So the point of my keeping a notebook has never been, nor is it now, to have an accurate factual record of what I have been doing or thinking. That would be a different impulse entirely, an instinct for reality which I sometimes envy but do not possess. At no point have I ever been able successfully to keep a diary; my approach to daily life ranged from the grossly negligent to the merely absent, and on those few occasions when I have tried dutifully to record a day’s events, boredom has so overcome me that the results are mysterious at best. What is this business about ‘shopping, typing piece, dinner with E, depressed’? Shopping for what? Typing what piece? Who is E? Was this ‘E’ depressed, or was I depressed? Who cares?
In fact I have abandoned altogether that kind of pointless entry; instead I tell what some would call lies. ‘That’s simply not true,’ the members of my family frequently tell me when they come up against my memory of a shared event. ‘The party was not for you, the spider was not a black widow, it wasn’t that way at all.‘ Very likely they are right, for not only have I always had trouble distinguishing between what happened and what merely might have happened, but I remain unconvinced that the distinction, for my purposes, matters. The cracked crab that I recall having for lunch the day my father got home from Detroit in 1945 must certainly be embroidery, worked into the day’s patterns to lend verisimilitude; I was ten years old and would not now remember the cracked crab. The day’s events did not turn on cracked crab. And yet it is precisely that fictitious crab that makes me see the afternoon all over again, a home movie run all too often, the father bearing gifts, the child weeping, an exercise in family love and guilt. Or that is what it was to me. Similarly, perhaps it never did snow that August in Vermont; perhaps there never were flurries in the night wind, and maybe no one else felt the ground hardening and summer already dead even as we pretended to bask in it, but that was how it felt to me, and it might as well have snowed, could have snowed, did snow.
How it felt to me: that is getting closer to the truth about a notebook. I sometimes delude myself about why I keep a notebook, imagine that some thrifty virtue derives from preserving everything observed. See enough and write it down, I tell myself, and then some morning when the world seems drained of wonder, some day when I am only going through the motions of doing what I am supposed to do, which is write—on that bankrupt morning I will simply open my notebook and there it will all be, paid passage back to the world out there: dialogue overheard in hotels and elevators and at the hatcheck counter at the Pavillon (one middle-aged man shows his hat check to another and says, ‘That’s my old football number’); impressions of Bettina Aptheker and Benjamin Sonnenberg and Teddy (‘Mr. Acapulco’) Stauffer, careful aperçus about tennis bums and failed fashion models and Greek shipping heiresses, one of whom taught me a significant lesson (a lesson that I could have learned from F. Scott Fitzgerald, but perhaps we must all meet the very rich for ourselves) by asking, when I arrived to interview her in her orchid-filled sitting room on the second day of a paralyzing New York blizzard, whether it was snowing outside.
I imagine, in other words, that a notebook is about other people. But of course, it is not. I have no real business with what one stranger said to another at the hat check counter in the Pavillon; in fact I suspect that the line ‘That’s my old football number’ touched not my own imagination at all, but merely some memory of something once read, probably ‘The Eighty-Yard Run.’ Nor is my concern with a woman in a dirty crepe-de-Chine wrapper in a WIlmington bar. My stake is always, of course, in the unmentioned girl in the plaid silk dress. Remember what it was to be me: that is always the point.
-Joan Didion, “On Keeping a Notebook”,