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Bits of the Mind’s String

June 20, 2012

I’m sitting on the floor of the grey graduate school hallway, scribbling in my notebook. A new friend walks by, stops to say hello, asks what I’m working on. I motion to the only other people in the hallway, a man and a woman about fifteen feet away, fighting. I tell my friend I’m transcribing their words. “I want to capture the natural language of an argument,” I say. “Maybe I can use it someday.” It doesn’t occur to me to lie. I truly believe she will think me wise or, at worst, odd. She thinks me deplorable. “That’s invasive and disgusting.” Now we are fighting. I’m not worried about fighting with my new friend. It’s unsettling, since I just started this program and would rather it be pleasant than anything else. But I’m more concerned that I’ve now missed the rest of the fight down the hall. The man and the woman walk away—together—and I don’t know how it all ended. Are they still upset? Did they come to a resolution? Are they taking the fight to Cedar Tavern, which was still open at the time?

In re-reading Slouching Toward Bethlehem, I rediscovered “On Keeping a Notebook.” Nearly forgot this gem. Didion considers her compulsion to write things down. But not just things as they happen, recorded like heartbeats on the monitor’s paper printout. Rather, things as they appear to, happen around, and affect her, the notebook’s creator, who she names as “the implacable ‘I.'”

My notebooks are a mess. Notes from medical appointments are boxed in by images. Dialogue between commuters might be the most frequent entry. I write a lot of lists too. Not grocery or to-do lists in my notebook. Lists of subway verbs, humidity discomforts. My graduate students know how much I value carting around a notebook, but also how loose my definition is for what goes inside.

Says Didion: “…we are talking about bits of the mind’s string too short to use, an indiscriminate and erratic assemblage with meaning only for its maker.”

For notebook keepers who write creative nonfiction, the work of bending the world into our uniquely shaped frame begins here. “I have always had trouble distinguishing between what happened and what merely might have happened,” writes Didion. “But I remain unconvinced that the distinction, for my purposes, matters.” Lifespan of a fact indeed. “Remember what it was to be me: that is always the point.”

  1. Stuart…telephone messages must be utterly utterly utterly fascinating. I have never thought to keep them. Missed connections, things not to be missed, news shared, questions asked, concerns raised, pleas for a return call. En masse, what a life in messages!


  2. That *remember what it was to be me* factor is completely why I hoard my old notebooks, work and otherwise, despite their mess. Doodles, sketches both for myself and for communicating ideas, actual notes (surprise surprise) telephone messages and all of it.

    I have quite the stack of books


  3. That could be it, or at least part of it. What I remember from our argument is my attempt to compartmentalize what I was doing as a social scientist interested in human interaction. I wasn’t interested (this time) in names, physical descriptions, etc. Just the words. The development of an argument. So so so fascinating. But it didn’t resonate at all…perhaps because I was distinctly UNemotional about it!


  4. Interesting post. I think what you did is happening more often than your friend realizes. Many people listen to others in conversation, but it appears your recording it was the violation in her mind. I wonder if some of her emotion is connected to forgiveness. We forgive and move on when we allow the ugliness of argument to dissipate. You threatened that process by making the argument eternal.


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