say, we impose a sense of narrative on our own lives, even though our lives don’t really play out like storybooks. And I can’t help but feel that those lucky enough to have developed the habit of writing in a diary were able to carve out their own narratives more clearly, away from the gaze of prying eyes, free from the influence of ambient awareness (Google it: the phenomenon is super interesting). Whereas those of us who went straight to blogging curated ourselves just a bit. All the right experiences, all the final drafts, neatly presented like precious stones, after all the dirt’s been brushed off. And even though we do most of our narrative-building in our heads, there’s something about writing a thought down that solidifies it, fortifies it, makes it more real. And if the only parts of our lives we choose to make real are the ones we make palatable for a vague audience, where does that leave us?

But that’s an empty question. I suppose we’re left in the same position we’ve always been in: as biased storytellers, telling tales whose heroes bear striking semblances to ourselves. That’s the sort of thing that makes for fun small talk.

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