I was an undergraduate creative writing major in my late teens or very early twenties when I first read Joan Didion’s essay collection, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, and came across the essay “On Keeping a Notebook,” which over the years, as many of you know, I have revisited often. Didion was a masterful writer, who crafted elegant sentences and had an eye for subtleties when it came to almost any issue about which she wrote. I might have fallen in love with her, even if I hadn’t read that particular essay, but there was no question about my adoration for her once I had. I felt like we were kindred spirits. Every time I return to this particular essay, I discover something new. This time it was:
“...But our notebooks give us away, for however dutifully we record what we see around us, the common denominator of all we see is always, transparently, shamelessly, the implacable “I.” We are not talking here about the kind of notebook that is patently for public consumption, a structural conceit for binding together a series of graceful pensées; we are talking about something private, about bits of the mind’s strong too short to use, an indiscriminate and erratic assemblage with meaning only for its maker. “ Joan Didion, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, “On Keeping a Notebook”
She nailed it. She knew my heart. She not only understood the compulsion that drives one to keep a notebook, but found it to be an interesting enough topic about which to write an essay. Along this vein, I thought it would be interesting and inspiring to hear what compels others to do the same. This is how my series that I lovingly call “Notebook People” was born.
I first met Michael about 15 years ago, when I took a photography class at Unique Photo in Fairfield, NJ to learn how to take better photos with my new digital camera. Michael was so passionate and excited about his craft that it got me excited . This drew me in at once, and we became easy friends. Over the years, via social media, additional photography lessons, and texts and letters, we’ve kept in touch. I’ve watched him and he’s watched me do what people do when living life, experiencing joys and challenges, triumphs and tragedies. From time to time I’d read a post from Michael in which he’d mention morning pages and The Artist’s Way. He’s the creative and expressive type like myself. I wasn’t too surprised to discover that he had a writing practice, but it never clicked with me that it was a regular thing he did all of the time. That said, it wasn’t until he posted a photo of all of his notebooks/journals that I realized he was my people, “Notebook People.”
When I decided to do this series, I knew Michael would be the first person I’d ask to interview because he is truly the embodiment of “Notebook People,” and yet, this 60-year-old former US marine, marathon runner, remarkable father, professional photographer, and Black man, doesn’t fit the mold of what social media has a lot of us thinking people who keep notebooks look like, and yet, Michael has been keeping a notebook or journal for over 40 years! I had the wonderful opportunity to talk to Michael about keeping a notebook and his reflective writing practice for over an hour, which translates into 30 pages of transcribed notes. I wish I could share every single thing he said with you. He is an incredibly inspiring man, who is courageous enough to be vulnerable, something I have always admired about him.
His journal keeping began when he was in high school and decided he wanted to go to school for architecture. His teacher told him that while his drawing and drafting skills were great, his lettering skills, which were necessary back then, were something he'd need to improve. So, with that in mind, he got his hands on a notebook and began practicing letters. According to Michael, “I filled notebooks, just doing alphabets and numbers. And then, it got to a point where I thought, I don’t have to keep writing As and Bs and Cs. I can make this meaningful and actually say something.” And that was the catalyst that started his personal writing journey.
Michael has consistently kept notebooks and journals since then. He currently keeps three different notebooks - a morning pages journal, a gratitude journal, and a Best Self journal. He learned about “morning pages” years ago. Reading Julia Cameron’s book The Right to Write, led him to read The Artist’s Way, which introduced her then and still popular practice of keeping “morning pages.” He returns to the practice regularly. “I do [it] every 18 to 24, like a religion.” In addition to doing morning pages, he writes in his gratitude journal twice a day, in the morning and again in the evening. He keeps those notebooks at home, while he carries his Best Self journal, a popular goal-setting system, with him every day. It was so inspiring to hear about how his more than 40 years of notebook keeping began.
I asked Michael if he was ever concerned about privacy, when it came to his journaling. Over the years, I have talked to a lot of potential journal and notebook keepers who said they hesitated to begin a reflective writing practice for fear that their journals or notebooks would be discovered and read without their permission. Michael shared his own experiences with being violated in just that way. As a teenager, he would hide his journal in his dresser drawer when friends would visit because, “you know, guys don’t keep diaries.” (Busting this myth, by the way, weighed heavily in my decision to interview Michael.) His mother discovered that journal tucked away in his dresser and read it. Fortunately, what she read wasn’t very damning at all, but in his words, it was “the fact that she read it. I thought, like I can’t believe, you know, my mother would do this to me…..I felt very violated.” Years later, Michael has no negative feelings towards his mother. “I love my mother….I haven’t forgiven her, I have, sorta… ” he said, laughing, but still, that violation and a future violation by his future wife before they were married led him to go so far as using code phrases that only he knows what they mean, so he doesn’t have to hold back when he writes.
And because of these past violations of his privacy, once his journals are completed, Michael stores them in a safe. He has kept all of them, something I wish I had done, as I have destroyed quite a few of mine. He doesn’t put away his current journals in the safe, but when a notebook is completed, it makes its way to the safe. So, he understands the concerns that people have about privacy, noting that depending on what we’re talking about or writing about, there can be several consequences. So, he completely understood the concerns that people might have. Even with that, keeping a notebook and personal writing were important enough to him to find ways to protect his privacy, while continuing to do what was important to him.
When it comes to vulnerability and self-expression, I truly admire Michael; he is truly courageous. For me, his vulnerability and courage became most apparent when I saw the way he loved his daughter, Charlotte, who passed away several years ago, and the way he continues to share memories of her. He was gracious enough to share some of what he’d learned from Charlotte during our interview. He shared, “I will still occasionally write to her in my journal…She was born with a very severe heart defect. Babies born with this heart defect usually don’t even live one day and she had to have open heart surgery. They told me the prognosis was a life expectancy of about 12 months.” Charlotte went on to live to be 15 years old, they had a deeply loving father-daughter relationship.
There can be nothing worse than knowing that one day you will have to deal with the death of your child. It is, according to anyone who has experienced it, the most difficult and tragic of all losses. Michael thoughtfully shared, “I also learned before Charlotte that suffering ends, when you accept what is, but I was not willing to accept losing my daughter for a long time. So, journaling through those 15 years really had me come to terms with not only being a father, but who I was as a husband, who I am to my community, who my community is to me, because my community really rallied around me. I learned who my friends were when Charlotte was born…And all of those journal entries had me stay present to those sorts of things and use them as fuel, whether it was a good or bad entry….to be the best man I can be … you know, father, husband, son, uncle, brother….Charlotte had me really get very, very present to what’s important in life, and a lot of that came through my journal entries.”
Perhaps that is one of the greatest benefits of reflective writing, the fact that it causes us to pause, slow down, and be present, so that we can live in the moment. I will leave you with Michael’s response to my question, What else would you like to share with our readers that relates to your notebook or writing process?
Being heard is a security. Everyone understands the human need for food, clothes, a roof over one’s head, feeling safe and secure. And another need is the need to be heard. The writing process is a form of being heard. You can get “out of your head” and get it on the page. This is a level of being heard that you may not experience otherwise. Plus, your thoughts become better formed, the Universe brings you a higher level of vibration and understanding when you put your thoughts on the page. - Michael Downey