Hoarding Notes: The Uselessness of the Writer’s Notebook – Michigan Quarterly Review

Hoarding Notes: The Uselessness of the Writer’s Notebook

“A spider pressed between the pages like a scribbled flower”

In her essay, “My Vocation,” Natalia Ginzburg writes that when she first became a writer, she kept a notebook for all the details, similes, and episodes that she discovered in daily life. She collected phrases such as: “His curls like bunches of grapes,” “Red and black blankets on an unmade bed,” “A pale face like a peeled potato.” She promised herself that she would use these “savings” in a story, and she waited for the day that story came along.

“His mouth over her ear sounded like the inside of a conch shell”

In the summer of 2014, at my college reunions, I lost my phone somewhere in the cracks of a converted clubhouse. I spent all night and most of the next morning searching for it, until I finally had to tear myself away to drive back home. I felt the loss with a deepness that I could not communicate; my entire body tingled from the shock of it. Not the loss of the phone itself, which I knew could be replaced. But rather the indelible loss of all of my “savings.”

I never kept a physical notebook (bad handwriting; no pockets). But because my phone was always on me, every time I thought of an idea, or a detail, or any tidbit that had a nice ring to it, I typed it down. I typed it down to save for later—for a story I was in the middle of writing, for a story I hadn’t yet written, for a story I hadn’t even begun to imagine. I had so many of these little notes that I would sometimes scroll down the screen just to see them riffle up, a blur of words that sang of possibility. They belonged to the future, and I carried them, clustered, in my pocket.

So to lose them all, in one fell swoop, was a loss that I still cannot describe, because it was, in a sense, losing everything and nothing at all.

“All sweetness leaves a sour taste in your mouth”

What I remember about those notes were not the words themselves. What I remember is the feeling of writing them. Of dragging myself upright in the middle of the night because a perfect dream-sentence came to me on the edge of sleep. Of reaching a dripping arm out of the shower, or typing under the table in the middle of class. Of whispering the words to myself over and over again while I wrote them down, the relief when I hit the last button because I had plucked vapor from the air and bottled it.

What I lost in the clubhouse was all that effort, that diligence, that determination to lose sleep, drip on the floor, interrupt class. All those last-minute saves had made me believe those notes were meant for greatness, but wasn’t there a whiff of hubris in thinking that I could capture inspiration and squirrel it away for later? Had those notes been doomed from the start?

“Slivers of shining rock lighting up like fish scales”

Ginzburg certainly thought so.

Her notebook of saved phrases was not the incubator she’d assumed it would be. It became, instead, “a kind of museum of phrases that were crystallized and embalmed and very difficult to use.”

Reading her words, I remembered the first time my parents took me to see a river. I could not stop looking at the stones just beneath the shallow waters. When my parents looked away, I squatted down at the edge and plucked a few of my favorites. I cradled them in my hands, taken by the live-ness of their shimmer and color, the wet beauty that saturated them. I took them home in my pockets, and when I pulled them back out, they were dry and dull and dead. 

“The living scent of something that grows that shouldn’t be eaten”

I have always been a hoarder. A just-in-case taker of plastic utensils, a saver of ill-fitting clothes, an emotional collector of the detritus of relationships past. You never know what you’re going to need, when you’re going to need it.

I’m wearing, right now, a pair of blue shorts that did not fit me for three years, until, suddenly, they did. Last week, a pair of break-apart chopsticks I’d taken from a Chinese restaurant helped me dispose of a dead fish in my aquarium. The weather warm, I clean out my apartment and throw very little away. Instead, I put the sentimental junk back in better, neater places. I stroke the cheap velvet on an empty chocolate sampler box and fill it with dried rose petals and old polaroids.

So of course I hoard notes too, with the same unquestioned optimism that they will come in handy one day.

Yet Ginzburg tells me, “If you carry details around inside yourself for a long time without making use of them, they wear out and waste away.” She tells me that in hoarding those living ideas, I allowed them to die in my pocket. To keep holding on is an act in vain and in vanity.

Who am I supposed to believe? Who is the authority on the usefulness of things? 

“It’s that time of summer when the sunsets are as gentle as the sunrises, a linger rather than a plunge”

 Though I swore I would never trust a phone again after my reunions, I ended up holding out for only a few weeks. One day in July, while watching the Michigan sun creep down the horizon, I sat in that extra golden hour of light, took out my new phone, and hit save.

Reading the words I typed almost three years later, they still feel alive to me. That phrase is the closest I will get to that slow sunset my first summer in Michigan, when I fell for a city on the edge of the Eastern Time zone. I don’t know if I will ever write those words in a story. Ginzburg is right when she says that details expire inside you. But there is a reason, too, that she uses “museum” instead of “mausoleum” to describe the writer’s notebook. A museum is filled not with life, but not with death either. It is filled, instead, with items we have decided are worth treasuring.

Every time I wrote a note in my phone, I simultaneously decided its worth to me. Regardless if I ever used the note, the decision to take the time to capture it made it automatically precious. Because if I had not expended the effort, if I had let the detail disappear back into the ether, then how would I remember the beauty and suddenness of the phrase coming into my life in the first place? How would I remember that feeling of hope, of faith, of future and connect that feeling to the act of writing itself? Just because something isn’t being used doesn’t mean it isn’t useful.

I was right to mourn the loss of those notes in 2014. I was right to move past and keep saving. Looking at this piece, they came in handy after all. You cannot lose what you decide is worth trying to save. If you put river rocks back in water, they come alive again.


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