The funny thing about writers is that they are often the last people to define themselves as such. Most of the dearest people to me write, but they would not introduce themselves as writer. The writing is something protected, kept safe in folio, drafts (and dreams) revealed only to a chosen few. Like Tatiana said on Monday, the blank page can be incredibly intimidating. But left in the hands of a certain type of person, that void become the perfect audience. Joan Didion characterizes this class of scribbler as a very special kind of collector:
Keepers of private notebooks are a different people altogether, lonely and resistant rearrangers of things, anxious malcontents, children afflicted apparently at birth with some presentiment on loss.
For a long time, I was the only scribbler I knew. I journaled every day. Wherever I went, my notebook was open and being manipulated. I was writing constantly–during this period, I successfully completed the 365 project, which challenges participants to write a poem a day for an entire years–but the pages were not only full of words. The journals were also exercises in accidental collage. I glued in receipts, ticket stubs, pages from catalogs, bits of colored cellophane. I affixed pictures and framed the images with paint pen. I drew on top of my collages with oil pastels, wrote upwards, downwards, and in spirals. The notebooks, originally sparse collections of drafts, morphed into visual catalogs of thought, living poems operating on multiple levels. I went to a portfolio review for a San Francisco art school where the reviewer assumed I wanted to major in graphic design. At the time, I thought of myself as a painter, and was offended to be characterized as anything else. But what was painfully clear from the way my sketchbooks incorporated text was that I was a writer, whether I was willing to admit it or not.
When I discovered Jennifer New’s Drawing From Life:The Journal As Art, I finally found a resource that talked about the hybrid personal museums that end up in private notebooks. Drawing From Life is full of real-world examples of what lives inside the personal notebooks of writers, cartoonists, researchers, and all kind of scribblers across a wide range of professions and walks of life. The journals range just as widely in their format–some are incredibly intricate line drawings augemented by text, others collections of figure drawings on a rainbow of Post-It’s. There are collages and technical drawings, doodles and rough drafts. All of them are gorgeous because of how personal and specific each featured scribbler’s work is.
I was never arrogant enough to believe myself the only person on earth keeping a textual/visual journal, but finding this book made me feel held. As an artist, your sketchbook is a space for experimentation, and sometimes your best work happens there completely by accident; same goes for writing. I’ve read enough personal ephemera (shout out to the Rare Book Room at Smith College in Northampton, MA, where you can browse personal papers of brilliant writers like Sylvia Plath and Virginia Woolf) to know that sometimes these things end up in archives. But no one can predict that such an archive will be made of her own life.
Self-curation is a fascinating practice. Buckminister Fuller kept an exhaustive archive of everything he ever wrote or doodled called the Dymaxion Chronofile. Anais Nin’s journals are massive and imaginative retelling of her experiences where even the most scarring experiences are transformed into circumstances completely under her control. I like to think of my own journals as a hybrid of Fuller and Nin’s sensibilities–both exhaustive and imaginative. In my notebooks, I am my best, uncensored self.