a little practice

notebook

I’m leading a little class on journaling that begins this week, a class called “Journaling as a Creative Practice.” I wrote the title — though like most everything I’ve written, I’m questioning if I got it right, wondering what I meant and wishing it was in pencil so I could erase it or in a notebook so I could rip out the page and try on a nice, new clean sheet of paper to get it righter. But it will do this time, and the class will be fun, because journaling is fun and talking about journaling is fun and journals can be written in pencil, or if written in pen, their pages can be torn out. And then you can try again. And again. And again. Or you can keep the pages in, keep in the mistakes, the attempts, the first and second and third tries. In a journal, the point isn’t to get it right. There’s nothing to get right.

I was barely literate when I got my first journal: it was small, fabric covered (coral and tan floral print), lined. I kept it on my nightstand. I wrote my name in cursive inside the front cover. I filled it quickly and others followed: wide-ruled notebooks, hardcover diaries from the Barnes and Noble bargain shelf, sketchbooks from the art supply room (my very favorite room) of my parents’ store. And, over time, journaling became a practice. A quiet few minutes, words, paper, pen, a certain scratching sound, the thinking, the freewriting, the pasting-in of ephemera, the copying down of quotes. Writing practice, spiritual practice, creative practice — whatever it is, it is one of the few things I’ve done, without pause, throughout my life.

Joan Didion, in On Keeping a Notebook, says she keeps a notebook in order to keep in touch with the other people she’s been — to “remember what it is to be me.” I suppose that is part of my impulse, too. It is certainly why, after all these years, I still have the notebook I kept while studying in Italy after my freshmen year of college. I’ve trashed other notebooks, even burned a few, but this one remains in my possession, and intact.

That summer abroad was my first time out of the country and nearly my first time out of the Midwest. The trip, which involved studying Medieval frescoes in sacred places dotted across that glorious landscape, required that I take my second plane ride ever. (My first had come just one year before.) And yet that journal? Toward the back, a pasted itinerary, some train ticket stubs, a map, a few postcards. In the front? Musings about a boy! A boy back in Minnesota! Questions about how I should wear my hair. My hair! Were it not for the occasional marginalia — Italian/German/English translation, train times to Bolzano and Siena — you wouldn’t even venture a guess that I was anywhere but in my prairie bedroom, filling one of the other dozens of notebooks I filled in years prior, with not a Giotto in sight.

Yet I’ve kept this little artifact. Because hidden in that crinkled map and those whining pages is a young me first stepping into another world, carrying her crush from back home and a cheap backpack through the winding streets of beautiful places, buying tickets in barely operational Italian to the places on my itinerary and departing for everything that would come next.

There is a smear of chocolate inside that journal’s front cover, made on a hot night as my traveling-through-Italy friends and I sat in a dim kitchen below a castle in the Tyrol, eating sweets and drinking Grappa and listening the bats. It was the best chocolate I had ever tasted, maybe the best I’ve had still. At the time, I tried to wipe out the smear, tried to tidy up my little notebook, but my efforts only made the mark spread. And here, decades later, that smear is now as important as the postcards tucked in beside it. It’s kind of messy, but the mess is part of the story.