Keeping A Notebook
Last week, I spent a couple hours going through a decade of notebooks.
Okay, so I knew that there would be a decade of notebooks. I’ve been writing plays for ten years and I am pretty much the ultimate nerd. Of course I carry a notebook with me everywhere I go. Of course I got down lines of dialogue and scenes and notes on a script and pitches and outlines and and and. I can’t remember a single original thought until I’ve written it down. My brain’s just funny that way.
But I was surprised by just how many of them there were. I was surprised by just how incredibly out of order they were stored. I was surprised that I’d gone this long without giving them their own designated storage space in my apartment — a place to breathe and grow and, most of all, be completely out of my way. Because I am a monster and, if given the chance and the proximity, I will reach into a drawer and read pages and pages and lose so many hours of my day.
I know this because my mom recently found all of my childhood and teenage diaries and — after swearing that she didn’t read a single page! (okay, sure) — she put them in a desk drawer in my parents’ brand new guest room. And while I was home for Christmas, between gasps of air and catatonic first drafts of Frankenstein, I read them. And read them. Oh man I was such an idiot. I was so obsessed with everything. And in that moment, at 31, I was obsessed with my past self.
There were 25 notebooks total.
And that both surprised me and didn’t surprise me at all. I was expecting one notebook per year, a time capsule of my artistic life. Instead I discovered that I’ve gone through more notebooks since moving to Seattle in 2015 than any other time in my life. I was excited to see a notebook that ran only for a few months in 2011. Surely this would be full of abandoned ideas and a racing mind, but no. Instead it was full of interview questions for every job and fellowship I applied for that year, with notes from Stopgap lightly sprinkled throughout. I wanted inspired notes from an eager twenty-something. Instead, I found a drive a drive a drive to make money so that I could keep writing these plays for free.
I was reminded of old friends.
And by friends, I mean characters. My second year of grad school, I pitched the play Our Father to my playwriting class and dear lord was that an experience I forgot I had — this exercise of pitching to my peers and hoping that no one would think I was totally stupid. But it was more than the fear. It was the practice of talking about my characters and storylines like they’re living and breathing. Today, I was in a meeting where I was repeatedly referred to as a living playwright and my brain kept repeating, “Yes, I’m living. But so are my characters.”
Our Father thankfully went nowhere, but it almost went all the way to the Capital Fringe Festival in 2013 because I was so determined to get this play right. I replaced all references to Coke with coke and yes yes it was the worst script fix because it made it even more broken. Instead, I scrapped my play from my own theatre’s season, replacing it with Giant Box of Porn by Patrick Flynn. And in that change, I gained a lifelong friend.
I’m particularly struck by this line in my own notebook: “I haven’t figured out the plot […] but I have a strong vision of who these characters are.” I still write like that. The plot is always second. It’s the characters who keep me coming back to the page.
I was reminded of my own timeline.
In the story of myself, I say that I threw out Dust 1.0 — the Dust that pretty much everyone in DC has seen at pretty much every stage of development — right after I moved to Seattle. In the story of myself, I didn’t have the sinister thoughts and direct address and gnawing monstrosity until I was fully in my depression. But looking at this notebook from July 2015, the seed was planted several months earlier. That first line from Boy (“James” in this notebook sketch) is still 100% intact. It’s probably the only thing that has stayed with this play for the last four years. It was a reminder that my thoughts are powerful, and untethered to where I’m living or what I’m personally going through. It was a reminder that I’m a creator, because of and in spite of myself.
I was reminded of how I take notes.
Not how I literally write them down, but how I receive them. These notes are from the first writers group I was ever part of — notes I scrawled down from my own brain while I was reading my play. I’d just come back from a meeting at Arena (I’m sure) and was trying to process what my own opinions about the play were. Nexus was the first time I’d ever experimented with writing for two characters. I was nervous that they’d run out of things to say to each other. And then I thought about the conversations I had with my best friend or my boyfriend or my coworker. We never ran out of things to say to each other — and we, like the characters in Nexus, were just two people too.
“Be a little more honest with your characters.” I love that. “He knows her body more than she does.” That’s terrifying. Oh, I acknowledge that. I acknowledge that intersection of terror and intimacy.
I was reminded that sometimes the most important moment comes first.
When I set out to write Rushing, I knew it would be about rape. I knew it would be about rape and yet I didn’t want to tell my writers group until they saw those pages. I wanted them to be an audience eye. I wanted them to be surprised. But I wasn’t surprised. I knew exactly where I was going. And on a drive home from Portland one night, I turned down the radio and turned on the light and wrote — in one swoop — the entire scene in the notebook I was carrying. That was March 2018, just over a year ago.
And I’d filled the last page of that notebook, I shoved it onto the shelf above my desk for safekeeping. Because I was still writing the forty-five pages before this key scene. I still had a lot of work to do. When I was ready to type out what was already handwritten, I terrified myself. Every word felt right and awful. I changed hardly anything.
The notebooks now sit in a box in my closet, high out of reach.
They’ve found a home there, a home devoid of prying eyes and spinning brains. And when the next notebook fills, I’ll lift the box’s lid and contribute to the time capsule. I don’t have any desire to explore those past selves again, but maybe I’ll have a different view in another ten years. For now, I’ll write and write and write.