Going to My Messy Place


Your notebook is a room of your own.
                —Ralph Fletcher, Breathing In Breathing Out: Keeping a Writer’s                                     Notebook

There’s an incredible display of journals on one tall wall of the book store–beautiful tooled leather covers, crisp, fine paper.  I pick one up and touch, open it, and smell it.  It’s a feast for the senses.  It’s sensuous and seductive.

I put it right back.

I have tried fancy journals; I have tried exquisite paper with expensive, special pens that need refills that require advance thought and organization.  They don’t work for me. I need a cheap indestructible notebook–the kind with the black and white speckled covers and the blue-lined pages work just fine.  I need a pen I like, but not one that I have to support–my favorites right now are fine tip Pentel RSVP’s. They’re a great length and heft for my big, strong hands.

In my journals–and I have a stack of them, pages yellowing, in the bottom of my closet,– I want to be able to draw silly pictures and leave them half-finished; I want to be able to use run-on sentences or, Internal English Teacher forbid, sentence fragments.

Are these ‘writers’ journals’? I think about writer friends who, on hearing  a snippet of fascinating talk, pull slender doeskin covered notebooks from a laptop case or purse and, using a weighty pen heavy with metal, quickly write something down.  As they go to close the doeskin covers, I see neat little entries written in distinctive East-coast penmanship.

THOSE are writers’ notebooks.  I don’t know what kind of notebook mine is.

A sandbox for my errant thoughts to play in, maybe?

I’m reading Ralph Fletcher’s Breathing In Breathing Out– a lovely slender inspiration on keeping a writer’s notebook. Fletcher makes me feel better about the chaos inside my covers.


Another Sunday snowstorm: we are up early, well before seven, brewing coffee, steeping tea, nibbling at toast and breakfast pastries, reading the morning papers.  (God bless the paper carriers; no matter how early I get up, no matter how unplowed the streets, the Dispatch and the New York Times await me on the front walk.)  I savor the freshly ground Italian roast brew; I do the crossword puzzle and the cryptoquip; I read the NYT Book Review.

Then I start thinking about my blog posts for the week coming up, but my thoughts are jumbled, tumbling over each other, kind of like puppies vying for attention.

I pull out my journal and circle around writing.

Today, though, I am not exactly ready to put pen to paper; instead I have the strong urge to color.  I start to create a border, drawing ink grids around the edges of the page.  When the entire page is bordered, I pull out my colored pencils; I take my favorite color combination: red, purple, and green, and I begin to shade in the squares I’ve created.

I think about a story my mother told about my father at my sixth grade parent open house–parents only, students not allowed.  Mom said she and Dad walked in, and my father went straight to the bulletin board where our poetry folders were hanging.  He zeroed in on mine; something about it told him I had created it; he didn’t need to see my name or handwriting, even, to recognize my work.  That cover, I remember clearly, was purple, red, and green.

But I digress. Which is, of course, one of the functions of a journal.  I write down the anecdote about Dad, and then, looking at my border, I realize eighth grade memories have been dancing around, just under the consciousness shelf.

Eighth grade was an interesting year for me; by choice, I enrolled in the Catholic school, after years of happy public school attendance.  I knew many of my classmates, but I did not have all the memories they’d accrued, growing up through the ranks together. I felt a little shy.

Our classes took place in what was called ‘The Annex’; it was on the third floor of that solid brick building, but accessed by a hallway from the main wing, or–by us–by three zig-zagging flights of stairs in our own separate stairwell.  It was the newer part of the building–so it was probably only twenty-five or thirty years old.  It had been added in the 40’s or 50’s,  when the Catholic high school was so full of students that there was no space for the freshmen.  They were sent to classes in their own little world at the grammar school, separate and apart from the younger students, and not yet woven into the high school culture.

By the time I entered grade eight, at the very end of the 1960’s, the Catholic school attrition had begun, and the high school had plenty of room.  So the seventh and eighth grades (each had two homerooms) took over the annex.

I brought permanent markers to school with me, and to hide my ‘flusterment’ at not knowing where, exactly, I fit in, I took to creating what I called ‘op art’ on my notebook covers.  I would draw straight lines vertically and then fluid, curving, parallel horizontal lines that intersected them, and then I’d fill the squares I created, like a checkerboard, with the smelly black marker.  I called it ‘op art’.  Bridget Riley was my artistic influence.

The other kids would come over to see, and soon I was drawing grids on everyone’s notebooks and other kids were bringing permanent markers to school.  We went through our black and white stage, then we started bringing colored markers, too, and making vivid red and black patterns, or purple and black, and blue and black, designs.  We covered all the outer covers of our notebooks; we flipped them open and created op art on the inside covers. We created op art on the brown paper bag covers we had to put on the textbooks we had on loan from the diocese; they were aged as textbooks go, but very well cared for, and we were strictly enjoined to continue that trend.

The hallways of the annex reeked of permanent marker.  We decided in delight that the smell made us high, and we’d walk into class exaggerating a woozy sensibility.  A few of us felt that sticking the felt-y tip right in the nose would create a more vivid high; these classmates went home with long-lasting black marks in their nostrils and a mighty challenge in explaining those marks to observant mothers.  (The most popular story was about an itchy nose and an apparent lack of observation regarding which end of the marker was which.)

In 1969, we were not, most of us eighth grade girls, allowed to wear make-up yet–although we did of course; we spent our allowances and babysitting cash on cheap eyeshadow, mascara, and blush, at the Kresge’s store two blocks over from the school. We applied it in front of the speckled mirrors in the murky gloom of the girls’ bathroom, which had poor overhead lighting and no window.  If we were lucky–and we tried very hard to remind each other–we scrubbed it off effectively before hying our fresh-faced selves home to our mamas.

My friend Sheila, who was bold and decisive, decided to draw permanent magic marker eye liner around her big brown eyes.  She knew she’d get in trouble (she did), but she figured the eye liner would be semi-permanent, and it would outlast the trouble, which worked out to be pretty much true.

Parents began to complain about the markers, and they became contraband.  We took to sniffing deeply when we got freshly mimeo-ed handouts instead–surely that would get us high! By that time, most of our available drawing space was op-arted; and I felt firmly woven into the fabric of the school.  In fact, my welcoming classmates elected me home room president.

I write this all down in my journal, inside my op-art-y border, and I wonder why I thought of eighth grade this morning.  And then it occurs to me: we had a guest speaker at the College on Friday, a national expert on innovation and retention,and he was giving an opening speech before working with this year’s leadership cohort. President Brown gave a nice intro, but the speaker also introduced himself, giving some examples of his leadership, most recently at the national level, and working backward.  He ended with, “And–I was president of my eight grade class!”  The crowd laughed, and then laughed again when he dead-panned, with perfect delivery, “Twice!”

That wonderful and gracious gentleman had to leave right after lunch, but arrived at the airport in time to discover that his flights back to California were cancelled. Although the skies were blue in Ohio, the southern states were victims of a freak snowstorm; nothing was arriving or leaving in Dallas.

I hope that he has gotten out; I look out the window and watch the snow falling heavily; I look at my left knee, where my little dog’s head rests, and I think, ‘From snowstorm wondering to snowstorm walking,’ and I bundle up to take the crazy little dog out for her morning meander.

Regular notebook writing acts as a wakeup call, a daily reminder to keep all your senses alert. This starts a cycle that reinforces itself.
                —Ralph Fletcher

Sometimes–oftentimes–ideas for writing seem to fall into my head while doing something that mandates I cannot write them down.  A story that’s been bouncing around my barely-consciousness for years will suddenly present itself in a whole new light while I’m walking the dog, say; I’ll realize that character I’ve been trying so hard to push into a mold is just a normal, weary neighbor, and then it all rolls out.  I’m not saying the kernel suddenly sprouts into a great work of fiction; I’m just saying the story, or the essay, the last stanza of the poem–whatever–floats gently into focus.

I think my brain must be very similar to one of the eight-ball toys, with a whole lot of roiling words wafting around in the murk.  Every once in a while something coherent floats to the surface.

“Aha!” I think.

Do I go home and write about whatever, when that happens, in my journal?

I do not.

I go home and sit at my IPad, which is my favorite place to write–I like the little keyboard; the notepad writing tool seems compatible with my electronic writing venues, which I cannot say about Mr. Gates’ software, always.  The electronic word becomes the birthing ground of something that could be share-able or post-able.

I’m not sure what role my hand-written journal plays in this, but I think it may be like a compost heap, fertilizing those thoughts that actually come to fruition.


After a week of sub-zero temps, this snow is soft and wet and heavy; it must be around twenty degrees out.  The little dog is happy to be out; I suspect the snow must amplify smells for her, because she has to snort everything: the fresh deer tracks in the snow (the family was visiting when I went to grab the morning paper), the place she pee-ed last night, another dog’s morning musings.  She chooses a spot well away from the sidewalk on which to take care of her morning’s removals; I am wearing my shoe-cut duckies…and no socks.  I step into the snow to clean up after her, and my bare feet are encased in cold wet snow.

That makes me think of my mother, who insisted on socks in all seasons; she’d have been shocked at me shlepping on my duckies over bare feet.  And, she’d have disapproved of the duckies; her idea of effective winter footgear for women were those rubbery boots you pull over your shoes.  The kind she favored had zippers and little gray fur ankle collars, and I hated, hated, hated them.  More than anything in my world, I wanted shoe boots, and I did not get them until, in my junior year, I earned enough money to buy my own.

I write about shoes and socks and boots in my journal when I return, and then I discover a message from my brother Sean, musing about our parents and their lack of bias against most groups, especially thinking, in the light of an article he’s just written, about how kind they were to disabled children. And that makes me think of a blog post I want to write on my autism-mothering blog.  I put the journal away and head to my IPad, where I start a post that will grow and morph over the next 24 hours.


I read a book by Julia Cameron in the eighties–it was not her famous The Artist’s Way, it was a follow-up–The Vein of Gold.  It espoused many of the same tools to unleash creativity, however, and I loved and embraced the concept of morning pages.

At first, I did them just as Cameron suggested, on unlined paper, three crisp sheets that I pulled out of a ream every morning. I’d set my timer and just let ‘er rip–anything that was on the top of my conscious thought went flowing through my fingers onto the paper. She recommended, I remember, not reading these pages right away, and I scrupulously followed her directions.

When I went back, eagerly, to read them at the week’s end, I could see why Cameron told us to hold off.  What trash!  What whining!  What self-aggrandizing drivel!

And then I realized that’s just what the pages are for: they clear away the detritus.  I think of what I write each morning as the thick heavy layer of packing stuff in a package delivered by UPS.  I have to scoop off that layer, put it in a bin or a big plastic bag; I have to keep scooping and scooping until the thing that’s meant to be found is apparent.

My notebook has become the place for morning pages, and for afternoon frustrations dumped wholesale onto their pages, and for night-time musing, regrets, temptations, figurings-out.

My notebooks are just a big old mess.

My bin, my plastic bag, is my journal—all the layers of random thought, all the distractions, all the whining and unworthy observation, are the styrofoam packing cheese curls.  I open up the top of my head–it’s hinged, thank goodness–and dump its crusty contents all over my journal pages.


Today, in my journal, I write down sadness: an old high school friend has died, a cancer warrior whose valiant fight insured that her grandkids will have vivid  memories of the grandma who loved them and taught them the gift of unrestrained laughter.  A lovely man, a caring, impassioned man, from our last church, has also passed on.

I write this down, but do not elaborate or expand–too new, too raw; excess words threaten to cheapen the dignity and the import of their deaths.

I write, too, about a shocking personnel development at my work; I know there are reasons and layers beyond my ken–where they should be, and where they should stay, although I know, too, that some people will be avid to pick at those layers. I write down the bald fact and veer away from speculation, thinking  ultimately of a young family now faced with a huge challenge.

These facts hit the pages of my journal with wet, heavy thwacks.  They are not seeds for happy, future writing.


I bought Ralph Fletcher’s Breathing In Breathing Out at an English teachers’ conference many years ago; it has waited patiently for me, and I am glad, glad, glad the time has arrived when I can read it and work with it.  Fletcher is smart and pithy and practical.  He shares ideas and wisdom; he suggests prompts and talks about practice.

His journal is a true writer’s journal, I think; he can go back to it and find the seeds of a poem or a story or a wonderful essay, rinse them off in a shining bath, and put them to work in his magical writing.

This is a great book to work with if you want to keep a journal for whatever reason–to clear your head, to build your writer’s repertoire, to clarify your thoughts.

I find that though, that once my thoughts are down in my journal, I rarely go back and look at them again.  In fact, I often find my journal voice to be whiny and annoying.  I think, “What weak and needy person wrote THAT?” and I look around, hoping no one else can hear the voice upon the page.

But I think keeping a journal does help me to write, lifting the extraneous layer of un-needed, unwanted, undignified thought—although I’m not saying none of that is left behind when my fingers hit keyboard–away and allowing me to get to the core of what I want to say.

One of the things about keeping a journal, I think, is getting to the point where you can make your own rules for it, and, if you saw my journals, you’d agree: I make my own rules, all right.  Yikes.  Reading thoughtful writers like Fletcher and Cameron helped me down the road to getting to this messy, cocky place.

I bet you’ve arrived there long before me.


“Writing on the pages of life,” a wonderful blog by my respected blog-colleague Rosanna, is constant inspiration for journal-keeping.  Here is a link:


I hope you’ll check it out; I know you’ll be as inspired by Rosanna’s wise and gentle nudges as I am!


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