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Notebooking in the Garage Mahal
Lists, diagrams, and entries that rely on sometimes scarce context. A first draft of a poem. Hidden in the Garage Mahal.
Read time: about 12 minutes. This week: I take a look at the pages in the notebook in the garage. It’s been there, oh, about seven or eight years. Next week: Guess what, I’m giving you a break! I have a writing deadline on February 15 that I don’t want to screw up. So, it’s likely that I won’t do a post next week, but I might do a short review of a beautiful book that just appeared on my doorstep. I’ll see how time and writing go.
The Boulangerie offers glimpses of what’s in a warm place rising or already in the bakery oven. This past week, a really ugly font and a monthly summary. I only announce when something happens in the Boulangerie with my Mastodon loudspeaker: @firstname.lastname@example.org.
Share this one with someone who notebooks, please. If you got this from a friend who shared it, how about getting your own copy? A subscription is free, and it’s only another email.
I can’t help but be amazed byand , both of whom have such beautifully structured notebooking lives. Their worlds seem constructed of well ordered lists, and Mark even appears to have indexed it all in Zettelkasten. He has a well ordered notebook collection, too, that he prunes and “harvests” to perfection. Rebecca’s handwriting, which sometimes appears in photographs on her posts, is gorgeously clear and crisp and sometimes involves list-making that straightens and tames small annoyances of life, like menus and grocery lists. She apparently has captured a treasure trove of words and expressions, too, between the covers of her notebooks, which go with her everywhere. She’s even figured out ways to make carrying them fashionable.
Both of them have developed means to turn the notebook into a place of creation, too. No doubt, their many newsletter posts had their origins in the notebook pages. Writers book their notes.
The usefulness of notebooking comes forth in Rebecca’s and Mark’s newsletters, but the study of notebooks is particularly important to me.studies notebooks and writes . There I found the courage to look at my own notebooks. She's used her wit and keen scholarly sensibility to show her readers many famous people's diaries and papers, many of which are strikingly beautiful. Jillian's post on James Baldwin's papers really gave me the push, though. Unlike Michael Faraday’s lusciously illustrated and lettered tomes, Baldwin’s papers are, well, scribbled. His illustrations quickly sketched. And yet, as Hess reveals, they fit into Baldwin’s life and contribution.
My contributions pale in comparison, of course, but Hess’s post let me know that my haste in my notebooks isn’t shameful or a reason to hide them. James Baldwin was messy, too, I thought, and look what he was able to do.
Pictures to remember and maybe to understand. Simple contexts.
The Garage Mahal is a place for tinkering and fixing. (Right now, the truck is on the lift, slowly dripping diesel fuel from somewhere I’ve yet to find.) It’s not surprising that my notebook would play a role in those activities. About half of the pages are devoted to diagrams that I’ve used to understand how things fit together and how I might replace a damaged or missing part or, in some situations, improve the original design. The most ornate of these drawings are “exploded,” showing several parts and how they all fit together.
The notebook doesn’t just retain a picture; the creation of a diagram enlists the hand to the service of the eye. We see more when we draw. That’s very useful, and it’s paid off for me. A smartphone photograph sometimes just doesn’t do the trick.
Some diagrams have informed my fabrication of replacements, and I’ve often coupled the shapes with measurements. Other drawings I’ve used to remember some detail that’s useful to know when a part needs to be refitted, like where wires go in a plug for a motorized mirror on an old Porsche.
And of course, there are lists and some tables of information — something like Rebecca’s grocery lists but for parts and materials.
“These new ears.” Storyboard … car with candle? Mysterious contexts.
Quickly drawn car parts for the purposes of design or remembering are the obvious notebook bounties. They are self-evident grocery lists and “to dos” — just tweaked for purposes in the garage. Perhaps their significance diminishes when the part has been replaced or repairs and refitted, but other notes can attain a certain abiding value, by pinning meaning to an event that shapes the writer. Some are frightfully trivial and, in retrospect, a bit humorous, even though they weren’t conceived as humor, as I recall.
My garage notebook memorializes getting hearing aids, for example. “Funny. How the feet walking on dark trails are tied so tightly to the acuity of the ears.” Lower on the page: “These new ears. I have almost forgotten them” — though I don’t know whether that meant I had gotten used to the hearing aids or had forgotten the ears I was born with.
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In time, such entries mutate, shaking off one meaning and taking on another. It’s tempting to think that every notebook entry, no matter how trivial, adds to an ever richer and layered meaning, but it might also be that you’re being a lazy Robert Shields, the diarist who churned out 37.5 million words from 1972 to 1997 by chronicling every five minutes of his life.1 Do that and the piled-up entries don’t amount to much. A certain amount of editing and choosing is required along with some context. In effect, we’re doomed to choose what we write about, and that introduces the matter of “honesty.” Reality, if it’s made useful, is also filtered and shaped.
Functional or procedural notebook entries like lists and diagrams require less explanatory context. That is, my diagram of the pin orientation for a Porsche side mirror control has a concrete context: it explains orientation and position for a part and for what models. As a notebook entry, it is very nearly self-contained. My exploded diagram of headlight “sugar scoops” has a similar context and meaning, so long as I know the overarching project.
My hearing aid entries, however, don’t themselves contain their context. Had I not mentioned “hearing aids” before I quoted the entries, you would have puzzled much more over my comment about “these new ears.”
This pivot of context and notebook entry centers meanings, and I think this circumstance complicates the kind of scholarship that Jillian Hess does. To know the significance of a notebook, scholars like Hess have to gain a foothold on the context of each entry, each turn of the notebook page, whether that context is teased from history, biography, geography, or ideally, I guess, from earlier entries in notebooks. Scholars have to establish pivot points of author’s context and the notebook entry, and then draw their interpretive circles around them.
“I never expected this to be such a journey,” I wrote on a hot summer day, probably while I sat looking at the car I was restoring. “It was, after all, a lump of metal. Mostly rusted. Well, not mostly. But the pathways were not entirely mechanical or metallurgical. Sure, there was a lot of banging and wrenching. But the big point….” I never got to the “big point,” and that was intentional, since the entry included the final ellipsis. The “big point” has eventually ended up being the point of the book I was struggling with then and in fact still do. When I pencilled that notebook aside, I was trying to find the voice that could tell the tale. That’s the context.
Only I knew it before, but now you do, too.
Notebook as safe space? At least, an audience of one.
Probably anyone who writes verse fears the reader, and I am no exception, even when I write “for myself.” Just writing “poetry” as an adult male feels like a bold thing to do, but I could do it in the confines of the garage, my safe realm, in a little notebook on a shop table. Why is poetry so fraught? Maybe it’s the fear of becoming That Cringe-Inducing Guy? Or maybe a fear of stepping into a place, a role, that one hasn’t deserved or at least entirely worked out? Private notebooks can contain the cringe, allow a voice to croak anew and alone. Safely. It’s bold enough to try your hand at something as sacred as poetry, and gods and goddesses of poetry will probably forgive the solitary attempt.
Now, as I look at some of the products, I am bolder still. Here, I share a draft that otherwise would probably perish with me, translated from my messy handwriting below the image.
Having dwelt in green shade they fall -- small litter on the walk. First of summer's sacrifices to fall and before stark cold beyond, these withered leaves fed a hickory above, where my green thoughts rose. Sun shades frantically in August and these underfoot tatters knew it. Deeds done in thriving summer, they fell, fell to cushion my path towards fall, and September.
Whatever the merits of verse staining a journal’s pages, its lines attend to a moment — to a thought that everyday noise or a phone’s scrolling display would unmake.
Will Rees revealed some of the risk and complexity of committing things like poetry to even private papers, which even in isolation are artifacts tainted by self-fashioning. In “I Do Not Keep a Diary” he wrote, “In the case of a diary that is solely for one’s private perusal, the question is not, ‘Who am I really when no one is looking?’ but a more profound and also troubling question: ‘How would I like to appear when it is only myself who is looking?’” That is troubling indeed, and the question must lurk in every diarist’s or journal-writer’s conscience.2 The question must often constrict notebook audiences into tight orbits around private lives, single readers who are also solitary writers. Writings rarely shared, if ever. Sometimes, maybe even often, destroyed.
I have a few other attempts at poetry in the notebook. I’ll let my heirs think about them.
In my youth, I kept journals, several of them with page-long entries. The notebooks were too big to fit in my pocket but not bulky, since they had only about eighty thin and narrowly lined pages. I kept them in my bedroom. The spines were brightly colored and squared — stitched, I think. I started writing in them my second year in college while I was studying in Germany. Some of the entries I polished a bit and sent off to friends. One entry was shared fairly broadly, I know, back in the pre-email days. It was about my visit to a baroque church in southern Germany as I made my way north from Radolfzell am Bodensee, where I had spent a month struggling to pull myself into the German language. I recall that I mentioned God having fled the church’s “gilded cage” to venture out into the world.
I was young, and after a few years I felt a certain shame about my youthful writing. Maybe I had changed so much that I could no longer make much sense of the me who wrote then. Or maybe I felt the pages were just too much self-presenting folly falling from a too inexperienced and yet untrained mind.
I burned the notebooks one evening in an iron stove my roommates and I used to warm the kitchen in the house we shared on the shores of Lake Superior. Now, I wish I hadn’t burned them. Today, I am more forgiving of my own youth and am curious about what I chose to write at that time.
Notebooks are helpless and fragile as we go through our lives. It’s worth preserving them, even though that might seem hard to do.
Tags: notebook, journaling, journal, diary, memory, self-presentation, self-fashioning, context
Links, cited and not, some just interesting
Jillian’s book, available at a bookstore near you. Hess, Jillian M. How Romantics and Victorians Organized Information: Commonplace Books, Scrapbooks, and Albums. Oxford Textual Perspectives. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2022.
Some great tire carvings. Zimmer, Lori. “Wim Delvoye’s Incredible Rubber Carvings Turn Tires Into Art.” Inhabitat - Green Design, Innovation, Architecture, Green Building, September 19, 2011. https://inhabitat.com/wim-delvoyes-incredible-rubber-carvings-turn-tires-into-art/.
Sadly, Astra stopped publishing, but for now the magazine’s contents still survive on the web. Rees, Will. “I Do Not Keep a Diary.” Astra, September 15, 2022. https://astra-mag.com/articles/i-do-not-keep-a-diary/.
Hm. What do you think? Thirlwell, Adam. “Diary of Nuance.” The Paris Review, January 24, 2023. https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2023/01/24/diary-of-nuance/. “In May 2020 I began an intermittent diary, a notebook of infrathin sensations. I was housebound in a heat wave in London, in a pandemic, with my wife, A., and our daughter, R. S., who was then four. I started to notice what I was noticing in this reduced era: minuscule sensations, tastes.”
Fictional notebooking, a book review. Chihaya, Sarah. “A Diary’s Unwanted Insights.” The New Yorker, January 31, 2023. https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/a-diarys-unwanted-insights.
Martin, Douglas. “Robert Shields, Wordy Diarist, Dies at 89.” The New York Times, October 29, 2007, sec. U.S. https://www.nytimes.com/2007/10/29/us/29shields.html.
Shields didn’t do much self-editing. On July 25, 1993, at 7:05 am he reported, “Passed a large, firm stool, and a pint of urine. Used five sheets of paper.” That was perhaps less exciting than “We changed the light over the back stoop since the bulb had burnt out,” which he reported on April 25, 1994, 7:30-7:35 pm. And, uh, Jillian, you can’t look at the diary, all 91 boxes of it, until 2049. They’re at Washington State University under lock and key.
But I should qualify this judgment that everyone self-fashions in some manner. Jillian Hess’s fine piece on Octavia Butler’s notebooks in the Huntington Library is remarkable in showing how the relationship of notebook-writer and notebook-reader unfolds. (I read her post after I had drafted this post.) Butler turns the notebook into a confidante, a true interlocutor, and she does it in a way that somehow seems to sidestep the problem of self-fashioning in notebook entries. There’s reason to believe that notebook writing can be “honest” (as Hess observes). Finding that perch, that unique and true perspective on one’s self — that is the real trick. I wonder how many journal writers handle their private writing honestly and without a veneer? When she was twenty-four years old, Susan Sontag wrote, “In the journal I do not express myself more openly than I could to any person; I create myself.” Was she honest? I am suspicious. Hess’s post on Octavia Butler is definitely worth reading: