Joan Didion on Keeping a Notebook

Lovers and keepers of diaries and notebooks often struggle to describe what it is about putting their ideas and thoughts onto paper that feels so urgent. As work that will likely never be published, the personal journal is undoubtedly motivated by a private need. If the journal is not meant to communicate to others, what then is it for? What compels us to record our lives, our moments, our fleeting thoughts?

In Joan Didion’s 1968 anthology Slouching Towards Bethlehem is a wonderful essay titled “On Keeping a Notebook,” in which Didion considers this question. Though the essay was originally written nearly half a century ago, the insights at its heart apply to much of our modern record-keeping, from blogging to Twitter to Instagram.

Joan Didion

"...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 pensées; 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." 

Joan Didion On Keeping a Journal

Didion considers that journal keeping is an act of ego. She observes that it is also a way to not so much record moments as to experience them. In much the same way as we feel compelled to pull out our phones and take photos when something is happening (pics or it didn't happen!), she observed in herself an impulse to pull out her notebook and write down. Our lives are made up of moments, and in attempting to capture those moments, we are in fact attempting to capture our lives.

"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."

Joan Didion Quote 2

Didion's essay is highly recommended reading for journal keeps and diarists, as is the entire volume of essays. You'll find Slouching Towards Bethlehem on Amazon.

Slouching Towards Bethlehem Book Cover