Joan Didion Notebook Essay

On Keeping a (Writing) Notebook (or Three)

by Randon Billings NobleJanuary 6, 201647 Comments

Randon Billings Noble

In her essay “On Keeping a Notebook,” Joan Didion writes about the odd notes she has taken over the years – on conversations she has overheard (“That woman Estelle is partly the reason why George Sharp and I are separated today”), facts she has learned (“during 1964, 720 tons of soot fell on every square mile of New York City”), and observations she has made (“Redhead getting out of car in front of Beverly Wilshire Hotel, chinchilla stole, Vuitton bags with tags reading: MRS LOU FOX / HOTEL SAHARA / VEGAS).  She writes that each note “presumably has some meaning to me …” but admits that she can’t always recall what it is. For her the point is to “[r]emember what it was to be me.”

That’s what I use a journal for – not a notebook. Perhaps these classifications are splitting hairs, but Didion sees a difference, too. She claims that 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?

I would split the hair again and claim that there’s a difference between a diary and a journal – that it’s sort of like the difference between an autobiography and a memoir: in a diary you record each day’s events and in a journal you write whatever you want about your day whenever you want to write about it. For Didion, though, it’s all about the notebook.

I, too, keep a notebook – a writing notebook – and when I mentioned this during a presentation I gave on research in creative nonfiction, a hand in the audience immediately shot up: What did I write in my writing notebook? Some writers are dismissive of these kinds of questions – do you write in a notebook or on a computer, what kind of pen do you use, what kind of paper? But I’m happy to talk about the physical practicalities of craft – I want to know about your Pilot G-2 and your Clairefontaines. And I’m happy to talk about the content, too. When I answered the question many people took notes – perhaps in their writing notebooks. Here’s a version of what I said:

I keep three versions of a writing notebook: a journal, a writing notebook, and a writing planner.

In my journal I write down what happens to me, what I’m thinking about, occasional random observations, lists – the usual stuff you’d write in a journal. But I include this under “writing notebooks” because (especially as a writer of creative nonfiction) I often look back on journals to remember a certain time or place or person or line of thought – although I never write in my journal with this in mind. I write here solely as a person – not a writer.

Here is a journal entry I made on May 11, 2015, after walking through an Elaine de Kooning exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery:

In my “official” writing notebook I jot down ideas for writing projects, make lists for writing projects, and write sketches of writing projects. Often I’ll start writing towards a draft but without any sense of where I’m headed. Writing by hand takes the pressure off: I can’t send ripped-out notebook pages to The New Yorker. But when a piece moves from my notebook to my computer and eventually (sometimes) to publication, I can see that long passages are often exactly the same as when I wrote them by hand the first time.

This is what I wrote in my writing notebook soon after the journal entry above:


Then there’s my writing planner, the newest addition to my series of writing notebooks. It’s a Moleskine “weekly notebook” that has a calendar page laying out the days of the week on the left side and plain lined pages on the right side. I use this for short- and long-term planning. When I hear of a submission, contest, or application deadline I write it down on the calendar side; then I flip back a few weeks (or months) and write a reminder on the notebook side. On Sundays, a day I usually have a long swath of time to myself, I flip to the next week and write some plans. Then, during the week, when I have an hour or two to myself, I open my writing planner and do what it tells me (this is especially useful when the demands of everyday life are so crushing I can’t think straight). If I find that I can’t manage much I flip ahead a week or two and write “don’t forget about [idea]” and try again then. Every so often I flip back to look for unchecked boxes. It’s a lovely tool for preservation – and for looking and planning ahead to, say, a retreat or residency.

Here is a not-so-productive week in my writing planner (with only a deadline reminder for my piece about The Folded Clock):


And here is a very productive week at the glorious Virginia Center for the Creative Arts:


What would Joan Didion think of all these notebooks? I smile/shudder to think. But my writing notebooks keep me writing – through rejection, triumph, inspiration, and disenchantment; in the face of preschooler twins, tantrums, field trips, and snow days; on the crests and in the troughs; at home and away – all the months of the year.


Randon Billings Noble is an essayist. Her work has appeared in the Modern Love column of The New York Times, The Georgia Review, The Rumpus, Shenandoah, Brevity, Fourth Genre and elsewhere. She is a nonfiction editor at r.kv.r.y quarterly, Reviews Editor at Tinderbox Poetry Journal, and a reviewer for The A.V. Club. You can read more of her work at

I keep notes in a lot of places.  I have Moleskine notebooks with thoughts, sketches, business notes, to do lists, and snippets of prose in my briefcase everyday.  I have older notebooks that are full and aging on bookshelves in different rooms.  I have a box of note cards with quotes from books I’ve read that make up my commonplace book.  I have an electronic archive of articles and photos I’ve clipped from the web in an Evernote file.  As a keeper of notes, I do puzzle over the source of the compulsion to record the instant moment, our impressions of the past, the hopes for the future.  Why do we write things down?

Why Do We Write Things Down?

I found simple and wonderful insights into this question in Joan Didion’s essay “On Keeping a Notebook,” part of her 1968 anthology Slouching Towards Bethlehem.  The essay was written nearly fifty years ago, but feels perfectly modern, arguing that a notebook allows us to return to our former selves and visit, if just for a little while.

Didion begins by describing the moment when she found a random story scribbled into a notebook.  She asks herself why she wrote it in the first place:

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.

Keeping a Notebook Lets Us Remember How We Felt

Didion supposes that her instinct to record is not shared by all, and that her compulsion is borne of some underlying anxiety.

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.

Didion begins to peel back psychological layers when she admits that “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.”  Instead, she says that her recordings were about “how it felt to me.”

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.

The Beauty of Visiting Our Own Histories

Didion ultimately admits that the practice of keeping a notebook is inward-facing.  While she imagined that “the notebook is about other people,” she admits that the point was always to “remember what it was to be me.”

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.”

Didion’s best advice to us is to never overlook the value in “remembering what it was to be ourselves.”  As she says, “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. 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.

Intuitively, I’ve always felt that my notebooks were about remembering ideas so that I could return to the facts of times past.  Didion convinced me in this short essay that I was completely missing the point.  I returned to some old notebooks this week and realized that in reading the entries, I can’t recall the factual details of events or entries.  But the feeling of who I was, what was important, why I was writing was as clear as the day I wrote them.

Didion ultimately reminds us that, “it is a good idea, then, to keep in touch, and I suppose that keeping in touch is what notebooks are all about.”

The entire collection of Slouching Towards Bethlehemis full of similar insight and wit, touching on self-respect, morality, and marriage.

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