Do you remember how old you were when you first started keeping a notebook? I don’t know how accurate my memory of my own experience is. When I tell the story of how my own writing practice began, I trace it back to the fourth grade when I was in Miss Neblitt’s class. I was a voracious reader and remember reading Harriet the Spy, the 1964 children’s classic in which Harriet M. Welsh fancies herself a spy. She spies on her classmates and keeps all of her observations in a marble-covered composition notebook. One day she loses her notebook and it gets into the hands of one of her classmates. All hell breaks loose after that because her friends read the awful things that she wrote about them and feelings are hurt. As a child, I took away from this the message that she should have never written bad things about people, putting Harriet in the wrong. As an adult, I have quite a different interpretation of the lesson of this story. Harriet was making personal observations in her notebook with no intention of ever sharing them with anyone. Her private thoughts were read without her permission, therefore she did nothing wrong. Our private thoughts are our own.
“Little lies that make people feel better are not bad, like thanking someone for a meal they made even if you hated it, or telling a sick person they look better when they don't, or someone with a hideous new hat that it's lovely. But to yourself you must tell the truth”
― Louise Fitzhugh, Harriet the Spy
I first met Annie many years ago under difficult circumstances. I had recently lost a pregnancy in my 12th week in 2006. My son, Aidan was three and a half years old at the time and anxiously awaiting the arrival of the sister or brother he’d begged for, when we learned that the baby no longer had a heart beat. We’d just told him and others that we were expecting. The loss was devastating to me. I’m not sure that people realize how emotional heart-wrenching pregnancy loss can be. I had never even considered the possibility of not carrying that pregnancy to term, even though I was 39 years old. A miscarriage was the furthest thing from my mind, and I remember feeling so alone with my pain.
At the time of my pregnancy loss, I was an avid knitter and belonged to Ravelry, an online community of knitting and crochet enthusiasts. It was a lively and active community, and members could start discussion boards of their own. In January 2008, two months before the birth of my second child with whom I became pregnant six months after that loss, I started a support group for women grieving the loss of a pregnancy. Annie was one of the early HAPL members, joining after experiencing the devastating stillbirth of her daughter, and we have since maintained a very special, long-distance friendship, even meeting in person with our families, over the years. We have so many things in common, one of which is keeping a notebook, and I am so deeply grateful to her for agreeing to be interviewed.
Annie remembers exactly when she started keeping a notebook. She was also in the fourth grade and writing in a notebook was an assignment given to her by her fourth-grade teacher. Being the good student that she was, she wrote in hers, a Hello Kitty notebook, faithfully. She would write about her day and things that interested her. She also wrote about things that she couldn’t talk about at the dinner table, like “crushes on boys and fourth-grade girl drama.” She rarely ever looks at her childhood journals, which she retrieved from her parents' house when she was cleaning it out after they died, but looked through some of them when she knew she’d be interviewed for “Notebook People.” Her response to what she found made us both laugh. She explained, “I went back and looked at them like, boy, you really have some serious crushes.”
Annie continued to keep notebooks/journals/diaries on and off over the years. In her late teens, her writing helped her work through the challenges of worrying about the marital problems that her parents were having. While her parents didn’t discuss their problems with Annie or her sister and brother, they were well aware of the fact that their parents were having problems. She grappled with how she would feel if they got divorced and keep track of the fights they’d have, like “hey, remember back in March … this one isn’t as bad as that one.” This was a powerful memory. I was moved by how much personal writing had been a companion for her in her life.
Over the years, when I’ve talked about reflective or expressive writing, so many people have asked me about privacy issues because many people are concerned about other people reading what they’ve written and then having to face the consequences of having their private thoughts revealed, much like Harriet in Harriet the Spy. When I asked Annie about this, she recalled rereading something that happened when she was in high school. She noticed that she’d edited what happened and held back in her writing because she was, at the time, so worried what someone discovering her journals might think, if they’d read about it. Fast-forward to today and her thoughts on that have changed, much like my interpretation of the consequences that Harriet faced. Annie does not keep her notebooks locked up, but she feels like outsiders reading them would be like eavesdropping, and that when she’s gone, her spouse, kids, sister, and grandkids have a choice, and if they choose to read her private thoughts, then that’s no longer her problem. The person reading her thoughts would have to deal with the consequences because they were not invited to the conversation. So, she writes freely, no longer feeling the need to censor herself.
Some of Annie’s reflective writing has helped her cope with multiple and difficult losses over the years, including the stillbirth of her daughter, the recent suicide of her brother, and the recent deaths of both of her parents. As a highly creative person with a career as a surface pattern designer, who has dealt with a lot of loss over the years, she has found that people often think that her pain and adversity make great fodder for her creative expression and work. I can relate.
But as Annie points out, “No, it’s not [great fodder]. It’s terrible. I don’t want to memorialize that in my work. I don’t want to put that energy into something I’m creating.” And so, she will turn to writing because writing is temporary. But sometimes writing, even when it might be helpful, is difficult; and, even though she has had a reflective writing practice for many years, she still sometimes finds herself in a slump, unable to get the words to flow. When this happens, she’s not opposed to using writing prompts and has a book of 365 writing prompts, in addition to a wonderful list of writing prompts that she got from a friend of hers, who is a therapist. She was unable to share the list, as part of this interview, because it belongs to someone else, but it was composed completely of questions that required one to write lists, which can be great to write, especially when writing lengthy prose is difficult.
She also shared that in addition to the personal notebook in which she does reflective writing, her sketchbook, and themed notebooks, like ones for sewing and knitting notes, she also keeps a five-year journal with space to write just a few lines for each day. This journal was a gift from her sister, who gave her the book knowing that she kept notebooks and journals, but thinking her choice wasn’t very exciting, however much to Annie's surprise, the process of just journaling a sentence or two a day has been a great experience and ritual. Some days, the things she writes are very mundane, like “I have COVID,” but she goes on to say that this type of writing, “puts a rhythm to my day.” There are only six lines for each day. She was so excited when she talked about this journal that she originally thought looked uninteresting, that I’m intrigued to try this type of reflective writing myself!
Perhaps that’s one of the most magical things about keeping a notebook and writing is that we can always find new entry points and pathways. I will leave you with Annie’s response to my question, What else would you like to share with our readers that relates to your notebook or writing process?
I had to let go of making notebooks pretty to really start writing. I could waste a lot of time decorating. – Annie Simpson
* Please note: This is not to say that decorating a notebook is a waste of time, in general. Annie is talking about her personal experiences with keeping a notebook, which is reflective of everyone’s experience. We are each allowed our own personal truth, a lesson I learned from Harriet the Spy.