Language & Composition

Mr. Eure | Brewster High School

On Keeping a Notebook

We’ve had introductions and overviews, and you’ve been given a quick tour of the place; now we start our work in earnest.

If you are intrigued, you can learn about our first author by reading this profile; you also always have our dear friend Wikipedia to give you context. You should also revisit your summer assignment so that what you are being asked to do is fresh in your mind:

Pay careful attention to the sections on taking notes and the use and usefulness of a compendium. You might be interested in the term’s definition and etymology; this is formative work, built around cataloging reactions and insights as you read, and it will lend weight to your online discussion.

When you are ready to talk to each other, force your conversations to orbit the text. Bring yourself back to Didion’s language and reasoning as often as possible. As soon as you break orbit, you risk drifting off into the dark aether; keep quoting her, paraphrasing her, and using her ideas to fuel your own. Push this essay of hers past your working and short-term memory and into some deeper, more resonant place. If you need a push, you might use one of the two quotations selected for you below.

On a kind of confabulation:

I tell what some would call lies. “That’s simply not true,” the members of my family frequently tell me when they come up against my memory of a shared event. “The party was not for you, the spider was not a black widow, it wasn’t that way at all.” Very likely they are right, for not only have I always had trouble distinguishing between what happened and what merely might have happened, but I remain unconvinced that the distinction, for my purposes, matters. The cracked crab that I recall having for lunch the day my father came home from Detroit in 1945 must certainly be embroidery, worked into the day’s pattern to lend verisimilitude; I was ten years old and would not now remember the cracked crab. The day’s events did not turn on cracked crab. And yet it is precisely that fictitious crab that makes me see the afternoon all over again, a home movie run all too often, the father bearing gifts, the child weeping, an exercise in family love and guilt. Or that is what it was to me.

On revisiting past selves:

I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind’s door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends. We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget. We forget the loves and the betrayals alike, forget what we whispered and what we screamed, forget who we were.

All right, then. Let’s talk about Didion, notebooks, and memory.

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114 responses to “On Keeping a Notebook

  1. Anthony Palmerini September 2, 2012 at 4:28 pm

    Joan Didion writes about the notebook to express what a notebook, in a way, is used for: a place to get away from. Didion talks about a story about a girl in a bar, which has nothing to do with the notebook, only an entry, but that entry demonstates what a person can do in a notebook. Now that stroy may have been entirly true or a total lie, but it doesn”t matter, it came from a notebook. This passage is, in a sense, a notebook entry. Didion writes it like she describes a notebook entry, that it can be the truth or a lie, and the entry is written as someone would write a journal entry; going off topic, telling stories, informal writing. Didion is expressing her feelings throughout as well, and there are hints throughout. Didion talks about stories of her leaving her man behind and not having much money at all. A re-occuring theme of sadness can be found in the texts. She starts the passage about a lonely girl in a bar talking to a cat. Her seventeen year old version of herself drinking on a levee by the sea. her hearing the clerk talk about divorcing and children, all the while Didion has a hangover and thinking about her not having children. Didion having the phrase “What’s new in the whiskey buisness?” as a journal entry, which turns to seeing a woman look old in the winter, and Didion realize she doesn’t look in the mirror herself and reads the obituary section of the newspaper. Didion ends the passage that she made sauerkraut and drank bourbon, and she felt safe. The next time she makes the sauerkraut, without bourbon, she didn’t feel safe. Didion needed liquor to drown her sorrows, and this transfered to her notebook entries. Notebooks are used to release emotions, as she talks about, and demonstrates throughout the passage. She talks about lying, which she can in her own notebook, because a notebook isn’t for facts, it is for emotion, and lying can make you happy. This is apparent when she talks about find her first book and laughing at an ironic story of a woman believing she is freezing, but is actualy in the desert, and is baking. Didion talks about what makes a notebook a notebook.Se demonstrates what is in a notebook and how to write in the notebook, in her own passage writings filled with her own emotions

    • Will Kelmenson September 4, 2012 at 6:11 pm

      You make several good points here about the passage. I didn’t notice how Didion wrote “On Keeping a Notebook” sort of as if she were actually writing in a notebook. The passage does not seem very organized, and many parts can be interpreted in different ways by the reader, as shown here in the comments section. However you can be sure that this passage really means something to Joan Didion. I also picked up on the tone of sadness or depression throughout the passage, although it doesn’t exactly stand out; it is more hidden within the writing.

      • Avery Pan September 4, 2012 at 11:16 pm

        Although the passage does seem to appear disorganized and somewhat random at specific parts, I don’t think Didion’s passage “On Keeping a Notebook” had much relevance to her actual notebook entries. While even she had trouble decoding the dialogues and observations she had once written down, the passage seemed to have a particular and sort of distinct purpose in which Didion attempted to get through to her audience. She explains the importance of keeping a notebook and remembering who we once were, whereas her notebook entries do not describe any purpose at all but just fulfill those requirements. I was also able to detect the same depressing tone throughout the passage however, and completely agree on how it makes her sound somewhat forlorn.

    • Sara Lavelle September 4, 2012 at 8:43 pm

      Anthony, I agree with many things you say. I mainly agree with what you said how entries in a notebook come from emotions and they can be truthful or honest. I believe that people can be constant liars or they can be someone who just wants a more interesting life than they have. Some of the lies can just be the way someone sees something. It may not be completely true but it could be symbolic just to keep their writing more interesting. Just like his mother said when she gave him his first journal, “I stop whining and learn to amuse myself by writing down my thoughts.” It was about his thoughts/imagination, it never had anything to do with honest. However, personally to me, I see a journal as something that should be honest and truthful of your life.

  2. Catherine Caputo September 2, 2012 at 5:54 pm

    Didion’s way of keeping in touch of the people she used to be is intriguing to me. I may only be 16, but there are so many versions, dare I say, doppelgangers, of myself. The C.C. who was too young to know anything about the world. The CC who thought she would never recover from losing half of her family within a few weeks of each other, and suffered intermediate school feeling so alone. The C C that finally came to terms with loss, and began to be interested in literature again. And now, the CiCi who’s beginning to become less and less ignorant on everything going on around her. I find myself also going back and thinking about these kids, how a situation would have been different if I had still been anyone of them, and how I’m glad I’m not. But we do lose touch with the people we used to be for the same reason we lose touch with the people around us who we used to be close with; we’ve become too different. Sometimes we grow with people, and sometimes we grow away from others, but what remains with us are the memories and experiences we’ve had up until now. Now matter how we perceive them, fact or fiction, they’ve become something personal that may not mean anything to someone else, but reflect on the way we see the world.

  3. Meaghan Black September 3, 2012 at 9:48 am

    Through Joan Didion’s “On Keeping a Notebook” she uses her own life experiences to portray her thoughts on memories and note taking. Her purpose throughout the passage is to prove why she and others keep a notebook. Didion believes that a notebook full of memories and experiences will allow you to cherish those memories forever without the details fading. Details make a moment memorable, and when you preserve the details, you preserve the memory. However, Didion does not believe that one must write down the exact happenings of each day, rather write how you felt, because feelings are what makes a memory special to you, even though it might differ from another ones memory of that event.
    For instance, even though I do not have a juornal of my own, if I did, I would write something that would mean nothing to an outside reader, but to me would bring me back to the moment I wrote about solely because I kept how I felt during that event. Upon reading my entry, I would remember and feel everything i felt that day, which Didion feels is the true purpose of note keeping. Didion proves that note keeping is not done so others can understand, but done so you can relive your memories.

    • Danny DePaoli September 4, 2012 at 7:07 pm

      I agree with your analysis of why Didion writes about feelings rather than details. I think that this is especially true for people that share her kind of reclusive personality. She more notices things in the background rather than the main subject in a situation. I also agree with the fact that feelings can help you to relive your own memories, because i have often found that to be the case in my own personal experiences.

  4. Alessandra Ferraro September 3, 2012 at 7:46 pm

    After reading Joan Didion’s piece, “On keeping a Notebook”, it exemplified the importance of keeping a notebook. I found it interesting how she recorded everything in great detail expressing memories such as, “vicious summer sidewalks and the 3 a.m. long distance calls that will make her lie awake and then sleep drugged through all the steaming mornings left in August (1960? 1961?). This creates a sharp image and remembrance of her past as recorded in her notebook. When I think of my memories or experiences in my mind, logically keeping a notebook would have been the smart thing to do. You never want to let them escape your mind, recording them in a notebook will keep them fresh in memory like the day you encountered it and never leave history. Didion states, “The impulse to write things down is a peculiarly compulsive one,” illustrates that her writing are merely an everyday action, an addiction, an everyday remembrance to never forget the past, and a compulsive habit she has required. Throughout this article she uses many rhetorical questions to make the reader ponder, why have a notebook? This is keeping us as the readers intrigued and eager to find the reason to why it’s important? Then she clearly states the difference between a diary and notebook, rushes of opinions flood my mind. My opinion may contradict to others however; a diary is a way to pour out your emotions and to describe a moment in time that impacted your life powerfully and emotionally. Whereas a notebook lets you describe the moment of time you’re portrayed in and lets you fully illustrate the surroundings. Also lets you right facts not more as an opinion based story. In her notebook, certain entries were labeled “FACT”, it’s a way she separates her imagination and creativity with actual reality. However I noticed she gave negative connotations toward certain words like diary, even though her life portrays a diary. Throughout the entry she uses negative connotations toward people keeping a book, which usually mean they have problems with their life such as, “lonely and resistant rearrangers of things, anxious malcontents, children afflicted apparently at birth with some presentiment of loss.” This brings a negative affect towards the reader. All in all I enjoyed Didion’s piece, it gives me a sense that life is important and recording the fine detail and remembrance of a random date can make a little thing a big thing when you look back. This really connected me to date times of old journals of generals in war or people experiencing the holocaust, showing us the time back then so in the future now it will be of importance and never forgotten. Keeping a journal preserves the history and the importance of a specific time.

  5. Avery Pan September 3, 2012 at 11:45 pm

    Joan Didion’s approach to keeping a notebook is extremely insightful in that she is able to creatively and thoroughly determine and explain the purpose. As the above entries have proven, the message of the passage is clear; remembering the people we once were holds a particular significance and notebooks allow us to do just that. The abundance of rhetorical questions and other devices provided in the passage lead us to the idea that without the keeping of a notebook, our old selves would remain forever lost. Despite the sophisticated language and the heavy descriptions of the mental and emotional benefits of keeping a notebook, it is difficult to overlook some key elements in the passage that seem to work against Didion’s persuasion towards keeping a notebook. There are several aspects throughout the article that push the reader to characterize Joan Didion as some sort of miserable creature, therefore prohibiting any appeals one might have on her character from being established. I first noticed this as she generalized all keepers of private notebooks as being “lonely and resistant rearrangers of things, anxious malcontents, children afflicted apparently at birth with some presentiment of loss.” The asyndeton only left me wondering why she would want to stir her readers into contributing more negative “breeds” of people to the list, and why this would lead anyone to believe keeping a notebook, while having it’s additional perks (now she is aware that items like sauerkraut made her feel safe once upon a time but now are incapable of doing so), also clearly has its positive effects on one’s personality or identity. Didion’s use of the word “verisimilitude” on page two makes me question the reality of her whole oh-so dear recollection of her father’s return from Detroit in 1945, considering “verisimilitude” denotes something having merely the appearance of truth. Her cynical claim that “we are all brought up in the ethic that others, any others, all others, are by definition more interesting than ourselves; taught to be diffident, just this side of self-effacing” is not only an enormous generalization, but I also couldn’t help note how it was not entirely correct at all. In fact, many of us are brought up to believe that we are each unique or “special” in our own separate ways, we are all interesting, and we are taught, throughout high school especially, to do our best to expose and even broadcast our own personal identities and talents. In the beginning, Didion made a very creditable point; the impulse to write things down is just a compulsion that like most, is “useful only accidentally, only secondarily, in the way that any compulsion tries to justify itself.” This only led me to further question; do her notebook entries that seem to have no relevance actually serve as a reminder of entire events for her? Or is she just trying to self-justify them, to create a beneficial but pseudo reason behind spending time jotting down random dialogues and observations? Is it really important that she remembers her 17 or 23 year-old self, people that many are taught to let go of later in life in order to become the people they are destined to be?

  6. Conor Mitts September 4, 2012 at 10:42 am

    I found the passage very manful however for a different reason then some of the comments before me, others focused on the idea of your old self and how a notebook let’s you try and hold on to that. However I believe that people are always changing each one of your experiences shapes you as a person, some experiences more then others. Each little note written in the article sparks a new memory, it’s not just meant to be taken at face value. “he was born on the night of titanic” one line not even pertaining to the author reminds them of a afternoon out on a boat and the notion that one day they can afford a 1000$ a month house, this notion immediately rolls into another memory one of disappointment that because they are chasing the expensive home she doesn’t have a baby she’s not doing what she wants. I believe each of these entries remind the author of a memory in which she is always a different person because the experiences she reminds herself of are what change her and shape her into a different person in each instance

  7. Michael Kubenik September 4, 2012 at 12:23 pm

    When Joan uses her notebook she feels at peace and can listen to herself. She pays great attention when it comes to every day things in her life. This allows her to reflect fully on her life as things pass and keep note on them. She says she writes thing downs to firstly remember them but then questions what actually happened and sees her love of writing as an illness that needs a cure. She is obsessed and taken over by the writing of her everyday life with facts and creativity that leads to a healthier life from her illness of wanting to write and keep strength in her words.

    • Kaitlin Donohue September 4, 2012 at 3:54 pm

      Michael, Do you think she feels at peace with herself because she can listen to her thoughts, or because she can get in touch with happier times from using the notebook. When reading, I thought that the notebook almost served as a time capsale that could take her back to a time where she was happier. It brought her back to a time she wanted to be in.

  8. Kaitlin Donohue September 4, 2012 at 12:32 pm

    Joan Didion’s “On Keeping a Notebook” was not trying to influence others to write in a journal and write down every detail going on in their lives. Didion was trying to portray the emotional benefits of writing down a meaningful thing that only Didion would understand. In the fourth paragraph, Didion uses a hypophora. She says, “Why did I write it down? In order to remember, of course.” Didion isn’t talking about irrelevant details. She isn’t telling you to write down what you ate for breakfast expecting there to be an emotional benefit. Didion is talking about important things, things that only you would understand. You don’t need to write down the day it happened, or who it happened with, or the time. Just a reminder could rush feelings back into your heart and body. Throughout the article she used rhetorical questions. She did this to try and connect her journal writing into our own lives. Her journal entries aren’t just a way to remember important things from the past however. It is a way to connect to herself. She is able to connect to herself at all different points of her life. Everyone changes frequently in their life. Growing up is expected. Didion explains how she can get a rush of emotions from a different part of her life just from a little note she wrote in her journal from that time. The emotions are always there, just a suddle reminder is capable of bringing it back. I thought this was interesting because I began to wonder if this is something I’d want to do. Would I want to write down little notes? In conclusion, Didion shows us how just a simple note can bring you back to a different time.

    • Lindsey Ragan September 4, 2012 at 5:55 pm

      Kait, I think your approach to this piece was very thought provoking. I, like most others, at first took what Didion was saying simply as a recommendation to record the days as they go by, with quick jotted notes and thoughts for the future. You brought up a good point, however, that it’s all really personal and different for everyone. I realize what you’re saying about how something like eating breakfast will not provide many people with emotional benefits unless they connect that breakfast with something else close to their heart. One event can completely shape one person life and not leave but a dent in another’s; it all depends on the person. It intrigues me how if two people spent the entire day together and encountered the same things, they still very well could have completely different feedback and emotions.

    • Alessandra Ferraro September 4, 2012 at 5:57 pm

      kait, i totally agree with you. Memories are throwbacks that trigger an emotional state and that have a prominent affect on you, even if its bad or if its a good memory. Also good catch of the hypophora. i feel like memories are mostly important impacts in your life that will never be forgotten. plays over and over again in your mind because it has a lot of meaning to you. i feel like when she used the rhetorical questions she really wanted to intrigue the reader into understanding her point of the article. and lastly i like how you brought your own opinions in your work really making me think if i should write down little notes too.

  9. Melanie Davis September 4, 2012 at 12:47 pm

    After reading Joan Didion’s piece, “On Keeping a Notebook,” I feel like it shows how everyone’s lives are different and that little sayings or words can have a million different meanings. However, those little sayings or words only mean one thing to you. Everyone’s memories create those different meanings. Didion stated, “Remember what it was like to be me: that is always the point.” My interpretation of this quote is that your memories define you and that you have to remember your memories in order to remember how to be yourself. All of the little sayings in life make up your memories, so by writing the little sayings down, you then create a “helper” to help you remember the memories. For example, Didion explained how she wrote down a sauerkraut recipe. The memory soon began to rome free in her mind and she remembered the night in Fire Island. She felt safe while in Fire Island an after she remembered this memory, she wanted to feel safe again. So, she made sauerkraut thinking it would make her feel safe again but it turns out feeling safe was just a memory.
    Also, from this read, I was able to pull out how, at first, we always see ourselves as “the common denominator,” or as the least. I determined that everyone, at some point in their life, feels this way about themselves. According to Didion, “the common denominator of all we see is always, transparently, shamelessly, the implacable ‘I’.” Didion’s diction shows how we see through ourselves and look down at ourselves. Her diction also shows the lack of confidence people carry.
    I feel that these are two totally different interpretations or this read and they both go in opposite directions.

  10. Jack Kelly September 4, 2012 at 1:55 pm

    In Joan Didion’s “On Keeping A Notebook”, she somewhat illustrates the differences between keeping a diary and keeping a notebook. Didion uses her notebook to recored and put into words how she felt during certain events in her life. In other words, she conveys her emotions by telling a story. It’s way she can capture her feelings and never forget them, almost like taking a picture. Keeping a dary is different because, unlike keeping a notebook, it is just a sequence of evnts, it’s more fact than feeling. Keeping a diary is like having a conversation with someone else about what you did today, but keeping a notebook is like having a conversation with yourselves about how you felt when those events occurred, this may sound corny but, a conversation with your soul. Each entry or passage will mean something different to everyone that reads it. Didion shows that it doesn’t have to be a full idea to make sense because in the passage she gives a lot of jotted down ideas that she completly understands and each one brings forth a certain feeling she has or had during a certain event in her life.

  11. Joseph Serrecchia September 4, 2012 at 2:42 pm

    Joan Didion’s “On Keeping a Notebook” was simply trying to promote how keeping a notebook can be positive towards everyone’s memories. When something great happens in your life, your more than likely goinng to be thinking about it for a couple of days possibly and have a vivid remembrance and picture of what exactly happened. Then as time goes on that memory can tend to fade away. You’ll still remember it but almost every person can agree that the stories can change from what actually did happen. Things can be twisted around and some parts of the memory can be completly gone. Didion writes her memories down, which helps her memories be accurate and help her experience all the same empotions. She can remember anything by just writing something down, anybody could cause its that easy to trigger a memory. A simple word could trigger a memory of something much bigger. Writing things down can help bring memories straight back into her mind like the day it all happened. One thing Didion stated is that she writes things down “In order to remember, of course”. This is vaguely implying that don’t just write random things down, whatever you write should be important enough to wanna remember. Having something big written down can also bring back other memories in that point in time. Didion stresses the positives of writing things down and how it helped her life. Even when she gets older and things start to change and her views become different, she can still have the same emotions and feelings by simply reading a quick note or a long memory she wrote down.

    • Brian Donnelly September 4, 2012 at 9:26 pm

      I agree, the longer a memory stays in your head the more you can forget, i’m sure we can all agree that as we tell a story more times the more it begins to change overtime from the second after something happened to a day to a week, the story changes little minor changes but if you kept a notebook with everything that happened then those little details wouldn’t change all the time.

  12. Will Kelmenson September 4, 2012 at 6:01 pm

    This writing piece by Joan Didion explains the purpose for keeping a notebook. Her notebook is not simply for jotting down random notes about her day. It is not for recording events in a diary-like format, either. It is for writing down anything she observes that really grabs her attention, so that she will never forget the details that have really made up her life, and not just the simple events that have occurred. For example, someone may recall a time that they went to a baseball game, and that it was fun. But in order to truly revisit that memory, one must remember the little details which make that memory special. Similar to a diary, a notebook may also be a way of truly expressing one’s thoughts, feelings and emotions. I can also see how a notebook might be extremely useful to an author like Didion. It is an infinite source of ideas to include in one’s writing. Didion mentioned how she might jot down a good “line” obtained from the real world. Also, any memory found in a notebook, whether real or made up, could potentially spark an idea in an author’s mind. Therefore, Joan Didion”s purpose for having a notebook is both to aid her in her work as an author, as well as to help her stay connected with her own life.

  13. Ariana Pagnotta September 4, 2012 at 7:35 pm

    I found Joan Didion’s “On Keeping a Notebook” very interesting. Didion used this notebook to keep track of her memories. In this way, she could never forget anything, regardless of their levels of importance. She showed that even the slightest word can bring back a multitude of memories, such as “cracked crab” reminding her of how she felt when her father returned from Detroit in 1945. Despite the fact that many of her stories were exaggerated, they were important to her and brought back exciting memories. This notebook is a part of her, and she is able to store these memories whether or not they are completely accurate.