#4. Joan Didion + Journalling

Keeping in touch with memories

This email is (if we go by the rules of a fortnightly) three days late. But thankfully, no one apart from me is going to notice. After a series of emails from my college (the contents of which are too tiring to discuss), I almost dumped the idea of this newsletter. If Universities can expect high standard work in the epicenter of a raging pandemic and crashing mental health indexes, I can surely abandon personal projects. The argument is far too convincing, but as you might have guessed, I haven't succumbed to abandoning this. Mostly because writing is one of the very few things I'm fairly decent at. And abandoning any/all attempts at writing that isn't prompted by institutional deadlines feels like I'm throwing away my only hope for a future income. 

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Coming to what is roughly the point of this newsletter — reading. 

I’ve begun to hate any essay/poem/piece that begins with the line “In these times…” Unnecessary opinion to have, but I’m tired of being reminded of the time we live in. I suppose this is also a convenient set-up to bring up the fact that I haven’t read much in the first half of this month. I managed to get through Caroll Ann Duffy’s poetry collection titled Rapture. While I do believe that reading poetry deserves to be treated with more respect, I will admit it is difficult to dissect. I’m still a bit dense when it comes to poetry, so if 50+ people on Instagram aren’t recommending a particular collection, I maintain my distance. 

A Portrait of Joan Didion by Mary Lloyd Estrin, 1977

My chief reading (or re-reading to be more truthful) as of mid-June is Joan Didion’s essay On Keeping A Notebook. I read it some years ago and it remains seated in my brain forever. The essay essentially is about as the title clearly suggests — keeping a notebook, a journal.

Keeping a journal is the one habit that I follow as religiously as every skincare expert asks you to drink water. It’s a cultivated habit, almost ritualistic. And for the longest time, I didn’t even realize how important it was. 

In my second year of college, I went to a book exchange with a friend. It was happening at a fairly popular pub. I was jazzily dressed — big hoop earrings, deep lipstick, fruity scent. Once the event started, everyone was asked to introduce themselves. I don’t, of course, remember what  I exactly said. But later that night I remember feeling that the things I had said were untrue.

I believe I had introduced myself the usual way, saying obvious things about myself. But many of those usual, obvious things, were not true of me anymore. I had become a different person over time. It amused me greatly that change could occur this way. I didn’t know that my mind's growth, unlike a lot of other adult things, didn’t require a bunch of paperwork to be approved, signed, and stamped. 

Around this time is also when I first read Joan Didion, and her essays have been constant companions ever since. She managed to give words to feelings, in a way that made perfect and complete sense out of chaos. 

This particular essay on notebook keeping has served me well. It built the understanding that journaling is one habit that is actually a clusterfuck of many other habits. It includes ritualistically making tea for myself, letting myself stare at the blistering tea for a while, and then pouring it into a cup. It also until a few months ago included night time showers with a precisely curated Spotify playlist.

It does also obviously include writing. On most days this is a solitary act. But the more habitual it gets, the more equipped I am to do it any situation, no matter the distractions.

I’ve journaled once with my flatmates circled around discussing someone's birthday surprise and gifts. The room smelt slightly of sweat mixed with everybody’s unique shampoo. There was chit-chat and gossip that I participated in whilst journaling. I wrote it all in my notebook, and I added a few things after everyone had left. 

Joan Didion’s essay captures this very routine-ness of keeping a journal. The day isn’t complete without it, because like she points out, it’s not easy to accept the world exactly as it presents itself. Journal writing is self-reflection, but it is also many layers of delusion. As Didion says further in the essay, “I always had trouble distinguishing between what happened and what merely might have happened, but I remain unconvinced that the distinction, for my purposes, matters.” 

It’s true, not everything is a completely factual record. Did the cat in my PG mess actually consistently meow to the tune of a popular Shahrukh Khan song? Or did I just make that all up in my head? I’ll never really know, but at least, I know of the existence of this thought. And most of the journaling boils down to this — some largely important feeling of valuing a thought and harvesting it. A thing that somehow doesn’t happen instantly, nobody is taught I suppose to pay attention to their thoughts. To quote Didion again, “Only the very young and the very old may recount their dreams at breakfast, dwell upon self, interrupt with memories of beach picnics and favorite Liberty lawn dresses and the rainbow trout in a creek near Colorado Springs. The rest of us are expected, rightly, to affect absorption in other people’s favorite dresses, other people’s trout.”

Her thoughts are crisp, but she still indulges herself extensively, without apologizing. The essence of journaling is precisely that. It is needlessly indulgent, almost compulsive, and like most compulsions, it tries to justify itself. It stems from being addicted to memories, in wanting to remember the important and unimportant things. Do I need to remember the six things I learned about being a woman from Oprah Winfrey? Not really. But it’s nice to have it written down somewhere. It’s nice to be able to revisit it on days that feel stale and emotionally bankrupt. 

Because even after finding new and more accurate ways of introducing yourself to strangers, the memory of the previous self is important enough to keep alive. It isn’t completely futile to pamper one’s mind with erratic jot downs of inner monologues that won't ever make sense to anyone else but its writer.  

Thank you for reading.