The memoirist must be a note-keeper, a gatherer of words and impressions, ideas and sensations — a hunter of ghosts. Keep a notebook. So says Samuel Pepys, Joan Didion, Louis deSalvo, Susan Sontag… me.
A ritual of conservation, preservation of memory.
A notebook traps ghosts.
It can save your life, insists Louise DeSalvo in her seminal work Writing as a Way of Healing: How Telling our Stores Transforms our Lives.
Didion in her famous essay “On Keeping a Notebook,” writes:
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.
It is a good idea, then, to keep in touch, and I suppose that keeping in touch is what notebooks are all about. And we are all on our own when it comes to keeping those lines open to ourselves: your notebook will never help me, nor mine you…
Anything of importance should be written down to be conserved. Not everything is traceable, not everything has a flashpoint, a crater; a flag planted, a voice in the incessant chorus of history. Chatter dies, syllables on the page last, if only longer. So much is lost, if there are no attempts at conservation. I am a conservationist and I am in the conservation business. But of what exactly, other than language, am I preserving I’m unclear, other than I record that which speaks to me in a tug, or a whisper, a repetitive presence perhaps or simply a yearning to make sense of time.
I conserve because not everything leaves its mark, a trail of dicta, of paper or bone. Traces are easily erased by memory and by might; some marks are merely assimilated into the thing that swallows it. I find that we ourselves, in the end game, of creeping normalcy, unexpectedly find ourselves apart of something entirely different and by the time we know this our trail has disappeared, over grown in weeds, smothered in shadow, dim and viscous. Try as we might the way back – in thought, in person – has vanished. Unless there is some accounting, some record brought down upon the constancy of history. Or, over time we find all is gone and irretrievable. It is important too, to understand exactly who pens the accounts; and who exactly collects the potentially ephemeral; and who selects what to save and what to sacrifice.
My journal pages are leaves of dubious and sometimes inspired writings, they will be my preservation tome, to be read, to be noted, to let it be known I was here, I was here, I was right here…this was my story.
Some of the most influential people in history kept detailed journals of their lives. Those journals served two purposes: a permanent record for posterity, and cathartic release for the people writing them. Even if you don’t think you need either, keeping a journal has great benefits you can enjoy immediately. Here’s why you might want to sit down regularly to jot down your thoughts.