The Weight of a Good Notebook

Whitney Carpenter suffers from a common affliction in which she buys fancy notebooks, but rarely writes in them.


A few weeks ago I was making some notes in my leather-bound planner when a coworker asked if I was writing in my diary. Her assumption startled and embarrassed me. One shouldn’t take the accusation of public journaling lightly, especially since I considered it quite obvious that I was writing in an impressive, serious notebook — not some diary with a hairpin lock and curlicues in the corners of the pages. At the time I was writing in my softcover, large-sized Moleskine, the weekly planner/diary of choice for Hemingway fangirls, notebook enthusiasts, and would-be writers who never write much of anything. Since I’m all three of those things, the notebook and I suit one another.

It pains me to be the kind of person who uses sickly back-slashed phrases like “weekly planner/diary,” but I suppose there’s no getting around the fact that I’m a notebook person — specifically a lined, college-ruled, unnumbered pages kind of notebook person. And with one notable exception, I’m probably not too different from the other notebook snobs that you’ve known and mocked over the years. My trouble is that I can never bring myself to write in my notebooks.

This little eccentricity has never stopped me from buying notebooks; there’s a shelf on my second-best bookcase bowing under their weight as I type this. In the beginning it was heavy, hardbound notebooks with gold-leaf pages, the kind you buy at stores that sell Tolkien chess sets and novelty bumper stickers. As I got older I sought out “artisan” notebooks with soft leather covers and pages with visible fibers; I bought them at street fairs from artisans in ugly beanies and at Renaissance fairs from artisans in tights and corsets. I even spent a few months cradling a colorful composition book inside my hoodie like every other girl who wants to be the love interest in a Michael Cera movie.

For me, the allure of notebooks has always been more symbolic than functional. I collected them, in part, because I like the look of crisp pages and the satisfying heft of carrying one in my purse. But I also bought them because, like many other would-be writers, I found it easier to fixate on the idea of a notebook than to think about things like query letters, eye strain with no health insurance, and infinitives that are determined — heaven help us — to split. Of course, I had no idea what I wanted to write, but I knew that I wanted to be a writer and I knew that notebooks, like fancy pens and coffee with a shot of cane liquor, were part of a secret, transformative ritual.

For years I associated notebooks with the idea that I would write out my first novella in two sittings, longhand (delicately crossing out words with an inky line from my fountain pen), which elevated the medium to a paralyzing level of importance. Faced with a real notebook, the ugly reality of bad handwriting, questionable spelling, and ink blots the exact size and shape of my plot holes intruded on my fantasy. Notebooks, as any notebook enthusiast will tell you, have a legacy, and all of that timelessness can weigh on a person. The pressure to do justice to the notebook, to write something as classic and romantic as the paper housing it, is just too much; I can never muster the courage to begin.

The whole thing is a lot like the impossibly heavy vintage typewriter that I carried around in the trunk of my car for two years. I bought the typewriter because I enjoyed pretending that I would refurbish it and use it to type my (nonexistent) personal correspondence. But even as I lugged it out of the antique store, I knew that every sheet I spiraled through the roller of that typewriter would be one more page I wouldn’t write. The paralysis associated with a typewriter is twice that of a notebook because it’s twice as iconic; each keystroke would mark the noisy advancement of reality against my idle daydreams. And for a whimsical sort, those daydreams are worth any loss in gas that comes with carting around 30 pounds of twisted metal. So the typewriter sat in the trunk of my car, rattling around and compressing my rear axel, until I got the gumption and upper body strength to sell it. .

If you consider how long I’ve lived beneath the leathery glare of those notebooks, wincing every time I reached past them to grab a sci-fi novel, my recovery from notebook madness was an abrupt and simple thing. Not long ago, I moved into a building with crooked hallways and no elevator. Through some twist of fate or calculation, I was left to carry the two boxes of empty notebooks up from the moving truck. I’m no great athlete — I imagine few notebook enthusiasts are — and somewhere between the second and third stories the weight of the notebooks stopped being symbolic. At that moment, when the notebooks became plain, everyday heavy, it occurred that I was carrying a box full of paper set aside for the first draft of a novella that I might never write.

For reasons rooted equally in embarrassment and optimism, I’d like to think that this epiphany is inevitable for all notebook enthusiasts. Notebook obsession, pen fetishes, and certainly the desire to buy and refurbish vintage typewriters, aren’t about getting the appropriate gear to become that iconic writer; they’re about maintaining the distance between that icon and reality. Because as long as we focus on the romance of the supplies, we don’t have to write a damn thing until we find the perfect notebook.

This strategy is effective; it shields you from the terrifying act of actually writing. And as a compulsive email checker, pipe-dreamer, and firm believer that you can’t start a project until you’ve cleared out your Google Reader and taken three showers, I can attest to its wily adaptability. The only downside is that it tends to lead to revelations like the one I experienced between the second and third stories of my apartment building. It’s an ugly thing when you realize that you have 15 blank notebooks (several of which have your initials embossed on the cover) and nothing to show for it but a possible hernia.

Because I still enjoy the weight of one in my purse, these days I carry a single notebook — the aforementioned “diary” — that I use solely and heretically as a day planner. For everything else I confine myself to computers. The charm of word processing is that it’s forgiving and intangible; every attempt does not commit an entire notebook, and you can add and rip pages from the binding at will. The ability to erase easily and completely is an amazing thing, though it lacks the tactic charms of a skeleton key or complimentary ribbon page-marker. And although the subtle clacking of the keyboard isn’t exactly timeless, it’s certainly something a body can get used to.

Whitney Carpenter is a would-be writer who spends her time starting great cubicle conversations with questions like, “Which soda do you think is the classiest?" She blogs the mundane at Little Nearer.