I do a lot of different writing these days: academic work for school, copywriting for a buck, essays and reviews for Like Fire and other venues, and plain old chatty newsy posts like this. One of the more important tools of my trade is the lined notebook sitting on my desk, not for flashes of inspiration or commonplace notes—I have other books for that—but what I call dowsing, mundane jottings and musings with no projected audience, a straight line from head to hand without interference or preconception. I keep it because I need to let loose my most personal voice unescorted on a regular basis, lest I lose touch with it in the course of all my other agendas. It’s verbal doodling, essentially. And, needless to say, it’s not for anyone’s eyes but mine. That’s the whole point.
I’m pretty sure that, unless I commit some kind of heinous crime or have one committed against me, I’ll never be interesting enough to the world at large to have my notebooks and sketchbooks poked through. It’s a reassuring thought. But at the same time, I’m perfectly happy to take advantage of all the archival digitization that’s available these days. Marginalia? Yes please. I love the voyeurism of seeing someone’s handwriting and doodles, even as I have to wonder—especially with posthumous archival collections—what the writers in question would have thought about having their stream-of-consciousness scribbles put up for such scrutiny. Still, given the choice between looking and turning away, I’ll always look. Who doesn’t feel a bit better knowing that David Foster Wallace graffitied vampire fangs on Cormac McCarthy? Then again, while I do love the strange Pilgrim-costumed centaur Samuel Beckett doodled in his original manuscript for Watt, I’m not sure I’m down with the Ransom Center’s description of it as something that
glows like a luminous secular relic. It is, at moments, magnificently ornate, a worthy scion of The Book of Kells, with the colors reduced to more somber hues.
It’s a great big rollicking collection of Beckett’s inner workings—“a wealth of doodles, sketches, mathematical calculations, rhyming schemes, and drawings,” according to the exhibition site—but I’m not sure the medium of ink and crayon exactly lends itself to luminosity or somberness. They’re scribbles, trifles, footbridges to his unconscious. They’re Beckett’s dowsings, and they don’t need to be elevated to high art to be appreciated.
But appreciate them I do, all in the spirit of fun. And even more than that, I appreciate the fact that the general public will never have reason to nose through my notebooks. I wonder, though, whether today’s up-and-coming writers think about where their marginalia is going to land. Archives are big business these days. Is that part of a young author’s fantasy of fame and fortune, which college or hometown library will digitize their notes and doodles for all the world to see? Because that would be a shame, the kind of self-censorship—or maybe more like self-curation—those projections would evoke. It’s easy to forget that people have private, interior lives beyond what they post on Facebook, Twitter, their blogs. It might even be easy to forget, in this age of disclosure, to have them in the first place. But for writers and artists especially, that kind of no-access stomping ground is the most important thing in the world.
Beckett—well, he’s dead, and he’s accomplished all the work he’s going to. I just hope everyone else has a diary with a lock on it.
(Image from Tim Green aka atoach’s Flickr photostream.)