An Unraveled Hem, Joan Didion

I’ve kept some kind of a notebook, or journal, since junior high. Thankfully, the majority of them have gone the way of the wind. I suppose that’s a nice way of saying that I destroyed them at one time or another. I recall erasing every word one January, in some other life a million years ago in the year of 1981, when it occurred to me that the gift of a journal, even one with a cheap lock on it, was possibly a clever plot on the part of some household spy to discover my innermost thoughts and feelings. That sounds paranoid, except that it wasn’t. I was an impenetrable vault, I gave nothing away to no one and my ability to do so caused quite a bit of frustration on occasion. I then, for a time, kept two journals, one that was the approximation of a stand-up movie facade, “We had chicken fried steak and mashed potatoes for dinner, it was very good. The dog chased the neighbors cat through the other neighbors flowers again,” yawn, and one that was filled with the general gossipy ramblings of a girl that age, “I wonder if he likes me. I hope he likes me. I hope he calls. He better not call her.” But, ultimately, I could not keep up with that, and the keeping of the decoy journal fell by the wayside. Though one day, not long after I stopped recording in it the mundane workings of the average day, I was assured that I had been correct as to the subversive nature of the gift of a journal, when I was suspiciously questioned as to whether or not I was still writing in it. A-ha!

What I noticed is that as I got older, I got to where I very rarely recorded the actual events of any particular day, despite the fact that it often seemed to me that I should be. It has seemed to me that certain things likely should be written down, “This was the day that Aunt Tilly married that gold digger, Harlan, and this family will never be the same again! If he’s got oil wells, I’ll eat my hat!” Or that we had a good Christmas, “It snowed this morning and the lights from the tree reflected through the window onto the glistening white, icy, blanket that covered the lawn in the night, it is beautiful. We’ve got a ham and and a prime rib for the feast, the house smells of cinnamon and cider. I could stay snuggled up here forever like this. Everyone is well and we are blessed.” It seems that because history is happening all around us every day that some of those things should be written down too, that in the future those things are the stories of how it really was from the people who were really there, or at least, their experience and perception of it. So every now and then when I’ve thought of such a thing, I guess there’s been that. However, generally, at some point it became ramblings, for my own sake, and more often than not it’s digressed from letters to myself to randomly jotted notes to myself and of things that I sometimes wonder why I wrote down and sometimes don’t know what they were or are. I think sometimes that I mean them as prompts for the full entry that I meant to write, or wanted to write, and in that moment, couldn’t. Write that down, like some scrap of a morsel collected for later when there will be some shortage of random nonsense, I can open a notebook and see that, ah, yes, I wrote down the lyrics of, “Do your ears hang low?”

Like many writers, not only do I do this, but I quest for the perfect notebooks to do this in, as well as the most excellent pens, and since, despite the fact that everything is allegedly available online now, I can never find the ones that I really want, I get the ones that will do, and I keep looking. This adds up to a lot of writing, a lot of pens, paper, notebooks, etc. Writers fill file cabinets and boxes and shelves with this kind of thing, really. Getting rid of it is useless. For a good decade I carted around two file boxes that contained every scrap I’d ever written that I was still in possession of. Many years ago now, I spent most of one night burning at least that much material only to discover that to be useless, it only re-accumulates. Sorting through files the last few days, I found no less than ten copies of one manuscript, each of them slightly different from the others in some infinitesimal way. I thought, Do I really need to keep all of these? Then I thought, Why get rid of one just so you can type it again at some point? Just keep them, put them away, be done with them, but keep them.

Why though? Why do writers do this sort of thing? As I noticed that I did, in fact, write down these words, “Camp songs – 99 Bottles of Beer- Do your ears hang low?” in a notebook as some kind of prompt, or often, too, I’ll think, ‘Oh, that would be good to stick in a story somewhere, write that down for later’ and then I never use it but what for, really?

I was reading again an essay by Joan Didion, “On Keeping a Notebook,” that explains it perfectly, it is, in large part, to remember myself. Which then, for the thinking person, might bring up the question, am I forgetting myself? Am I worried about forgetting myself? It isn’t like forgetting to buy dish soap because I didn’t put it down on the list. No, it isn’t that, but that it seems that there are all of these good bits that are chasing away like butterflies on the spring breeze and fireflies into the night and if you let them get away, ah well… It’s some random observation in some crystalline moment of perception when the mundane or the average is so unerringly valuable and beautiful, Didion describes a woman who is losing the hem on her dress, which may not register the same with some of the younger set as a metaphor for coming undone or being out of sorts, because in that time when Didion wrote it down, well, you wouldn’t be out and about with your hem coming undone if you could possibly help it. We know something about ourselves in those moments and so we write it down, to remember ourselves. We know something about time in those moments, stopping it, capturing it, and the passage of it, I’ve been running around wearing a pair of patched, ripped, jeans lately, and there was a time when I’d have never worn such a thing for anything other than doing yard work or painting something, let alone out in public, though I have been doing those very kinds of chores lately, but still. An undone hem, I observe, and I am set to rambling myself because I’m a writer too, and so I write down in my notebook the last words that ever need to be said about why writers keep notebooks, “undone hem – Joan Didion.” I think I’ll write that at the beginning of every new notebook from now on, I think I will.


Joan Didion, “On Keeping A Notebook.”