About Joan Didion: “On Keeping a Notebook”

Approximate Reading Time: 4 minutes

Book jacket of re-issued essay collection, first published in 1969.


Having myself always been an inveterate notebook keeper, but with no substantive knowledge of the habits of other notebook keepers, whom I’ve known in a meaningful way since I was in college, I have no idea why others do so. Or, consequently, what they take notes of, how they take them, of what they consist rhetorically, or why they think they keep a notebook in the first place. This is not true of Joan Didion.

There’s this essay (which I am sure I read back when it was published in the late 1960s, but of which I have no recollection) from the redoubtable Ms. Didion. What’s clear are two things, one not very important, because it’s personal, and the other which seems to point to maybe a significant insight.

The unimportant thing is, it’s clear that Joan Didion and I have different feelings on the subject, and different motivations. It’s not as clear that she is solid on recognizing that maybe her natural note-taking instincts are not universal ones.

The more important thing is what seems to emerge, from her generalized thoughts about the specific kinds of notes Joan Didion takes and why she thinks she takes them (because there’s not much here demonstrating the content of specific notes; and what there is, as she indicates is true even for her, is that sometimes notes can be so vague as to require massive reconstruction as to the factual underpinnings, the actual event that may have inspired taking a note, and the probative value in other contexts, like a deposition, of the documentation). What seems to emerge, specifically for me, is that maybe there is the foundation of some kind of taxonomy here.

Maybe, I’m thinking, there are those of us more subconsciously led by an urge eventually (and only speculatively and provisionally) to be writers of what has come to be called creative nonfiction. And there are those equally internally disposed, but with different objectives in mind, if only vaguely and possibly wholly inchoate, to write what is called fiction. I’ll only interject here, as some are coming to believe (and why would we expect otherwise in this age of things becoming indeterminate and not so distinct, or, if you prefer the term, queer – presumably as opposed to definitive, precise, replicable, evidentiary, and “normal”): as if there really is a difference ultimately (and that qualification is _so_ important) between creative nonfiction and fiction.

Why did I write it down? In order to remember, of course, but exactly what was it I wanted to remember? How much of it actually happened? Did any of it? Why do I keep a notebook at all? It is easy to deceive oneself on all those scores. The impulse to write things down is a peculiarly compulsive one, inexplicable to those who do not share it, useful only accidentally, only secondarily, in the way that any compulsion tries to justify itself. I suppose that it begins or does not begin in the cradle. …


Keepers of private notebooks are a different breed altogether, lonely and resistant rearrangers of things, anxious malcontents, children afflicted apparently at birth with some presentiment of loss. …


So 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. That would be a different impulse entirely, an instinct for reality which I sometimes envy but do not possess.

I would tell you what I do, but I am not Joan Didion, who had ample reason I surmise in retrospect even then to believe that there were people who cared to know, separate and apart from what issued from those notes she kept.

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