Keepers of Private Notebooks

Yesterday, I read parts of something Joan Didion wrote in 1968, entitled, “On Keeping a Notebook.”  One excerpt in particular struck a chord with me:

Keepers of private notebooks are a different breed altogether, lonely and resistant rearrangers of things, anxious malcontents, children afflicted apparently at birth with some presentiment of loss.

Except for the assertion that they/we are “rearrangers of things,” I think her words describe me. That, and the fact that most of my “notebooks” are private only to the extent that few people ever find them or take time to read them. Yet in spite of the discrepancies between her words and my reality, she seemed to describe me; or, at least, a snapshot of a part of me.

But Didion’s words could describe almost anyone at some point in his life. Certain attractive phrases, whether written about oneself or not, tend to be treated as if they were crafted specifically to share one’s secrets with the world.  The use of words in such a clever way takes a special skill that, while not necessarily rare, is not particularly common. Writers of horoscopes possess that skill, enabling them to write convincingly in a way that every gullible reader believes the prognostication was intended solely for her.

In reading Didion’s thoughts as she recorded them, it occurred to me that she and I share many of the same questions about why we spend the time and energy to preserve our thoughts. But I don’t really know. Though I try to believe I keep notes strictly for my own personal future reference, I fear I’m doing it in lieu of begging to be noticed. I seem to be asking an unidentified audience, in a roundabout way, to pay attention to what is on my mind today. Rather than attempt to produce a publishable collection that might offer to a disinterested world insights into the man I am right now, I write and horde what I’ve written. Some day, someone may stumble across what I’ve written and find it interesting and enlightening and worthy. And, then, the significance of my chaotic thought-bombs might finally be recognized for what they are worth.

I hope I’m not that guy. The one who hopes someone else will decide, after I’m long gone, that my words had merit, after all. But I’m afraid that’s exactly who I am. A coward. A man who thinks he has something to say, but who’s afraid to suggest it aloud for fear he’ll be proven wrong in the avalanche of derision that follows. So, instead, he hopes someone else at a different time will take up his cause. Not knowing precisely what that “cause” is, he is utterly incapable of taking it up for himself.

I’ve never been fast on my feet like a practiced trial lawyer. On the one hand, I long to be quick-witted and sure-footed, capable of stinging rebuttals and irrefutable arguments. But on the other, I am leery of people who possess those attributes and skills. They are too much like carnival barkers, manipulative swindlers for whom life is a competition in which only the strongest and most Machiavellian survive. They prize winning above all else, even when “winning” causes devastating misfortune to befall their adversaries. Adversaries. That is the problem; they classify everyone as either supporters or adversaries. Everyone must take sides because every act is a competition, a rivalry designed only to determine winners and losers.

My reliance on “private notebooks” is the alternative to bravado and certainty, but it’s also an opportunity to safely avoid the dangers of competition and confidence. I can express strong opinions and defend them fiercely, all the while knowing my opinions can change when new evidence comes to light. A trial lawyer doesn’t have that luxury; he can’t opt to join the prosecution’s team at mid-trial  in the face of new and damning evidence of his client’s guilt.

The more I think about it, the more certain I become that my private notebooks do not offer evidence of cowardice and fear that my ideas and thoughts will go unnoticed. No, my private notebooks simply document the fact that I am unwilling to condemn uncertainty or to label equivocation an unforgivable flaw. A willingness to consider that even distasteful positions might have merit is, in my view, a strength. But it’s a strength that’s hard to defend when one is beset by sure-footed swindlers who equate uncertainty with weakness. As for me, though, uncertainty is a quality to admire. It speaks to one’s flexibility and open-mindedness. But one’s uncertainty can be used by one’s so-called opponents as a cudgel, if one is not careful. And if one is not fleet-of-foot and sharp-of-tongue. So keeping private notebooks, where arguments can be recorded and explored and, when appropriate, disemboweled with relish.

I could go on and on (obviously) without reaching any concrete conclusions. I do that a lot. Keepers of private notebooks, I suspect, generally are adept at stepping gingerly around concrete conclusions. But I may be wrong.


About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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