I’m currently slogging my way through Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground. I could tell immediately that I picked this up too quickly after reading Joyce’s Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man. Reading classics where most of the action occurs in the narrator’s head can be exhausting. I took a break and started reading Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See. The writing is breathtaking, enviable in its sparse economy of words, while rich in detail. I’ve been thinking a lot about details.
There are writers I know who are working on memoirs. They dig out boxes of old letters and journals, bits and pieces of their pasts, collected, magpie-like or haphazardly jumbled in boxes. I was listening to a David Sedaris audiobook, a collection of live readings. His storytelling is quick-witted and contains a wealth of detail – place names, offbeat brief exchanges, observations from years ago. He talked about taking notes, a habit of a lifetime.
I’ve read how other writers have reams of notes, little notebooks they’ve ferried everywhere – dreams recorded in the immediate aftermath, interesting snippets of dialogue captured for future use. I wrote journals up until my mid-twenties. They were solipsistic rambles. Shortly after moving to Minnesota, I shredded every last one of them. Here’s another one of those I-might-not-be-a-writer confessions. I don’t like keeping a journal anymore and a recent attempt at taking notes only revealed that I have misanthropic leanings fed by sensory irritation.
But I’m trying anything to up my writer quotient, so I started carrying a little notebook and pen with me yesterday. I took my mother-in-law to the dentist, and while waiting for her appointment to finish, I pulled the notebook out and prepared to write. I’ve sat in this waiting area many times, talking to the receptionists or silently lost in my own thoughts. What wasted time! I’m a writer, dammit. What follows is the great use I made of that time, furiously jotting notes:
Hygienist in conversation with receptionist, while flipping through glossy magazine.
“That movie Black or White is SO good. I just had to watch it again.”
Why the emphasis on SO? Why do people seem desperate to convert others to liking movies and books? Don’t they know how subjective art is?
“I would never be on The Bachelor. I just wouldn’t put myself out there like that.”
Was this ever a serious issue in your life? Have you been contacted by the producers? Why does anyone need to know that about you?
Oh for god’s sake, stop clicking your fingernails. Why does a dental hygienist have long fingernails? Do you know how many germs collect under fingernails?
Health magazine on the counter has a huge headline “Lose Every Bulge”. That’s weird. And not particularly healthy. Except if the bulge is like a tumor, some cancerous growth. Sure. Lose that.
Ah, hell, now she’s talking about the Kardashians. What is that smell? When did vanilla become the catchall fragrance for everything?
“I don’t do raisins.”
Now they’re discussing about how she and the dentist split a muffin because the dentist thought it was raisin, but it was chocolate chip.
Just kill me now. I think I hate lady talk.
To clarify, I really am not fond of small talk, lady or otherwise. I would prefer the world be stoned, so we could go around having deep, philosophical conversations just in passing.
Man waiting to cross at corner light: If Rousseau is right and man’s natural state of goodness is the same as the natural goodness of animals, which is considered neither good nor bad, what animal would you be?
Me: Does it matter? If animals are neither good nor bad, than I would be picking an animal based on personal preference and not any question of philosophy. But I’d be a koala – they’re cute and vicious.
What would really happen:
Man waiting to cross at corner light: Did it turn green yet? Did it turn green yet?
Me: Yes…uh, no. YES! Er…no. Do you hate me?
I joke about being misanthropic, but really it’s a combination of introversion and sensory overload. Sitting in that small waiting room, I could hear two conversations in the background, four smells – a combination of toothpaste, vanilla alcohol-based perfume, a carpet recently shampooed and a petroleum smell likely coming off two newly added chairs. I hear music being played in the chiropractic office next door. I hear the drip of the water cooler, its thermostat clicking on and off. I smell the dental polish and hear the whirring of the polisher. I notice that a potted plant is still languishing from the last time I was there. To add inane human conversation on top of all those layers, seems willful and my irritation rises to the surface quickly.
Living with me is occasionally difficult, as I often enter a room with “What’s that smell?” I’ve smelled electrical shorts and once, a natural gas leak out on the street (they came and replaced the line). I sometimes leave the house, just so the two other people I live with can make noise without me yelling “Can you knock that off?” I don’t think I have super spidey senses, but my brain has just decided to notice everything all at once. And I can thrill people by being able to identify every bird sound I hear. I don’t get invited to many outdoor barbeques.
I know that any skill can be learned and that it takes time to hit one’s stride, so I will continue to carry that little notebook until it becomes clear this is an entirely useless thing for me to do, or I learn to write more interesting things down.
Do you keep journals or take notes? And what’s that smell?