She [Patricia Highsmith] went on to recommend that aspiring writers keep a notebook in which to jot down thoughts or ideas, that they should trust in the power of the unconscious and that they shouldn’t force inspiration. –Andrew Wilson, Beautiful Shadow: A Life of Patricia Highsmith (2003)
“You’re wasting fuckin’ paper, kid!”
These are the words the resonate with me most, some twenty years later as I write this essay. They are words from my father, someone who didn’t much care for creative pursuits, who was, at the time, angry at the younger me for using up all his printer paper. We had few things in abundance in our house: my father’s electronic gadgets he bought from eBay, books, and, usually, printer paper, because my father liked to print things off when he could.
“Don’t you know that money doesn’t grow on trees?” my father asked, looking down at the pile of printer paper with my scribblings on the individual pages. “You think we’re made of money?”
He wasn’t a kind man, my father. He was bitter. He wasn’t happy with his life’s directions, and he didn’t seem to like having children. Children were a wild card for a man like my father. Some days, he would act proud when we did something he approved of, but, most days, the old man didn’t much care for me and my siblings. We were, to him, a nuisance, something that got in his way: Whether it be in the way of his Internet surfing, in the way of his dreams, or in the way of his view of the television.
My father believed that my interests in science-fiction were pointless. He believed I was simply wasting away a good brain on something that didn’t matter. My scribblings, whether they be for comics books, games, or novels, were devalued, and this spoke volumes to a younger me.
I kept my notebooks hidden, tucked away on shelves or in my backpack — all places where my father wouldn’t go snooping. When my parents divorced, old habits died hard. I kept my notebooks closest to me, and I didn’t let anyone in, even friends, especially when I moved away to attend college at a small rural university in southeastern New Mexico.
It would be a friend, someone I met in college, who would convince me to open up about my notebooks, and my imagination. He would joke that I could fill a notebook faster than he could go to Walmart, on the other side of town. Although an exaggeration, I took it to mean that I could share my meanderings, my scribblings, with another human being without being ridiculed.
During the first years of my marriage, I continued to suffer from serious bouts of depression and manic episodes that kept me up through the wee hours of the morning. My imagination required that I buy and fill notebooks with my ideas, and I did. Even during my darkest moments, my notebooks were my friends, my truest friends at that. They never judged me. They never asked why I was the way I was. They never betrayed my trust, and yet all they asked for was that I spend a little time filling their pages, vomiting ideas, one after another, on their lined or completely blank pages.
When I decided to pursue writing more seriously, my old notebooks, both filled and partially filled, kept me company. They were friends on long journeys into the imagination and the wildlands of fictional worlds I had created using their pages. My notebooks were more than tools. With the influx of apps on iPhone and Android, every developer is promising to offer the same experience that paper brings but with our smartphones. So many options are on the table that it is often easy to lose sight of the forest; sometimes, just sometimes, going old-school, that is, writing in notebooks and journals, works better for the mind. You don’t have to pay a subscription fee. You don’t have to worry about the latest macOS update killing your software. You can simply buy a new notebook when you are finished with that last one.
Years later, when I’d managed to get ahold of myself, mentally speaking, I was able to offer a similar opportunity to my own father, who was facing his own mental health crisis. I sent him three notebooks, the nice faux leather ones they sell at Walmart, and he had a surprising reaction to it all.
Thank you, Greg, for the gift. I will put them to use. You are a good, caring person, and I am proud of how strong and passionate you turned out to be. Have a great week.
My own father, who had been distant and cold for much of my life, found a use for notebooks like I had. He’d begun writing down his thoughts, his ideas, and other scribblings. Oddly enough, I have found that, as a writer and as someone who suffers from the occasional mental health crisis, notebooks/journals are useful tools for navigating our world. Fiction isn’t about the imagined, but, rather, about navigating the social spaces in the very real world. For me, fiction has been about my struggles to grasp the real, meatspace, if you will. My notebooks are faithful vessels in which I can navigate meatspace, from the comfort of my own home or office, using the tools of fiction to do so.
If you’re not a fiction writer, notebooks/journals still have the potential for changing your life. They can inspire you to explore your life, your experiences, and the innards of your imagination. One of the things that people often let wither away and die is the imagination. Notebooks are friends of the imagination, just as they are friends of the writer, the creative, the lost soul.
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