Joan Didion, On Keeping a Notebook (1966)

That woman Estelle,'” the note reads, “‘is partly the reason why George Sharp and I are separated
today.’ Dirty crepe-de-Chine wrapper, hotel bar, Wilmington RR, 9:45 a.m. August Monday morning.”

Since the note is in my notebook, it presumably has some meaning to me. I study it for a long while.
At first I have only the most general notion of what I was doing on an August Monday morning in the
bar of the hotel across from the Pennsylvania Railroad station in Wilmington, Delaware (waiting for a
train? missing one? 1960? 1961? why Wilmington?), but I do remember being there. The woman in the
dirty crepe-de-Chine wrapper had come down from her room for a beer, and the bartender had heard
before the reason why George Sharp and she were separated today. “Sure,” he said, and went on
mopping the floor. “You told me.” At the other end of the bar is a girl. She is talking, pointedly, not to
the man beside her but to a cat lying in the triangle of sunlight cast through the open door. She is
wearing a plaid silk dress from Peck & Peck, and the hem is coming down.

Since the note is in my notebook, it presumably has some meaning to me. I study it for a long while.
At first I have only the most general notion of what I was doing on an August Monday morning in the
bar of the hotel across from the Pennsylvania Railroad station in Wilmington, Delaware (waiting for a
train? missing one? 1960? 1961? why Wilmington?), but I do remember being there. The woman in the
dirty crepe-de-Chine wrapper had come down from her room for a beer, and the bartender had heard
before the reason why George Sharp and she were separated today. “Sure,” he said, and went on
mopping the floor. “You told me.” At the other end of the bar is a girl. She is talking, pointedly, not to
the man beside her but to a cat lying in the triangle of sunlight cast through the open door. She is
wearing a plaid silk dress from Peck & Peck, and the hem is coming down.

Why did I write it down? In order to remember, of course, but exactly what was it I wanted to
remember? How much of it actually happened? Did any of it? Why do I keep a notebook at all? It is
easy to deceive oneself on all those scores. The impulse to write things down is a peculiarly compulsive
one, inexplicable to those who do not share it, useful only accidentally, only secondarily, in the way
that any compulsion tries to justify itself. I suppose that it begins or does not begin in the cradle.
Although I have felt compelled to write things down since I was five years old, I doubt that my
daughter ever will, for she is a singularly blessed and accepting child, delighted with life exactly as life
presents itself to her, unafraid to go to sleep and unafraid to wake up. 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.

My first notebook was a Big Five tablet, given to me by my mother with the sensible suggestion that
I stop whining and learn to amuse myself by writing down my thoughts. She returned the tablet to me a
few years ago; the first entry is an account of a woman who believed herself to be freezing to death in
the Arctic night, only to find, when day broke, that she had stumbled onto the Sahara Desert, where she
would die of the heat before lunch. I have no idea what turn of a five-year-old’s mind could have
prompted so insistently “ironic” and exotic a story, but it does reveal a certain predilection for the
extreme which has dogged me into adult life; perhaps if I were analytically inclined I would find it a
truer story than any I might have told about Donald Johnson’s birthday party or the day my cousin
Brenda put Kitty Litter in the aquarium.

So the point of my keeping a notebook has never been, nor is it now, to have an accurate factual
record of what I have been doing or thinking. That would be a different impulse entirely, an instinct for
reality which I sometimes envy but do not possess. At no point have I ever been able successfully to
keep a diary; my approach to daily life ranges from the grossly negligent to the merely absent, and on
those few occasions when I have tried dutifully to record a day’s events, boredom has so overcome me
that the results are mysterious at best. What is this business about “shopping, typing piece, dinner with
E, depressed”? Shopping for what? Typing what piece? Who is E? Was this “E” depressed, or was I
depressed? Who cares?

In fact I have abandoned altogether that kind of pointless entry; instead I tell what some would call
lies. “That’s simply not true,” the members of my family frequently tell me when they come up against
my memory of a shared event. “The party was not for you, the spider was not a black widow, it wasn’t
that way at all.” Very likely they are right, for not only have I always had trouble distinguishing
between what happened and what merely might have happened, but I remain unconvinced that the
distinction, for my purposes, matters. The cracked crab that I recall having for lunch the day my father
came home from Detroit in 1945 must certainly be embroidery, worked into the day’s pattern to lend
verisimilitude; I was ten years old and would not now remember the cracked crab. The day’s events did
not turn on cracked crab. And yet it is precisely that fictitious crab that makes me see the afternoon all
over again, a home movie run all too often, the father bearing gifts, the child weeping, an exercise in
family love and guilt. Or that is what it was to me. Similarly, perhaps it never did snow that August in
Vermont; perhaps there never were flurries in the night wind, and maybe no one else felt the ground
hardening and summer already dead even as we pretended to bask in it, but that was how it felt to me,
and it might as well have snowed, could have snowed, did snow

How it felt to me: that is getting closer to the truth about a notebook. I sometimes delude myself about why I keep a notebook, imagine that some thrifty virtue derives from preserving everything
observed. See enough and write it down, I tell myself, and then some morning when the world seems
drained of wonder, some day when I am only going through the motions of doing what I am supposed
to do, which is write – on that bankrupt morning I will simply open my notebook and there it will all be,
a forgotten account with accumulated interest, paid passage back to the world out there: dialogue
overheard in hotels and elevators and at the hat-check counter in Pavillon (one middle-aged man shows
his hat check to another and says, “That’s my old football number”); impressions of Bettina Aptheker
and Benjamin Sonnenberg and Teddy (“Mr. Acapulco”) Stauffer; careful aperçus about tennis bums
and failed fashion models and Greek shipping heiresses, one of whom taught me a significant lesson (a
lesson I could have learned from F. Scott Fitzgerald, but perhaps we all must meet the very rich for
ourselves) by asking, when I arrived to interview her in her orchid-filled sitting room on the second day
of a paralyzing New York blizzard, whether It was snowing outside.

I imagine, in other words, that the notebook is about other people. But of course it is not. I have no
real business with what one stranger said to another at the hat-check, counter in Pavillon; in fact I
suspect that the line “That’s’ my old football number” touched not my own imagination at all, but
merely some memory of something once read, probably “The Eighty-Yard Run.” Nor is my concern
with a woman in a dirty crepe-de-Chine wrapper in a Wilmington bar. My stake is always, of course, in
the unmentioned girl in the plaid silk dress. Remember what it was to be me: that is always the point.

It is a difficult point to admit. 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.
(“You’re the least important person in the room and don’t forget it,” Jessica Mitford’s governess would
hiss in her ear on the advent of any social occasion; I copied that into my notebook because it is only
recently that I have been able to enter a room without hearing some such phrase in my inner ear.) 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 maker.

And sometimes even the maker has difficulty with the meaning. There does not seem to be, for
example, any point in my knowing for the rest of my life that, during 1964, 720 tons of soot fell on
every square mile of New York City, yet there it is in my notebook, labeled “FACT”. Nor do I really
need to remember that Ambrose Bierce liked to spell Leland Stanford’s name “£eland $tanford” or that
“smart women almost always wear black in Cuba,” a fashion hint without much potential for practical
application. And does not the relevance of these notes seem marginal at best?:

In the basement museum of the Inyo County Courthouse in Independence, California, sign
pinned to a mandarin coat: “This MANDARIN COAT was often worn by Mrs. Minnie S.
Brooks when giving lectures on her TEAPOT COLLECTION.”

Redhead getting out of car in front of Beverly Wilshire Hotel, chinchilla stole, Vuitton bags
with tags reading:

Well, perhaps not entirely marginal. As a matter of fact, Mrs. Minnie S. Brooks and her
MANDARIN COAT pull me back into my own childhood, for although I never knew Mrs. Brooks and
did not visit Inyo County until I was thirty, I grew up in just such a world, in houses cluttered with
Indian relics and bits of gold ore and ambergris and the souvenirs my Aunt Mercy Farnsworth brought
back from the Orient. It is a long way from that world to Mrs. Lou Fox’s world, where we all live now,
and is it not just as well to remember that? Might not Mrs. Minnie S. Brooks help me to remember
what I am? Might not Mrs. Lou Fox help me to remember what I am not?

But sometimes the point is harder to discern. What exactly did I have in mind when I noted down
that it cost the father of someone I know $650 a month to light the place on the Hudson in which he
lived before the Crash? What use was I planning to make of this line by Jimmy Hoffa: “I may have my
faults, but being wrong ain’t one of them”? And although I think it interesting to know where the girls
who travel with the Syndicate have their hair done when they find themselves on the West Coast, will I
ever make suitable use of it? Might I not be better off just passing it on to John O’Hara? What is a
recipe for sauerkraut doing in my notebook? What kind of magpie keeps this notebook? “He was born
the night the Titanic went down.” That seems a nice enough line, and I even recall who said it, but is it not really a better line in life than it could ever be in fiction?

But of course that is exactly it: not that I should ever use the line, but that I should remember the
woman who said it and the afternoon I heard it. We were on her terrace by the sea, and we were
finishing the wine left from lunch, trying to get what sun there was, a California winter sun. The
woman whose husband was born the night the Titanic went down wanted to rent her house, wanted to
go back to her children in Paris. I remember wishing that I could afford the house, which cost $1,000 a
month. “Someday you will,” she said lazily. “Someday it all comes.” There in the sun on her terrace it
seemed easy to believe in someday, but later I had a low-grade afternoon hangover and ran over a black
snake on the way to the supermarket and was flooded with inexplicable fear when I heard the checkout
clerk explaining to the man ahead of me why she was finally divorcing her husband. “He left me no
choice,” she said over and over as she the punched the register. “He has a little seven-month-old baby
by her, he left me no choice.” I would like to believe that my dread then was for the human condition,
but of course it was for me, because I wanted a baby and did not then have one and because I wanted to
own the house that cost $1,000 a month to rent and because I had a hangover.

It all comes back. Perhaps it is difficult to see the value in having one’s self back in that kind of
mood, but I do see it; 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. I have already lost touch with a couple of people I used to be; one
of them, a seventeen-year-old, presents little threat, although it would be of some interest to me to
know again what it feels like to sit on a river levee drinking vodka-and-orange-juice and listening to
Les Paul and Mary Ford and their echoes sing “How High the Moon” on the car radio. (You see I still
have the scenes, but I no longer perceive myself among those present, no longer could even improvise
the dialogue.) The other one, a twenty-three-year-old, bothers me more. She was always a good deal of
trouble, and I suspect she will reappear when I least want to see her, skirts too long, shy to the point of
aggravation, always the injured party, full of recriminations and little hurts and stories I do not want to
hear again, at once saddening me and angering me with her vulnerability and ignorance, an apparition
all the more insistent for being so long banished.

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. “So what’s new in the whiskey business?” What could that possibly mean to you? To me it means a blonde in a Pucci bathing suit sitting with a couple of fat men
by the pool at the Beverly Hills Hotel. Another man approaches, and they all regard one another in
silence for a while. “So what’s new in the whiskey business?” one of the fat men finally says by way of
welcome, and the blonde stands up, arches one foot and dips it in the pool looking all the while at the
cabana where Baby Pignatari is talking on the telephone. That is all there is to that, except that several
years later I saw the blonde coming out of Saks Fifth Avenue in New York with her California
complexion and a voluminous mink coat. In the harsh wind that day she looked old and irrevocably
tired to me, and even the skins in the mink coat were not worked the way they were doing them that
year, not the way she would have wanted them done, and there is the point of the story. For a while
after that I did not like to look in the mirror, and my eyes would skim the newspapers and pick out only
the deaths, the cancer victims, the premature coronaries, the suicides, and I stopped riding the
Lexington Avenue IRT because I noticed for the first time that all the strangers I had seen for years –
the man with the seeing-eye dog, the spinster who read the classified pages every day, the fat girl who
always got off with me at Grand Central – looked older than they once had.

It all comes back. Even that recipe for sauerkraut: even that brings it back. I was on Fire Island
when I first made that sauerkraut, and it was raining, and we drank a lot of bourbon and ate the
sauerkraut and went to bed at ten, and I listened to the rain and the Atlantic and felt safe. I made the
sauerkraut again last night and it did not make me feel any safer, but that is, as they say, another story.
(1966), in Slouching Towards Bethlehem, 1969, London: Andre Deutch.


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