This fetish has prompted me to wonder on more than one occasion that I engage in writing poems as a way of feeding my notebook-habit, rather than the other way round. Cloaked in this joke is the serious observation that years of note-making practice has taught me: it is not really about the notebook; it is about the noticing.
Somewhere (you’ll have to trust me on this) I have a one-page entry which reads: ‘The woman in the anorak at the swimming pool’. I agree, it’s not much of an observation.
But, in its way, it has become monumental to me, a touchstone which reminds me why I do this.
Picture the setting. It’s a Monday night in the depths of winter. I am watching my kids at their swimming practice, as I do every Monday, at the local baths. I am sitting alone on some tiered seats, a respectable British distance from the other parents, some of whom are eating, some chatting, and some shouting to their children below.
I notice the man in charge of the swimming practice has a whistle and a black, skin-tight tracksuit. He is also shouting. My kids’ group is in the lane nearest to the tiered seating. I have a very good view of their progress.
But, being me, my mind wanders. I fidget. (This is in the unimaginable age before mobile phones and Facebook). I look at my book. I close my book. I pretend to listen to the trainer. I fidget some more, finding with surprise that I have brought my notebook with me. I begin to flick through the entries, pages of lists and weird phrases I have no memory of writing.
Then I see her.
At the end of the pool, at pool-level, is a small seating area. It is only ever filled by the parents who get to the training sessions first. The woman who has caught my eye is the mother of a former friend of my daughter. We would have spoken, years ago, in the school playground. I have not seen her for some time. I notice she looks tired and a bit drawn. Like me she is not chatting to other parents or eating. She is watching her daughter intently, between glances at the pages of a magazine. She speaks to no one.
At the end of the session, she smiles briefly at her daughter, waves, and puts on a blue anorak. Then she vanishes.
All I have in my notebook is: ‘The woman in the anorak in the swimming pool.’ I do not need any more. Like an iceberg floating on the surface of the water, it contains all the information I need: the smell of chlorine, the noise, the vast sense of isolation of a Monday night in December.
Originally I thought it may go in a short story. I may never use it for anything (in a sense I just have).
I may one day forget it.
If this anecdote does not persuade you, perhaps this will. The best article that I have seen on the transformational power of the notebook-habit is Notes from a Marine Biologist’s Daughter by poet Anne McCrary Sullivan. It is a beautiful autobiographical essay which hymns the importance of taking note of your surroundings, including your own processes of creation and the creative people around you. For McCrary Sullivan the chief of these was her marine biologist mother of the essay’s title: ‘She taught me attention to the complexities of surface detail and also attention to what lies beneath those surfaces. She taught me the rhythms of tide and regeneration, and the syllables of the natural world rubbing against each other. In doing so, she made me a poet.’
If you keep a notebook it is going to be filled with quotations like this one by the time you finish reading it. The question she asks is: ‘How might we teach attention?’ -which presupposes that a) it is worth teaching and b) that you can. But that is another blog post.