My first journal was this little book with a green marbled-looking cardboard cover. I was in the fifth grade. I’m not sure why, but the school had a program where students who made honor roll received a five dollar gift certificate at this local store, called the Home Bazaar, or something of that sort. And without any real thought or intention, this boxy blank hardback book made its way into my big five dollar purchase. It was not a flimsy notebook or folder stuffed with stacks of lined paper. The cover didn’t have the glossy facial features of a magazine or the speckled fractured pattern of a good old fashioned composition notebook. Other than the fact that every page in this book was blank, it was like the other books in the library. Hardback. Gold-trimmed pages. Elegant little word trellises that didn’t dare invade a margin.
I treated it as a diary. I didn’t know what to write. But my favorite books always read like diaries. The format is simple. Linear. Organized under a little date and a Dear and a laundry list of little kid accomplishments that for some reason or other, I felt the need to write down. I was a fifth grader. Reading books about Yankee spies in the south during the Civil War and warrior mice who wield swords and shared extravagantly descriptive dinners with sparrows and badgers and rabbits alike. I was excited about school. Back then, English was a course called Language Arts, and I always liked that. Like these sentences and story structures and plot lines were the elemental, chemical equations behind what it meant to be human. The mathematics of meaning. And if I read every line well enough, I would gain some insight, some context, maybe even uncover a vital clue before my peers had the chance. Like a spy in enemy territory. Like a mouse handed a broadsword. Like my story depends on me staying one step ahead of my audience. Because that is how you discover the quip that gets a laugh from the entire class. Or ask a question that stumps the teacher. Stumps other teachers. Sits administrators in office chairs hand on their chin feeling tested for a change. I know now they thought I had a higher motivation, but I didn’t. I just wanted to see if I could paint rouge on grown up faces using their own favorite weapon. Words. And found out very quickly just how easily I could.
I learned an important lesson from that first journal. There are no great authors.
Every single one has a stack of books somewhere they will never show anyone. And if you read them you would probably feel betrayed. All the books in all the libraries in the world were once blank. Laid out in front of some restless person. They filled them up with dates and names and anxieties, and the secrets they found out by reading ahead, and questions they thought up to mystify their friends. It taught me that in at least some way, every single book functions as a diary. And the challenge for a writer is not always invention, but how to bend yourself and lend yourself to each situation. To balance the narrator, the I, in all of your work, with the goals and challenges inherent in any context.
Paying attention is the price of admission to becoming more to this world than merely its witness.
That little green and black faux marble looking book made it impossible for me to read. From that point on, there wasn’t a novel or short story or poem I experienced that I didn’t immediately imagine taking up space, chicken scratched, in some dissatisfied person’s diary. Someone unsettled. Who glossed over every section in the bookstore and bought a blank one. It was an invaluable lesson, especially so young.
Learning just how much good storytelling gets done
by people who don’t really need to be great authors.
So much as they must be bothered by clean paper.