“I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind’s door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends. We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget. We forget the loves and the betrayals alike, forget what we whispered and what we screamed, forget who we were… It is a good idea, then, to keep in touch, and I suppose that keeping in touch is what notebooks are all about. And we are all on our own when it comes to keeping those lines open to ourselves: your notebook will never help me, nor mine you.”

Joan Didion

Joan Didion

I’ve always kept journals.
Early on from my days as a pigtail-donning nugget, I always found solace and pleasure in writing. It was never a means to an end for me. Not for self-discovery, perspicuity, or for one day looking back upon to laugh, cry, shake my head at or read over and over and think, bewildered, how silly/blind/different was I then compared to now? I wrote simply to write, in each present moment: to connect writing utensil to paper and dispatch my angels and demons as a stream of letters, words, thoughts as they sprayed like silly string from my mind.
Through my footloose childhood, writing stayed constant. In India, I sat out in the veranda under the hot stars and scribbled into a Hello Kitty notebook, the crickets’ cacophony strangely comforting in the late hours. In Bangkok, I hid under the sheets with a head lamp on to scratch in some thoughts, drawings, secret languages into an important-looking black leather-bound journal. In Dubai, I never needed supporting light sources; I simply curled up by the bay window in my parents’ bedroom overlooking the city, and the journal page was suffused with glow from below.
I’ve felt this connection to my writing wane as I grow older. Perhaps for the lack of time; not for the lack of interest, as I know I get itchy if I don’t write for too long. I tried starting with renewed vigor when I went abroad and kept a travel journal, which worked — for a while. But then I realized: writing daily has worked its way out of ma vie cotidienne, my daily exploits – it didn’t have staying power, like brushing my teeth or stretching in the morning.
Why, then? Why a lack of time? I realized I felt the need to “open myself up” to the world more, to be privy to the actuality of other people that waltzed into and out of my days. And as I made more time for that, I naturally had less time to write purely for myself. Without realizing it, I had placed less value on an act of doing something for myself and more on devoting time to acts that involve understanding and experiencing others.
I started reading Joan Didion’s brilliant essay, “On Keeping a Notebook,” in her anthology. And she confesses her own lifelong struggles to consistently keep a diary. She muses:

We are brought up in the ethic that others, any others, all others, are by definition more interesting than ourselves; taught to be diffident, just this side of self-effacing… Only the very young and the very old may recount their dreams at breakfast, dwell upon self, interrupt with memories of beach picnics and favorite Liberty lawn dresses and the rainbow trout in a creek near Colorado Springs. The rest of us are expected, rightly, to affect absorption in other people’s favorite dresses, other people’s trout.

And so we do. But our notebooks give us away, for however dutifully we record what we see around us, the common denominator of all we see is always, transparently, shamelessly, the implacable “I.” We are not talking here about the kind of notebook that is patently for public consumption, a structural conceit for binding together a series of graceful pensees; we are talking about something private, about bits of the mind’s string too short to use, an indiscriminate and erratic assemblage with meaning only for its marker.

Ultimately, the point of greatest import to her is one I think I once knew so well that there was never a need to ponder it: that perhaps keeping a journal is one of the best ways to reconcile with every iteration of ourselves. That throwing our learned inclination to devote our time to “put others before ourselves” to the skies is sometimes okay — necessary, even, to be able to help others at all. It’s enough for me to wipe the film of dust off my own journal and get scribbling again without feelings of guilt, futility or of time wasted.

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2 Responses to “on sustained scribbling”

  1. Andrew R

    I primarily agree with Didion regarding our emphasis on “affect[ing] absorption in other people’s” lives rather than focusing on and exhibiting the self–in that sense I agree with you, too: one can lose track of herself if she dwells too much on others–but there is an important point to make here.

    In English, and in human perception, “You” and “I” are absolutely co-dependent. By that I mean that a “You” cannot exist without an “I,” and vice versa. The sense of self, of singular individuality separate from others, first becomes painfully obvious when we are young–when a baby realizes for the first time that his or her mother cannot understand perfectly what his or her wailing signifies. The baby wants the bottle of milk, but the mother mistakenly offers a toy instead. We are wrenched from our mothers; she is no longer an innate, indistinguishable part of the body, of the mind. It can seem like the self has split. Instead of a collective, inclusive “I,” there arises an “I” distinct and excluded from the disparate “You.” But this is taking the divorce too far. The “You” is, in fact, inseparable from the “I,” without which it would not exist.

    Studying others can therefore prove to be a self-examination–can yield knowledge about the self: we are foils for each other. We delve into journals to make perceived differences more clear, more apparent. With words we give the intangible shape and weight. We discover and delineate the “I” in specific terms, hoping to maintain accuracy. This is the contingency of self; it screams its truth at during each endeavor to write. So don’t be too distraught if you focus on others. You are effectively analyzing and absorbed in the self, just through a different lens.

    Reply
  2. A little vanity is fair « A M A N D A

    […] This post by my pretty, smart friend Shreya has been bouncing in my brain. Specifically the idea that it’s excepted and acceptable to be more excited about other people’s lives than our own. How often do we give compliments we’d like to receive? Feel that the grass is greener in someone else’s yard? Indulge a friend with the time to hear their stories while we brush aside our own? Not wanting to be a show-off, we overlook our own successes.  […]

    Reply

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