NOTEBOOK PEOPLE: An Interview with Chelsea Smith // Trina O’Gorman

NOTEBOOK PEOPLE: An Interview with Chelsea Smith // Trina O’Gorman

Over the course of my career teaching writing at Montclair State University, I’ve taught hundreds of students. Some of them I never hear from or see again after the semester ends. Then there are the students that I will bump into on campus or hear from requesting a recommendation letter to transfer to another university or for graduate school. Occasionally, I will become friends with a student and remain friends with them, after the semester has ended, and we no longer have a professor-student relationship. A lot of these friendships live primarily on social media, but there are a number of students with whom I have developed actual friendships, and Chelsea is one of them. 

We first met in 2007 when she was a student in one of my freshman writing classes. At that time, I only taught in the evenings, which I loved doing. Prior to having children, I taught high school during the day and college in the evenings. Once I had Aidan and later Cormac, I stopped teaching high school, but kept my foot in the world of teaching by teaching evening classes, while they were home with their Dad. I loved teaching evening classes because it was in those classes that you have most of the non-traditional students. Some of the students in my evenings classes would be close to my age or even older than me. If they were younger students, they were often students with other responsibilities, such as jobs. Often, because of the age diversity and the fact that younger students in those classes often have additional responsibilities, the vibe and energy were always different. The classes tended to be more mature, and thus the conversations would often be deeper and the connections that were formed would be stronger. 

As a teacher, we are sometimes fortunate to have a few students, who enable us to grow as humans. Either they tap into some area of ours that needs further development, or they are just so cool in some way that they permanently etch themselves into your memory. I suppose this is no different than people you meet anywhere. Some people you meet and even if they are great, when the event is over and you part ways, that’s it and you don’t ever think about them much again. And then there are those that leave an impression, an indelible mark on your heart, your soul, or your psyche. Chelsea was one of those. She was a young person, who was already uniquely her own person. She may not have even realized how empowered she was because of her ability to be so unapologetically herself, even before it probably felt entirely comfortable to do so. 

She is remarkable. 

Talking about notebooks and her personal writing journey with Chelsea was fun. There was so much laughter during the interview, but there were also serious moments that were rich with insight. This has been the way things have been for all of the years I have known her. 


Chelsea has been keeping a journal or notebook since she was around eight years old. Her very first was a diary with Winnie the Pooh on the front cover. As a little girl, rather than opening her entries with “Dear Diary,”, she would address her entries to Winnie the Pooh. It came as no surprise to me to learn that Chelsea was questioning and insightful even as a little girl. When she got to the end of this diary, she wrote, “Why am I doing this?” She said, “I felt like everything I that I was writing was so calculated and just so, I don't know, trying to make Pooh bear think I'm cool.” This is not the first time we’ve talked about authenticity in personal writing. The topic came up recently when we were having our monthly brunch at the Red Eye Cafe in Montclair. We both agree that writing authentically is a challenge, as there may always be a perceived audience, and we are always writing for that audience. 

Her personal writing practice did not end with her Winnie the Pooh diary nor was it always an analogue practice. For many years, from her teens to early twenties, she did her personal writing on LiveJournal. LiveJournal is a social media network that was created in 1999 by an American programmer. People could keep a diary, journal, or blog in a public space. In that forum, there was an audience, which isn’t a negative criticism, but simply a matter of fact. It was during that time and through that online community that Chelsea met some wonderful people with whom she shared interests in music and film, and with whom she is still good friends with today. We both agreed that online communities can provide opportunities to connect with likeminded people. However, she has tried to replicate these experiences on today’s social media platforms, but has not found them to be nearly as conducive to organic, positive relationship building. In 2007, ownership of LiveJournal eventually transferred to a Russian-owned social media company and has changed quite a bit, but some of her journals are still archived there.

Those journals contained details about high school that she sometimes revisits, but one of the most interesting things that she kept was a list of all the books that she borrowed from the library and read. She was an avid reader, sometimes reading as many as five books per week. She shared that she would go to the library every week “and I would come home and I would get on the Internet, and I would post a list of all of the books I got at the library. So I found all of those. Actually, I have a Word doc, of all of that, because I find it fascinating because I remember every single one of these books and I remember the experience of reading them, and I'm just like, I was smart to do that.” For someone like me, who was also an avid reader, I wish I had kept notes like this. I’d pay money to have a list of the many books that I read as a young person. From time to time, I will think of something from one of those books, but cannot remember most of the titles or authors. 

Chelsea can still access some of her LiveJournal journals, but has destroyed most of her handwritten journals. She is a huge proponent of letting go, and in doing so has shredded, burned, and even buried her old journals. Yes, buried! I have heard of people burning notebooks, tearing them up, and even shredding them, but I’d never talked to anyone else who has buried their notebooks. She shared that she has notebooks buried in a couple of parks in Montclair, which I find fascinating. When I asked her why she discarded them in different ways, she explained, “Honestly, I think it was just the time and what kind of energy I had. It never has anything to do with, necessarily the content of the notebook. It's more, I got to get this out of here. What's the fastest way to do this? Or what am I feeling right now? And a lot of times it's shredding or burning.” After she told me this, I realized that I have quite a few notebooks that need destroying, perhaps even burying. I think it’s finally time for me to start letting go. 

Some things she will digitize before destroying them. She will also tear pages out of a notebook and then give the remaining blank notebook away. In her apartment building they have a “Free Windowsill,” where they will leave things that other people can take, particularly the children in the building. It’s there where she will leave blank notebooks and pens, or she will put them in the donation bin of school supplies that she has at her toy store, Just Kidding Around, in Montclair, New Jersey. Chelsea now co-owns the independent toy store at which she used to work as a college student, along with her business partner, which is just another thing about her that I love so much and find to be so fantastically cool. You can click here to read a bit more about Chelsea, her business partner Nissa, and their journey to owning a great neighborhood toy store. 

Not all of Chelsea’s current writing is reflective. She jots down a lot of ideas and philosophical notes. She also doodles and brainstorms, using techniques like mindmapping, which she says she learned in my writing class. I shared some of my messy journals with Chelsea during our meeting, the ones I kept pre-social media, before I worried about everything looking just so, and she was relieved to see my chaotic scribbles. I was also relieved to know that someone else was just going for it, writing stuff, free form and chaotically. She writes every day, but it’s not always committed to paper. When she does write on paper, she no longer has a favorite notebook. She explained that she “spent a long time thinking that finding the right size of Traveler’s Notebook, a specific style of Hobonichi cover, or the absolute perfect Sharpie thin-lined pen would somehow rescue me and I would be motivated to become a prolific notebook keeper. This was not the case. But! I am older now and trying to use what I have. I rediscovered a pile of blank Moleskine A4 notebooks that I plan on utilizing. A very dear friend (that would be me!) gifted me a Hobonichi A5 slipcover and 2024 planner and I am very excited to use it next year (that is now this year).” Going forward, Chelsea wants to return to film writing and critiquing, and plans to do more of that kind of writing in 2024. She is also a wonderful photographer and recently purchased a Canon Selphy printer to print her photos and respond to her own photography in writing. 

Chelsea loves music and often turns to music for inspiration when she is writing. She shared that “sometimes I turn to music, which stirs up a memory, which then plants an idea.” In addition to sharing photos of her notebook with us, she has also put together a custom Spotify playlist for Notebook People, which she hopes you enjoy! 

Chelsea’s Notebook People Spotify Playlist 

Lastly, Chelsea loves film. It was her college major when I met her, and is very much a part of life today, inspiring some of what she reflects on and writes. One of her favorite filmmakers, actors, and writers is John Waters. So, I will leave you with his words, “To me, beauty is looks you can never forget. A face should jolt, not soothe.”

This makes a wonderful writing prompt or quote to keep or inspiration to learn more about John Waters.

You can find Chelsea on Instagram at @cashtheslime.


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