Sunday, August 28, 2011

On "On Keeping a Notebook"

(The untouchably cool Joan Didion.)

The other day, I wrote about taking notes during shows, but I didn’t say why I did so. At face value, they certainly don’t seem helpful, or even terribly coherent. And when I make that awful transition from notes to article, it is rare that I use any notes verbatim (thank heavens). Sometimes I don’t even look at them after I write them. Yet the impulse to record these nonsensical observations remains. In truth, I couldn’t imagine writing a review without having taken them. So what role do they play?

Reading Joan Didion’s “On Keeping a Notebook” has helped me start to answer that question:

The point of my keeping a notebook has never been, nor is it now, to have an accurate factual record of what I have been doing or thinking…Remember what it was to be me: that is always the point. It is a difficult point to admit. We are 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…But our notebooks give us away, for however dutifully we record what we see around us, the common denominator of all we see is always, transparently, shamelessly, the implacable “I.”

But from the moment it is written, she goes on, any “I” becomes a person from the past:

…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.

Didion’s concern is observing the real, be that a family member or a sign she passes on the street. But I find her remarks applicable to criticism as well. A critic, more than anything else, endeavors to document who s/he was during a performance, and how that evolved over time. Without a notebook, s/he might not remember anyone other than the scamp who sneaked out during curtain call—and that would make for a sorry review indeed.

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