No doubt we’ve all set ourselves deadlines in our writing goals. Some may even come attached with a mental forfeit. Not many can be as extreme as the one Oliver Sacks set himself over fifty years ago when writing his first book.
To complete it within ten days or failing that kill himself.
Spurred into action he wrote at times twenty hours a day and on the tenth day he handed in ‘Migraine’ to Fabers in London. The writing turned to joy and the threat dissipated by a sense of elation.
Writing has been an integral part of his life and besides his numerous books, amongst them the famous ‘Awakenings’ which was made into a film starring the brilliant late Robin Willaims, he also uses notebooks compulsively.
Oliver Sacks writes non-stop, taking note-books with him wherever he goes, often pausing to jot down notes. There he is, resting his notepad on a car-roof, scribbling away. Over there, standing still at a train station, pen and paper in hand, oblivious to the huge swirl of the crowds parting around him and his briefcase which stands abandoned for his feet.
Altogether Sacks reckons he has filled over a thousand notebooks. He calls these an ‘indispensable form of talking to myself’ and that they were not written to be read by others, nor does he read them himself.
‘The act of writing is itself enough; it serves to clarify thoughts and feelings.’
Reading these words it was as if a long-lingering dark cloud has lifted from me and in a few single puffs of words my intermittent anxiety regarding my own collection of notebooks has faded.
Stashed safely in two bed boxes, their weight alone threatening the thin chip board base, the notebooks have rarely seen daylight since the day they were filled. On a few nostalgic moments I’ve retrieved the odd one and snuggled in bed, relived a few days of my youth, dipped into past loves, sorrows, tragedies, read a few words of innocent dramatic musings written in my childish scrawl.
Otherwise they lay there, untouched. By no means reaching Oliver Sacks’s thousand, but near a hundred notebooks and I had wondered, why? Why did I bother? What should I do with them?
Now I am reassured. I can face a contented security that this is normal, whatever normal means. To scribble away, to put away. These inner thoughts, emotions, a creative conversation within myself, an outpouring of energy that helped in the moment and helped to form myself. To create and re-create myself. At times two hours would disappear in frenzied writing and as I emerged with aching fingers and blurred vision my soul and mind felt purged, as thoughts and ideas became vivid and crystal clear.
Each notebook is precious, from the smallest, earliest one at 2 x 4 cm in a golden hardback flip case, to the largest, latest lurid pink ‘blott’ notebook. From misspelt words, feelings, lists, to ideas on life, friends, boyfriends and politics, I scribbled away. Not forgetting the dreams…those dream entries still freak me out. Once for two weeks I kept a dream diary and as early morning writing turned into the next morning, the dreams seemed so ominous and fantastic, too real. My sleep suffered and finally I had to stop.
Nowadays I find one notebook alone does not suffice and so I work around four different journals, each assigned a specific topic.
- My traditional black hardboard notebook is full of observations of life around me, conversations overheard in shops, description of particularly striking people spotted whilst out shopping, of interesting signposts, newspaper articles.
- Another hardback journal is white with the loud and proud words of ‘Hold on People I’m having an Idea’ plastered across the whole front cover. In here I write down story ideas, some are merely a sentence long, whilst others stretch over pages.
- The blue one with a blue elastic band serves as my book journal; in here I jot down notes on books I’m reviewing as well as books I have read and ones I intend to buy.
- Finally I write in a smaller beautiful multicoloured notebook with a magnetic flip front fastening. Unusually this was not a gift as most of my journals have been (I’m easy to buy presents for!) but I acquired this myself in Cambridge years ago and for a while it was left unattended as I felt it was too special to write in. Finally I decided to use it for the funny wise sayings of my son. Keen observations of the world that were uttered with startling clarity, seeing things anew only as they young can, and in the process reigniting the novelty of life for weary adults.
How could I resist this kind offer made by my son when he still very young! Reckon I didn’t take the money!
‘You should be a home-author. You can write stories for me whilst I’m at school. You don’t have to publish them. If they’re good I’ll give you 10p.’
- I must not forget my mslexia dairy, full of blog notes, story ideas, competitions, quotes (plus of course school trips, doctor visits, birthdays…)
I approach each new notebook with the same eager anticipation I experienced in my childhood. The blank pages bursting with promise and expectation, so empty and free. With almost religious zeal I will flip through the pages, imaging the outpourings that might fill their bleak space. A feeling felt as keenly now as when a child and many a notebook will start with very similar feelings to these written seven years ago in a new gold-leaf edged notebook given to me by a life-long friend.
‘Monday 12th October 2008 Always such a great responsibility – marking that very first page. All pristine, empty of thoughts and emotions, now to be scarred forever, must be something special methinks, of particular value. … Once again I trust I will keep with it, once again I say for my sanity, once again I say, let’s see where it leads.’
Recently Oliver Sacks seems to have been everywhere I’ve turned; his latest autobiography reviewed in papers and online and convinced I bought ‘On the Move: A Life’ for my Dad for Father’s Day (hint to Dad: Please hurry up and read quickly – I want to borrow it!)
Then reading about the life of Oliver Sacks I discovered his addiction to notebooks and its absolute and phenomenal impact on his life This face reassured me about the sanity of writing these, holding on to them, for no particular reason but for their very being. I hope you too might find this of consolation.
I am sure many of you write and keep notebooks. I would love to hear from you about them. What topics are covered? Are they gifts or self-bought? Do you reread them often or let them rest in peace?
Finally, of course it does not just have to be notebooks. As Oliver Sacks said, ‘The need to think on paper is not confined to notebooks. It spreads onto the backs of envelopes, menus, whatever scraps of paper are at hand.’