Writers should fill notebooks. This is not a Luddite plea for penmanship and ink and paper; though I am myself partial to writing first drafts in longhand, the notebooks I think writers should fill can certainly be digital. The important thing is that they be kept in the first place, kept regularly, and kept (mostly) private. I worry, a little, about how easy it is to publish what one writes. This ease certainly has its upside, but I feel certain that good writers have always spent a fair bit of time tinkering with words that went mostly unread. I worry, too, about how easy it is to scratch the itch of curiosity. Long hours browsing bookstores and libraries in search of this or that or of nothing at all cannot be replaced by search engines and digital databases because the writer learns important things by taking the long way around. (Whenever I wander the stacks of libraries and bookstores, I’m reminded of how very many books there are in the world: some greater, some lesser. It makes me feel a certain humility.) Writers should observe and annotate; set down in words what they see before they decide what it means. This is the function of the notebook.
“I never wrote the piece.” So concludes the “South” portion of Joan Didion’s South and West: From a Notebook, which brings together two sets of notes—one from a road trip Didion took in 1970 through Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama (“the idea was to start in New Orleans and from there we had no plan”), and another set from a trip to San Francisco in 1976, when Didion thought she might cover the Patty Hearst trial, but didn’t. There is no real story in either section, nor any particular connection between them beyond this: though Didion is deeply familiar with California and deeply unfamiliar with the South, the notebooks offer evidence of a mind endeavoring to observe as closely as possible both the familiar and the unfamiliar, to filter assumptions through a fresh lens; to revise, as it were: to see anew. So Didion records that in the South she simply “drove for a month or so around Louisiana and Mississippi and Alabama, saw no spokesmen, covered no events, did nothing at all but try to find out, as usual, what was making the picture in my mind.”
One interviewee told her he didn’t think she knew what she was doing. “I agreed,” she wrote. This openness to what is actually before her—accompanied by a disarming self-awareness—makes Didion a companionable narrator, even in these notebooks, ostensibly written for no one but her. Didion, as narrator, is aware of her own quirks, in ways that most of us are blissfully not; I am too often content to allow the pictures in my mind to remain unsullied if inaccurate, whereas Didion felt compelled to return and look again. She had visited the South once before, as a child, when her father was stationed in South Carolina during World War II. She notes that in her childish egocentricity (“which then approached autism”) she imagined the war as a punishment designed specifically to deprive her of her father.
Paradoxically, or not, Didion’s awareness of her own eccentricities makes her a clearer narrator—a successfully “transparent eyeball,” to use the Emersonian metaphor. She is arrogant (possessing, as she says of a person she observes, “a NY-LA coastal arrogance”), but she knows it. And though it’s clear that she finds much in the South distasteful, she seems somewhat aware that it simply is not her place. If she’d grown up there, she reflects, she’d have become an eccentric and taken up causes, or she’d have “simply knifed someone.” But perhaps it is simply that she —like most people—is of a particular place. “I am at home in the West,” the notebooks conclude. “The hills of the coastal ranges look ‘right’ to me . . . . I am easy here in a way that I am not easy in other places.” The scare-quotes around ‘right’ remind us that we dare not take the pictures in our mind for what is actually out there, for what is actually right.
- Flaneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice, and London
- Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017
- Buy the Book
This, in addition to the keeping of keenly observed and beautifully written notes for pieces that may or may not be written, is what South and West has to teach writers and readers: know when and why you take what you see to be ‘right.’ Learn what is making the picture in your mind. Move through the world without simply reflecting what is there— absorb it, make sense of it, take it into your being. That seems to be what Lauren Elkin, in Flaneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice, and London, is advocating as well. Yet though her book has some affinity with Rebecca Solnit’s marvelously strange Wanderlust: A History of Walking, which traces the ways in which walking and thinking and culture meld, Elkin’s book is far less luminescent, shedding light on nothing so much as Elkin’s own mind, about which she does not seem to be especially observant. Why, for example, does Elkin care so much about walking? Why does she want so badly to pass as Parisian? Why does she spend years poring over the texts of women writers who walked and wrote of walking?
We do not learn the answers to these questions as Elkin meanders through cities and texts in Flaneuse, which is not so much genre-bending as confused: memoir meets travelogue meets women’s history and literary criticism. Perhaps most disappointing is the book’s failure to reveal much about the cities whose streets it purports to cover. Elkin’s observations of the physical world seem thin; at one point, she notes, “I walk because I like it. I like the rhythm of it, my shadow always a little ahead of me on the pavement.” I’ve known my own shadow to be off to one side or the other, or even behind me; short and squat at sometimes, long and lanky at others. Unlike Solnit, Elkin is not enamored of walking per se; she likes walking only in cities and only, it seems, in cities she really likes. In her discussions of Jean Rhys, Martha Gellhorn, Virginia Woolf, and others, Elkin marshals support for the idea that walking the city can be a political act, a feminist act—but the observations are plodding.
Elkin’s judgments are severe precisely because she lacks the self-awareness of Didion. She looks down her nose at the Long Island suburbs where she grew up, calling the strip malls housing a variety of businesses “life draining” both for employees and customers; patronizingly, she remarks “they may not realize it.” It is hard to believe that Elkin truly hides in the windowless bathroom or pantry of her parents’ suburban home when someone knocks on the door, just as it’s implausible that she finds the brightly commercialized Times Square of today “far more terrifying” than the sex shop red-light drug and crime district it was when Elkin was a girl. (She writes that her parents feared the city—not unreasonably, perhaps, in the 1980s, but Elkin’s nostalgia for a time she could not have known with much more than a child’s understanding precludes her granting this.) True, most suburbs are unfriendly to pedestrian traffic, but in some places—including on Long Island—footpaths and bike paths are being constructed along major byways in recognition, and perhaps repentance, of this design failure. And yes, strip malls are ugly, but only someone who never visits one could insist that all employees and patrons thereof are being drained of life.
There is, indeed, so much to be observed just by watching. But watching is more demanding than most people think. Most of us mistake the picture in our mind for the one that is out there, the one that looks ‘right.’ Few are able to disentangle one from the other. But when a writer does, as Didion does, even her notebooks are worth reading.