Saturday, February 04, 2023

on graphomania, or for the love of notebooks

One of my favorite childhood memories was my love of "writing" and by writing, I mean scribbling loops and lines and zig zags on paper and saying it said something. Of course, it didn't, but my stories, however, were many and vast. I learned my alphabet, sing-song, before I was 4, but it would take a while before I actually could do anything like read or string words together., much less master the physical control that forms even the most basic letters. I wanted cursive, of course. And pens, and lined paper. I remember being very impatient with the strangely textured greyish newsprint of handwriting tablets they gave us in school. And pencils, which I grew to hate with alacrity I still hold them in, even for drawing (which luckily I am terrible at, so no loss there. )  

I wanted ink, ideally, in multiple colors. And thinly ruled college spiral notebooks.  The slide of it across the page. Even if they said nothing at all and everyone thought I was a weird little kid, I was "writing" the best I knew how. I was familiar with books of course, my dad being a big reader, and having a good assortment of Little Goldens and my trusty, battered checkerboard Mother Goose I'd been hauling around since I was 3. I'm not sure where my knowledge of cursive writing came from, especially humorous since my parents both had terrible penmanship. I don't know where I was pulling it from, but I wanted it acutely. Those swoopy lines and loops that held words.  Was obsessed by them.

I remember getting, by request, as a Christmas gift a selection of notebooks and pads and pens, including those rare tri-color beauties we all coveted in school (and actually also as adults, where a couple became fierce spoils in the unclaimed pen wars of the library circulations desk several years ago.) All of it was tucked inside a canvas tote bag. which I don't really remember having anything on it, but it formed my attachment to that particular carry-all that also still continues today. I was probably 5 or 6 and honestly, it was by far my favorite gift that year, even more than the playdoh hair salon I also loved or the large play kitchen I would get the next year. More than hand-held games and Barbies and pom poms and kiddie perfume. Even more than a black sweatshirt with a rhinestone cat face &  whiskers I wore until it fell apart.

In school, I was struggling with forming perfect letters, but at home, I was filling notebooks with things only I could decipher. When we mastered printing and moved onto cursive, it was better, though I was still not as neat as I would later be, when in high school, I modeled my perfectly slanted penmanship after my French teacher with her perfect little crossed sevens.  I still continued my brand of writing even after I was learning how to actually write--it was faster, less laborious, and really no one was reading it anyway, not even me. Those stories were usually gone as quickly as I told myself them in my head, or they would become entirely different stories when retold. 

It's all especially humorous considering I gave up drafting by hand over a decade ago. Largely, it was mostly because the screen allowed for easier revision than all those cross-outs and notations ever did. Now, I do write notes by hand for both noncreative and creative work, but the composition happens on the keyboard. There is a similar satisfaction to hearing my fingers click over the keys and the words appear onscreen, but its less a tactile thing than writing cursive by hand (or more likely, my strange hybrid of cursive and print.) I still love pens, of course, thick gel ink ones, my trusty G-2's, that are bold and roll satisfactorily across the page.  I go through about one per month now taking notes for lessons and articles and various projects. I still get a shiver every time I start a notebook (I like the spiral kraft-covered ones with lines) but also occasionally use inexpensive sketchbooks with multi-purpose art paper inside. I also use a sketchbook as a planner with post-its for organizing tasks, as well as green-tinted stenography books I love to keep track of completed projects and income each day.

I come by it honestly. My dad's life was littered with a million small notebooks he kept track of everything from bills and household expenses to golf scores and horse race handicapping. I found a couple of these with strange betting notations when cleaning out his office in November, though I did not keep them. His handwriting small and messy, though a little less messy than my mother's.  I've often spoken of my paternal grandmother's small diaries, one of which I have intact from the last years of her life. Another in pieces that I've occasionally used for collage. You could not stop any of us from writing things down. 

I started a diary when I was 14, and I still have it, full of poems and boys and the ratings of a teenage girl, including food diaries and calorie counts I wish were not in there.  I graduated to the composition books all through college and up til around 2002 when I started my first online journal. In between, there were other notebooks--large and small--full of class notes and reading lists. Beautiful journals I filled with random things and quotes and didn't keep. Also, poem ideas and snippet notebooks that were used then salvaged for unused lines and ideas that were carefully added to the next one before throwing the old one out every few months.I know some people who keep all these things or none of them, but if I did, I may be drowning in a sea of notebooks and bound journals as far as the eye can see.

My mother, in her later years, once remarked to a stranger, at a reading they accompanied me to at a university, that she always wondered what I was doing, hiding in my room with my pen scratching across some notebook, or writing hunched over the coffee table cross-legged on the floor, even in summer when I was not studying. Only now she saw the fruits of it in the poems that I read and published (this was 2008 or so). That she finally got it--what I was doing all that time.  What I continued to do. 

Still, I love a pretty notebook and occasionally buy one just for the beauty of it, even now when so much of my writing happens through the click of keys. I also decorate my notebooks much as I did in high school to keep them identifiable according to which writing job they're for. They sit in a stack underneath my monitor, though I do, at least, throw them out when they're full.

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