Sunday, May 20, 2012

Blank Books

I picked up for a $1.00 at Brattle's bookstore (on the way to this year's graduation ceremonies) Alexandra Johnson's Leaving a Trace. I read the whole thing before having to "march" and on the way home. It was worth the Dollar, though I would never have paid full price. It's full of interesting factoids and homely advice. One I found especially interesting is that there are nearly 10 million blank books sold annually in stationery stores. I have a strong suspicion that most of them remain blank.

Other interesting facts: Truman Capote preferred writing in other people’s homes, John Updike had four rooms for writing in his house, each for a different genre of writing (fiction, nonfiction, essays, letters). Anais Nin kept a "decoy" diary just for husbands.

She claims that diaries are about "making connections" (39). I couldn't agree more. She quotes Eudora Welty: "Writing is one way of discovering sequence in experience ... Connections slowly emerge. Like distant landmarks you are approaching, cause and effect begin to align themselves ... Experiences ... Connect and are identified as a larger shape" (140, see also 39) and Heraclitus: "A wonderful harmony arrives from joining together the seemingly unconnected" (54).

On the whole, I find the book too "preachy" and too naive. Thus she advices one to keep a "gratitude journal," for instance, and claims that "a journal is always a self-portrait, its narrative still evolving" (123). Nice, but is it really? I kept many journals in blank books or, more frequently, in Composition books, but most of them had little to do with life and much with work, that is, note-taking.

They have little to do with the ten supposed hidden patterns in all journals, longing, fear, mastery, (intentional) silences; key influences; hidden lessons; secret gifts; challenges; unfinished business; untapped potential. That list seems more than a bit naive and haphazard to me.

Secret gift? Intentional silences? What about misery and absence of talent? She does talk about them, but not as much as it seems necessary to me.

"Diaries are the self's first drafts" (151), she claims. But who is then writing these drafts? And why does the self need drafts. It's at the very least highly questionable whether the self is a "narrative" at all. Misery could lie this way.

There are better uses for blank books than writing "the self's first drafts." One of them is to leave them blank. Another one is to take notes, forgetting self-portraits and evolving narratives.

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