|At 16, after attending UCLA’s young writers retreat at Lake Arrowhead, I began carrying a green, spiral-bound notebook to school. I printed “Earth laughs in flowers,” a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson, in block letters on the front of my new journal. Sprinkled with words like “profound” and “magical,” the pages bear testimony to both my talent for purple prose and an intense literary longing. I have 20 or so of these notebooks stacked in a storage container in my bedroom, filled with faded poems, character sketches, and other famous quotes that resonated with me as I set out on the path to becoming a professional writer. |
I seldom think about these notebooks now, except when I lug their container from one corner of the room to another in a fit of housecleaning. Frankly, the journals—filled with raw emotions and frequent meditations on boys I found attractive—strike me as embarrassing. But Diana M. Raab’s anthology Writers and Their Notebooks asks me to regard my pile of tattered notebooks with new respect. Raab, a poet and memoirist, asked 24 writers, including Sue Grafton, John Dufresne, Dorianne Laux and others, to write essays exploring their relationship to journaling. Some authors use a notebook as a repository, as I do now, for snippets of overheard dialogue, lists of books to read, and ideas for essays and stories. Others approach their personal journal with as much dedication as the work they write for publication. Each essay offers insight and inspiration; lapsed journal keepers may find themselves perusing the stationery store for the perfect notebook, while those writers who add one more tome to the growing pile in a storage container will find affirmation.
Raab writes in her preface that the inspiration for compiling this book stemmed from 40 years spent journaling—a process she’s found to be both grounding and joyful. She describes her first journal, “a maroon, hardcover volume with the prophet Kahlil Gibran’s wise sayings inscribed at the top of each page,” as a gift from her mother, offered as a method for coping with her beloved grandmother’s death. Other writers in the anthology recall their inaugural journals with equal clarity. Robin Hemley describes the exact month, day, time and place that he began to keep a journal as a 16-year-old at a Tennessee boarding school, while Karen de Balbian Verster meditates on the diary (complete with lock and key) she received as a Christmas gift at age 13—the same age Anne Frank was when she began her famed diary.
What’s delightful about Writers and Their Notebooks is each author’s unique approach to the subject of journaling. For some, such as Michael Steinberg, the idea of keeping a formal journal isn’t appealing. Steinberg explains in “Notes From an Accidental Journal Keeper” that he almost declined Raab’s request for an essay. “Only infrequently do I use a notebook to explore ideas for future writings,” he writes. “Usually, when a thought comes to me, I scribble notes on random scraps of paper or Post-its.” Steinberg, however, gamely decided to keep a journal while teaching in Prague during the summer of 2007. His essay compares the entries with those from travel journals he wrote in 1985 and 1992, and demonstrates how—in studying all three notebooks—he observed both personal and literary growth. “The Prague journal,” he concludes, “won’t be the last one I write.”
Author Maureen Stanton has kept a journal since childhood. In her essay, “Le Misérable,” she examines the etymologies of the words “diary” and “journal.” She writes about the catharsis of journaling and how, in recording life’s tragedies, an author can examine her life and “make art from raw experience.”Raab, who teaches in the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program, includes two appendices at the end of the book. The first explores how her own journals have informed her published books and offers suggestions for suitable pens and notebooks, followed by a list of how readers might choose to organize their own journals by subjects including travel, dreams and crises.
The second appendix offers writing prompts to inspire beginning or reinvigorated journal keepers. Her suggestion to “write about a memory with a bicycle” prompted a journal entry about the time that I, at 13, crashed into a parked car while staring at a boy, and “write about something you’ve collected” goaded me to explore my photographer husband’s collection of skulls and bones left lying around the house—a constant reminder of both my mortality and my aversion to dusting.
Raab concludes with a bibliography of published journals, so that writers may examine how authors such as Louisa May Alcott, Albert Camus and my beloved Ralph Waldo Emerson incorporated ideas from their notebooks into public works.