Thank you, dear readers, for indulging me, as I continue this exploration of the idea of “notebook people,” people who are connected by the act or practice of keeping a notebook. For the past few weeks, I have been listening to Anderson Cooper’s new podcast on grief, All There Is, which was inspired by his experience of going through his mother’s belongings after she died. His mother, Gloria Vanderbilt, was many things, including an artist, a designer, and a writer, and amongst her belongings were her old journals and notebooks. Of course, there were, I thought to myself. And upon hearing that, I felt a special kinship with Gloria Vanderbilt.
I am always surprised, though I should not be, that so many people keep notebooks. I think, as a young girl, I thought I was strange because I did. No one else in my family kept one. None of my friends kept notebooks, insofar as I know. So, it always seemed like some sort of strange secret. I daresay, I was even a little bit ashamed. I was ashamed of my oddness instead of proud of my creativity and uniqueness.
On November 16, 2022, an auction lot of thirteen blank notebooks from the estate of Joan Didion, all with bookplates saying “From the Library of Joan Didion,” were expected to sell for $100 to $200, but at hammer, sold for a whopping $9,000! $9,000 for thirteen blank notebooks that Joan Didion might have touched, but never wrote in. Thinking about it now, as a keeper of notebooks, perhaps they were the thirteen most uninspiring of all the notebooks she ever owned. Or perhaps they were the most precious. It’s hard to know. Joan Didion, though, was most certainly a member of the “notebook people” tribe, perhaps the founding member. Her essay “On Keeping a Notebook,” continues to inspire me and many other writers. Had I read her essay as a nine-year-old girl, I would have surely embraced my strangeness.
And now, I introduce to another member of the tribe of notebook people, poet Mark Wunderlich .
It is quite possible that the poem, from which the above lines are excerpted, began in one of the Leuchtturm 1917 dot grid notebooks that you’d find tucked inside of Mark Wunderlich’s Roterfaden Taschenbegleiter cover. His is brown leather with a grey felt interior. Embroidered inside the front cover are the words “Jeder Engel ist schrecklich,” a quote from Austrian poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, from his second Duino Elegy, which translates to “every angel is terrible.” Mark explained this to me over our Zoom meeting, our first and only time meeting each other. He was in his 300-year-old farmhouse nestled in the Catskills; behind him were bookshelves filled with volumes, some of which were old finished notebooks. I was in my home office in West Orange, New Jersey. Notebooks were the single thread that connected us and enabled me to find myself talking to him on that day.
Mark Wunderlich is a poet and administrator at Bennington College in Vermont. He lives in the Catskills in an old farmhouse, and he keeps a notebook.
Mark has kept a notebook at various times in his life, for as long as he can remember. Many of those earlier notebooks were abandoned because it took him quite some time to “figure out how to use one consistently in a way that worked for [him].” Today he writes in his notebook pretty much every day, usually beginning in the morning, and he has done so for at least the past five years. As is probably the case for many notebook people, his notebook became especially invaluable to him during the pandemic, when he used it as a way of chronicling what was happening. In his words, “having a notebook was grounding – my own little version of a diary of the plague years.” He went on to describe how the world had changed for him, as it did for us all, becoming “disorienting, sometimes alienating” and that his notebook “became the true expression of my own privacy, a place to record and reflect and to dream.”
Mark is both inspired and inspiring. His notebooks are tangible displays of his inner creativity. My favorite part of our conversation centered around this. His notebook is filled with all sorts of visually interesting things. He compared the way that he kept a notebook to the bulletin boards he remembers from elementary school. He recalled with an excited, boyish nostalgia how much he loved them. He loved the way that the decorations would change with the seasons or holidays, or how they might change again if there were going to be a special person visiting the class. Reminiscing with such joy, he shared, “I was just obsessed with those. Like, I just loved them.” And so, in some ways, he believed he was replicating those visual memories of elementary school bulletin boards and how they made him feel inside his notebook.
He flipped through his notebooks as we spoke, and found drafts of poems, tickets from museums, and postcards that he’d mailed to himself when he traveled. For a while, he was immersed in his own memories, and I was simply an observer. It was fascinating, and I was grateful for the glimpse. We talked more about the postcards that he mails to himself, some of which were tucked in the inside cover of his Roterfaden. “It’s a delight,” he told me, “It’s like a great surprise when I come home and open my mailbox, then there’s all these…This is one I sent from Munich, and it says ‘It’s July 30, 2022. The widow slumped over her hard roll, a little smudge of jam, the egg too firm. How monumental these small disappointments…’ He went on to explain, “Maybe I’ll come home and turn this into a poem.” They don’t all inspire poems, and as he explained, they are nothing precious or “for the ages.” They are just simple bits of memory and though they are not precious, they are cherished. In addition to written ideas and ephemera, Mark also keeps his calendar in his notebook, which he hand-draws with a ruler each week.
Some of his finished notebooks were on the bookshelf behind him, while others were stored away. Mark keeps all of his notebooks. He said they are precious to him, and he would never discard them. I asked him if he ever worried that anyone would read them, and he does not. He lives alone, though he does have a partner who lives a ways down the road, but who he trusts and is confident would not violate that trust. He sees his notebook as a place where he feels free to express himself and cannot imagine having to feel restricted because he is concerned about his privacy. Fortunately, this is simply not an issue for him.
When asked what advice he would give to someone who wanted to keep a notebook, but didn’t know where to start, Mark drew on his own experiences. He’d tried different approaches and didn’t settle into keeping a notebook until he realized he could keep everything in one place. He suggests that people not “be fussy about keeping a notebook. Just put everything in it! When I realized that I could just keep all the many lists I make in one place and not have separate work lists, home lists, and creative lists all kept in different places, it liberated me.” And perhaps, along the lines of feeling liberated, he goes on to add, “When I open my notebook, I am giving myself over to my inner life, and not to some algorithm or corporation.”
I loved this, the idea of giving oneself over to one’s inner life. Mark and I discussed the intersection between the public and private self and public and private writing. As a poet, Mark especially understands this. Much of his inspiration comes from the inner life that he talks about, the impressions and memories that he gathers and jots down in his notebook are for him and him only, and yet there are times when those same memories or impressions become part of one of his poems, which are meant to be public.
Here are some links where you can find some of Mark’s poetry::
- have.html https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/mark-wunderlich
I am so grateful to Mark for taking the time to share his insights and notebook keeping practice with me. I hope that you feel inspired, too.