On Didion, Fallacy, and Reality

Work had been piling up on me, so I felt that a cupcake and a café mocha was deserved. I headed to my favorite coffee shop, ordered my food and drink, and sat down to bury myself in books for a while. I pulled out Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem and set to work. The titular essay had begun to wear on me so I flipped to her personals. “On Keeping a Notebook” was an essay that was somewhat known to me, so I settled on that one for my daily reading. 

“The impulse to write things down is a peculiarly compulsive one, inexplicable to those who do not share it, useful only accidentally, only secondarily, in the way that any compulsion tries to justify itself,” Didion asserts (132).

Years ago I once kept flashcards on a keychain to record fragments from my quotidian life. I found them a few months ago, forgotten in a box of middle school memorabilia tucked away in a corner of my basement. Among the jokes are poor drawings, their creation a habit which I am thankful to have dropped over the years. I now line my notebooks with essay ideas, books I want to read that I’ll never end up reading, sentence diagrams, and quotations from professors. 

“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” (133).

Oftentimes professors, friends, or family will say something truly unique and I will immediately pull out my notebook to scribble it down. However, I usually do not quite make it to the notebook. Instead, my pen seeks the nearest scrap of paper or my fingers seek the quickest route to my phone. I have tried, genuinely, to keep a notebook over the years, but I can never quite manage it as my thoughts (or more often others’ thoughts) wind up on pages elsewhere. My “erratic assemblage” does exist, but in a more erratic form than even Didion could claim. 

“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’” (136).

My instinct tells me that I must dutifully and accurately record what I see around myself. This propensity toward the factual feeds into all that I do; I must retell events in exactly the way they happened. I must quote people down to the word. I must proclaim what I know to be true. I must, I must, I must

My notebook has spread to my walls. My notebook now houses unframed photographs, scraps from devotional handouts, cards from loved ones, and other random nothings. Remember, they scream at me. You must remember. 

Sometimes I like to think that I, like Didion, record things simply as they feel to me. I wish sometimes that I could surround myself with the semi-true, the essentially fallacious. It should be easier that way, shouldn’t it? Fictions provide an escape from the realities which face us every day, bad and good. But of course I cannot, for I must remember to surround myself with practical truths.

But that is rather the point: the factual is useful. My notebook provides facts that I can touch. When the fallacies of the world infect my mind, I turn to my realities, the small humors and fragments that keep me sane. Keeping in touch, that is what it’s all about. Facts can be the elusive, forgotten friends, but I can never let them be.


Didion, Joan. "On Keeping A Notebook." Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1968, 131-141.