“I am out with lanterns, looking for myself.”
– Emily Dickinson
The first one was the size of a piece of American cheese. It had a photo on the cover of a horse tossing its mane and a silver lock that opened with a key.
Then came a procession of cheap spiral notebooks. After that, possibly a high school graduation gift, came a hardbound book that could only be called a journal. Finally, there was a Microsoft Word file that started out strong but eventually faded from thought, as only electronic files can.
In the intervening years, I’ve tried several times to get back to journaling. I’ll bring home a notebook and then not manage to fill it. A year or two later, the process repeats: new notebook, new entries, precipitous silence, and empty pages.
What does an unfinished journal mean? I’m afraid it means poor discipline, a nonchalance in the face of lost time. But the reality is probably less dramatic. I’m busy: just getting through the day can take so much effort that doing the secretarial work of recording it can feel like a strange, self-imposed burden. Also, the emotions that made me write when I was younger — melancholy, heartsickness, wistfulness — aren’t as acute as they used to be.
And then there’s the fact that social media is already doing some of the administrative work of a journal. Facebook reminds me of my anniversaries and milestones with the dedication of a dog bringing my slippers. It’s almost too easy. My various feeds are always right there waiting for me. Together they promise that my past is a smooth, open road retraceable just by scrolling.
But the record I leave there feels ephemeral. I worry, too, that in the very act of sharing my memories with a corporation, I’m partially forfeiting my right to them. Keeping a journal — not a blog for an audience, but an actual journal — feels like a form of aesthetic and personal resistance. It feels a little bit subversive.
But before trying again and failing, I decide to ask around for advice about how to keep a journal. What I hear back is that there are countless ways to keep a journal, none necessarily better than the other. One friend sends herself occasional emails, which she later pastes into a Word file. Another uses Instagram to document her daily reading. Still another loves a good journaling app.
I start digging around online, and I keep coming up on the term “micro journaling.” As the name implies, this is a short-form style of journaling that encompasses practically anything from the one-sentence journal to the bullet journal. One form of micro-journaling that I really enjoy is a text-messaging service that sends me a daily text asking what I’m grateful for. It then catalogs my responses on a private webpage where I can scroll back through them chronologically. The focus on gratitude feels a bit too… sanctimonious for my taste. But that’s just the pretext; you can always reply with a grievance, a joke, or a description of your sandwich, an adjective that best describes your day (you get the idea).
Micro journaling is a nifty way to get into the rhythm of record keeping, but I can’t help but gravitate to blank hardbound books, free of dates and requirements. That openness is exciting, but it can also be intimidating. I order a nice old school journal, but when it arrives I find myself wondering exactly I’m supposed to write in it. How does one journal as an adult? I think of Samuel Pepys, who gave posterity a lively account of the 17th-century world of coffee houses and taverns, and of Virginia Woolf who held a mirror to the early 20th-century literary elites. Both writers — and countless other less famous journalers besides — understood that a detailed diary can be a gift to the future.
My future self will want to know what I thought of these turbulent times. But I bristle at the idea that I need to “comment.” The Internet has tangled up my inner and outer lives in ways my younger self could never have foreseen. I know for sure, though, that a journal entry isn’t the same thing as a Tweet or a Facebook post. A private notebook can be a place for Holding Forth on Topics, but it should also be a place for writing down last night’s dream or sketching an aggressively shaded palm tree while thinking about something weird that happened at work.
I’m turning this over when I come across Lynda Barry’s Syllabus. Barry is a cartoonist, author, and teacher whose recent books are devoted to changing the way people think about their own creativity. Syllabus is based on a workshop Barry teaches called “Writing the Unthinkable.” The main course requirement is keeping a notebook — and not just any kind. Each day’s hand-written entry must contain these items: 1) a list of seven things you did, 2) a list of seven things you saw, 3) something you heard someone say, and 4) a sketch of one item from the “saw” list. Don’t even think about skipping the sketching step.
Even before I try it, I sort of fall in love with this approach. I like its clarity, its belief in the undramatic work of record keeping. Barry explains that if you journal this way for a while you’ll start to “notice what you notice.”And, sure enough, a month in, I do notice I’m more alert to visual details and spoken conversation. I’m also increasingly comfortable sketching. Oh, and I love not having to write in complete sentences.
One day, though, I’m reading Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts when I come across this line: “I am no longer interested in hiding my dependencies in an effort to appear superior to those who are more visibly undone or aching.” I have complicated feelings about this book, but that observation about vulnerability feels forceful and true, and I feel the urge to write it down.
However, there’s no provision in Barry’s method for copying down quotations. What I need, I guess, is a second notebook for recording my reading — namely, a commonplace book. The history of the commonplace journal traces back to the Renaissance, a time when readers typically read several books at once, savoring lines across volumes, rather than consuming titles one by one, as most of us do today. Commonplace books have long been a favorite resource of writers. Ralph Waldo Emerson kept commonplace journals, convinced that his best thinking happened in the company of other minds. Wallace Stevens began his own commonplace book in a fit of contrition after years of disfiguring library books with marginalia.
But I don’t love the idea of managing two separate journals. What if I just added passages from my reading to the same journal where I keep my Barry entries? After all, there’s a long tradition of writers and artists treating the journal as a glorious catch-all. Pretty soon, my journal is an ever-growing collage. Any reading I happen to be doing makes its way into the notebook: a couple of sentences from Yiyun Li’s memoir, a juicy paragraph or two from The Pillow Book, and this simple statement about vibrant urban neighborhoods from Jane Jacobs’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities: “Blocks must be short…streets and opportunities to turn corners must be frequent.”
Adding quotations frees me up to include other kinds of entries: to-do lists, ideas for projects, lists of weekly goals. I default to my Barry-style entries, but anything that wants to go in goes in.
So I have a journal now. Only, it has to be asked: What’s the point? Why do this?
One reason to journal might be the freedom to be completely honest. A notebook can be a confidant for your darkest thoughts. But, the thing is, unless you plan to destroy your journal, there’s a good chance someone will read what you’ve written and be hurt by it.
I’m more persuaded by the idea that journaling aids memory. Think of all the good ideas, conversations, and meals you’ve lost simply because you never took the trouble of writing them down. While it may be smart to let yourself forget certain painful memories, it seems like an excellent thing to remember what you love so you can go on loving it.
Also convincing: the argument that a notebook is good artistic practice. “The habit of writing for my eye is good practice,” wrote Virginia Woolf of her own journal. “It loosens the ligaments.” Writing, then, can make one more agile, more prepared for future work. In rare cases, the journal itself is the work.
These practical reasons for journaling motivate me, but I wonder if it’s actually a good idea to focus on what journaling does or accomplishes. It reminds me of way that “life hacking” discussions online have co-opted journaling as a productivity technique. It reminds me, too, of a something I’ve often heard, that journaling makes us more introspective. I don’t know if that’s true, but even if it is, what’s the use of feeling smug? We’re all just looking for some proof that we exist. We’re all just groping for a lever to pry open time.
Sometimes when I flip through my journal, I feel like nothing so much as a collector. I already know that I’m often less interested in life than its interpretation, its rearrangement. I delight in my most uninspired utterances, like a collector dusting a shelf of dolls.
In fact, even when it is disorderly, a journal is a celebration of order. Keeping a notebook is a little like keeping a home (is this why more women than men gravitate toward journaling?). The work is tangible yet infinite. I take less satisfaction in dealing with my apartment than my notebook, but I occupy them in similar ways: distractedly, messily, but with rare bursts of affection, even cautious love. I think I even understand the romantic logic of the hoarder: there’s stuff in every corner, and some of it could be precious.
Image Credit: Pixabay.
So much of what I read is for work (editing Dorothy, a publishing project, and teaching at Washington University in St. Louis), but I did manage some stellar outside reading in 2016. These were my favorites of the “freebies:”
1. Suzanne Buffam’s A Pillow Book: smart, unpretentious, unclassifiable. With an obvious nod to Sei Shōnagon’s 10th-century The Pillow Book, Buffam’s is a fragmented essay-poem-meditation on insomnia, motherhood, marriage, and other “hateful” things. It’s littered with lists, delightfully funny (or just delightful), such as “Moustaches A-Z,” “Things That Give a Dirty Feeling,” or “Jobs from Hell.” Here’s one:
SOUNDS I DON’T EXPECT TO HEAR
A rose opening.
Silence on the 4th of July.
The mating cry of the King Island Emu.
Hecklers at the ballet.
Foghorns in the Mare Cognitum.
A rich man entering Heaven.
A poor man entering the Senate.
2. Renee Gladman’s Calamities: It would be hard to overstate my sense of Gladman’s importance to contemporary American letters. Calamities is a series of short linked essays (or, as I’ve heard her call them, ditties) most of which begin “I began the day …” It’s embodied, subtle, playful, rare.
3. & 4. Barbara Comyns’s Our Spoon’s Came from Woolworth and Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Lolly Willowes: Or the Loving Huntsman: The Comyns and the Townsend Warner are reprints somewhat recently published in the U.S. by NYRB. I loved both to an aggressive degree, especially Lolly Willowes, which sneaks up on you with its ferocity, so sharp and erotic and free.
This fall I taught a new graduate course on desire, so have been eyeball-deep in amorousness: Anne Carson’s If Not, Winter and Eros the Bittersweet; James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room; James Salter’s A Sport and a Pastime; Maggie Nelson’s Bluets; Roland Barthes’s The Pleasure of the Text; T Fleischmann’s Syzygy, Beauty; texts by Anaïs Nin, Roxane Gay, Joanna Walsh, Carl Phillips, William Gass, Catherine Belsey, and Marie Calloway; and, one of my all-time favorites, The Lover by Marguerite Duras.
Finally, my “year in reading” wouldn’t be complete without The Babysitter at Rest by Jen George and Suite for Barbara Loden by Nathalie Léger (translated from the French by Cécile Menon & Natasha Lehrer). These are the books I spent the most time with, the ones I was able to get seriously and satisfyingly intimate with. Meanwhile, here at Dorothy we’ve begun putting together a book we’re nuts about for Fall 2017: the first ever Complete Stories of Leonora Carrington.
Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now.
“Literature has more dogs than babies,” Rivka Galchen writes in Little Labors, “and also more abortions.”
Put like that, the observation is startling. And though the babies are definitely out there — Galchen finds them in Beloved, The Millstone, A Personal Matter, The Fifth Child, and Dept. of Speculation for starters — the search seems to leave her (playfully) grasping at straws. Perhaps Frankenstein’s monster is her favorite fictional baby, Galchen cheekily suggests. Perhaps Rumpelstiltskin is the metaphoric firstborn of the fairy tale, and his hijinks are merely sad attempts to gain his surrogate mother’s attention.
From my own bookshelf I’ll add to the list Rachel Cusk’s A Life’s Work, a vicious and spry chronicle of her daughter’s first year. Ernest Hemingway’s “Indian Camp” features a baby of sorts. (Though one centimeter over is “Hills like White Elephants,” in which there will soon be an abortion.) Trials of parenting, once a child has achieved a certain age, give us highs of tenderness and brushstrokes of true cruelty. See Mrs. Ramsey winding her shawl around a fright-giving pig skull in To the Lighthouse; or Jason’s attempts to corral his mutinous niece in The Sound and the Fury.
And yet between courtship and marriage, or between the searchings of early adulthood and the intrigues of family life, literature seems to draw a two-year blank. A survey of 1,000 novels might produce nuanced portraits of extramarital affairs, or descriptions of all-night benders, but scant answer to the questions: Where do people come from? Under what circumstances are we born?
Why the omission?
Galchen isn’t sure. Thankfully not. Her investigations shoot off from her subject like finely-pointed spokes from a hub. The book’s split-up structure fits her purpose well. On the one hand you can occasionally imagine these short chapters as the immediate and authentic jotting-downs of a new mother reporting from the front. (For instance, Galchen on iPhone videos of her daughter, a.k.a. the puma: “footage of the puma has the unfortunate quality of making it seem as if the puma has passed away and the watcher, me, is condemned to replaying the same scene again and again and again.”) On the other hand, the book’s loose form also gives room to Galchen’s commendable analytical mind. Here, as in her novel, Atmospheric Disturbances, she is the type of writer who can show you in an outstretched arm one view of a sphere, then spin her subject in hand, and show you something quite different.
Unifying these chapters is a low-wattage but steadily glowing anxiety: that babies are not a subject of literature because babies are not interesting. To their parents and families in real life, yes, but not in general, not as a surface that will for the writer yield fruitful depths. Before she was a mother herself, Galchen confesses a nose-in-the-air dismissiveness toward a subject so patently and traditionally female. And her aloofness, she admits, didn’t stop at just babies: the authors she liked were all men (including Denis Johnson, whom she mistook for a French woman during an attempt to diversify her reading.) Two people with otherwise equal qualities would differentiate by gender: the man inevitably more magnetic in the pair. As for babies? The way Galchen tells it, you’d think it a prerequisite of youthful intellectualism to fall asleep at the mere mention of the word: God help you if you cared to go into particulars. Or put those particulars into writing.
But Galchen knows that’s not the whole story. Only recently have women begun writing with equal output of men, and with equal education to back them up. Only very recently have writers who are also women and also mothers had any significant spousal or institutional support to continue their work with children at home. Karl Ove Knausgård, for instance, whose influence is apparent in passages, manages to write about children’s birthday parties, his wife’s labor, a child’s real-time soiling of a diaper, in a way that makes those moments tremble with cosmic meaning. (Of course in Knausgård everything trembles with cosmic meaning.) Perhaps, though, the subject matter isn’t really the problem. Perhaps the problem is that while you are taking care of a baby you often don’t have time to write about taking care of a baby. Or as Galchen describes life with a newborn:
The world seemed ludicrously, suspiciously, adverbially sodden with meaning. Which is to say that the puma made me again more like a writer (or at least a certain kind of writer) precisely as she was making me into someone who was, enduringly, not writing.
And it isn’t just time that’s the problem. Despite the fertile ground that Galchen describes — and which other new parents must certainly feel — it seems remarkably difficult to see past the “dull” label that has been affixed to infant heads. And no wonder, given a literary tradition in which an erection can boast an established history of metaphoric usage, while a menstrual cycle, for instance — with exceptions such as in Elena Ferrante’s Troubling Love — is a detail that writers habitually leave out with trips to the bathroom and the buzzing of morning alarms.
Galchen, though, breathes decided life into her topic. And her writing is so good that her observations double as arguments for her choice of subject. Take, for example, this passage on a baby’s seemingly metaphysical essence:
We know babies are the only ones among us in alliance with time. They are the only incontestable assessors to power, or, at least, they are immeasurably more well-placed than their elder co-unequals. The way a baby, in a stroller, briefly resembles a fat potentate, for a moment unlovable, has something in it of the premonition. Even as to see a baby raise its chubby hand — to bow down before that random emperor can feel very right.
Or consider this, a comment on a baby’s loss of intrigue with the acquisition of language:
It’s as if babies don’t grow larger but instead smaller, at least in our perception. It’s striking that in the canonical Gospels, we meet Jesus as a baby and as an adult, but as a child and teenager, he is unserviceable.
There are a few places in this book where the writing does make a dangerous shift from brightly analytical to willfully cryptic (e.g., an unnecessarily complex description of a movie poster and its surrounding geography.) But that is rare. In Little Labors Galchen is recognizably the writer of the masterful short story, “The Lost Order.” Language like “random emperor” and “unserviceable” are the brilliant norm.
In interviews, Galchen has cited Sei Shōnagon’s 11th-century The Pillow Book as an influence for her work’s fragmented and miscellanea-driven structure. Shōnagon’s text gets room here, in summary form, if not thanks to what it offers on motherhood than as good evidence for the artistic worth of daily domestic life. (If an empresses’s court indeed counts as daily domestic life.) But Little Labors might be too tightly wrought, too self-conscious to really call back the flowing, pure diary feel of that book. Observations here more frequently have the ring of Susan Sontag or William Vollmann than dashed-off notes-to-self. And even the vivid glimpses of quotidian life with a child — the comments provoked by a trendy orange snowsuit, the comical tribulations involved in obtaining a passport photo for an infant, a child’s eerily suspicious fall among playmates — give the cumulative effect of toes cautiously dipped into water. Does this count as literature? the book seems to be asking itself. And this?
The result is that this quietly revolutionary little book is extremely difficult to qualify. I found myself thinking of it as a metanarrative on the genre of parenting novels: a genre, in other words, that does not yet fully exist. That is not Galchen’s fault; nor does it detract from the book. The way she writes, you feel she is onto something, as if she were peering down a long pathway of New Yorker issues to a literature ahead.
Little Labors ends as inconspicuously as it began. The child’s grandmother totes her to a senior dinner at their synagogue, where the child charms the crowd, “carrying her winter pants here and there, offering them to diners, rescinding the offer.” Couldn’t you charge $1,000 a day to bring a baby to a nursing home? the grandmother jokes afterwards. Couldn’t a family charge 20 bucks an hour to babysitters, adds the father, for the privilege of being with the baby? “Everything they said was true,” Galchen concludes, “and yet also, we know, not the case.”
Given what’s come before, it’s nearly impossible not to read this final note as a mordant analogy to the ambivalent place that the baby occupies in literature at large. After all, if novels are investigations into the workings of human existence — shouldn’t a baby, and a baby’s arrival, provide a useful key? Isn’t a baby a good place to start? In life, in literature, to borrow Galchen’s phrase, a baby should be a goldmine. And yet we know it is not the case.