The Notebook as Mirror
About six years ago, when I was a sophomore at the University of Michigan with pie in the sky ideas about the things I might be able to do with a degree in English, I trudged along State street in Ann Arbor with a mission. My head was full of all of these stereotypical ideas about what a writer must possess to be a real writer. I had a laptop computer that I could cart around to coffee houses to write as I sipped at a piping hot cup of Earl Grey, making sure that people could really hear the clacking of my keyboard. What I lacked was a notebook.
Sure, I had normal spiral bound notebooks full of the kinds of random, self-absorbed musings that are so popular with the young. I even color-coded the things I wrote based on topic because I was convinced it lent my scribblings a mantle of legitimacy. But I didn’t have a Moleskine notebook, which seemed to be part of the costume of the Writer™ that I wanted to wear.
So that morning I set out for the Borders on the corner of Maynard and Liberty. The freshly-fallen snow crunched beneath my boots as I weaved through the sidewalks, crowded with people and chairs, even in the dead of winter. Borders itself was a large store, a rectangular prism set beside the road and across the street from a vintage theater.
The notebook was sitting on a rack, one of many different varieties. Hard covers and soft overs and mini-notebooks led to confusion and feelings of authorial inadequacy. I was failing a vital test, it seemed, if I couldn’t even figure out which kind of notebook I needed. Should I get lined pages? Blank pages? The selections were endless.
In the end I grabbed a softcover notebook that had lined pages and stuck with it, hoping that was the end of my tribulation. So I packed my laptop and my new notebook and hit the city, on the lookout for interesting things that might spark my imagination so I could start scribbling in this magic notebook.
When I realized that walking around in the bitter cold with a notebook wasn’t really the smartest idea, I walked into a coffee shop and picked out a seat close to the big window near the sidewalk. I could people watch and have my computer out to write, and my notebook could be proudly displayed as an accoutrement of my craft. According to my very wrong view of writing I was doing everything that it seemed a writer needed to do.
As the hours passed and I looked at more pictures of cats on icanhazcheezburger than I care to admit, I realized that the notebook was looming over me. I put it away in my backpack to break the storm cloud that started to form over it and get back to the important business of cats obsessed with ground beef.
Days passed, and the notebook stayed in my backpack. I was sure that the ideas would start coming. That the intimidation would break and I would finally think of something to put into it and, man, would it be the genesis of a brilliant writing career. I could point to this notebook as the manuscript for a hundred different ideas, and when they needed personal notes of mine to aid an exegesis of my work, this is the notebook that they would use.
Okay, maybe I wasn’t that conceited, but it isn’t entirely far removed from the truth. Perhaps that self-absorption was important for the inevitable realization that my writing suffered from several defects, as it still does. But the notebook was eventually removed from my backpack and stuffed into my desk, to be forgotten until almost two years later, on a date.
I had ordered tickets to an AC/DC concert at the Palace of Auburn Hills and was looking forward to this outing as my first real date with a woman I had met at U of Michigan, Aida. She was a sassy and intelligent spitfire who hailed from Bosnia-Herzegovina. A survivor of the Siege of Sarajevo, she had many fascinating stories to tell and she saw fit to share many of them with me.
The day before I was to take her to this concert I had been going through a pile of old things that I had packed during a move and came across that empty notebook. I picked it up with reverence, sliding the band and flipping through the empty pages. Maybe enough time had passed; maybe I could finally think of something to add to it.
So I took it with me to Auburn Hills. There were many experiences that would have merited entry into the notebook. The couple behind us lit a joint and started to “puff-puff pass” to the people around them. The excitement of the crowd was electrifying. It was the first time I had ever been to such a venue and I just wasn’t used to the noise. When AC/DC finally came onto the stage, and the rest of the crowd stood to jam with Angus and the band, Aida and I remained seated, just listening to the music and enjoying our time together.
I remember looking into her brown eyes and being enraptured by her smile. She was wearing a purple/blue blouse and a bracelet with rather large, smooth stones. She had a small glittery clip in her hair that left a few marks on the side of my head as the night wore on.
I had finally thought of something to put into my notebook; something that, even at the time, I felt was too cute by half. I was in a playful mood, and I hoped that she was as well.
Well, she was. And as the band played on, and the energy started to affect even us as we sat there more in tune to each other than the boisterous sea of people, she brought her hand to my cheek, turned my head, and kissed me. She smiled, and then stood up, grabbed my hand, and made me dance with the people around us to Hell’s Bells.
Unfortunately the relationship didn’t last long after that, but it broke the spell I had placed on the notebook. After the concert and a long drive home, I opened the notebook and started to write on the last page a short missive on how the first and last pages of the notebook like this were scary, and why I have to fill them up first. I thought that if I had filled the last page first I could write throughout the notebook freely. Where before I had imbued the notebook with a mystical sense of destiny, I now treated it as a repository of random scribblings, marking events such as a first kiss or an observation of human behavior.
I think it was at about this time that I started to carry the notebook around with me everywhere again. Most of the pages are still empty, but the ones that I have written on have no overarching purpose. Indeed, a few pages are dedicated to a list of science fiction books that I want to buy that I picked up from the first volume of the science fiction journal Extrapolation.
The notebook is battered and, at places, torn. These defining characteristics are what make having it so attractive, however. I don’t place so much importance on the self-important vision of a the Writer™ anymore, but it’s something that’s hard to completely get over. It’s just an old dream. Foolish, yes, but still bearing the whimsical and unrealistic hopes of my youth. I’m more likely to write a bad joke about biologist porn (“prepare to accept this most generous donation of haploid cells”) than I am anything truly noteworthy of the human condition, but every now and then I do catch something worth writing about. Perhaps a semi-biographical short story about my grandfather based on the wild stories he tells of his youth, or a meandering piece exploring the story behind an older man walking around with a five year-old newspaper tucked under his arm.
The point of all of this is that I realized that the notebook I carried had only to be a reflection of myself, and not a canvas on which to paint high-minded and slightly pompous pictures of the human condition. Once I filled in the first page with the cheesy shot at romance, and the last page with a note on how last pages aren’t the end of a story, it was so much easier to jot the thoughts that flew through my mind.
I think that this, of all things, was my first real step in my development as a writer. My stories are supposed to be representative of me, and who am I? I’m certainly no Melville or Milton. I don’t have the depth of DeLillo nor do I have the foresight of Asimov. I am a little boy from nowhere, who trudged along in the snow one morning to buy a notebook because he thought he had to do it to be a writer. I am part fool, and I am part dreamer.
And maybe one day I’ll be able to write a book that reflects this. A book that I can call my own. A book that, with any luck, a few people will read.
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A Rushed Joke by Joshua Derke is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.