In Chapter 3 of his genre-defying book The Songlines, Bruce Chatwin introduces an important supporting character:

"Do you mind if I use my notebook?" I asked.

"Go ahead."

I pulled from my pocket a black, oilcloth-covered notebook, its pages held in place by an elastic band.

"Nice notebook," he said.

"I used to get them in Paris," I said. "But now they don't make them anymore."

"Paris?" he repeated, raising an eyebrow as if he'd never heard anything so pretentious.

Then he winked and went on talking. (12)

"Nice notebook" hardly begins to describe the item in question, but fortunately cbustapeck's writeup above goes a long way in all the right directions. A second reference in Chapter 15 begins to flesh out the significance of these notebooks to the writer:

I showered and packed my bag. I packed a pile of my old black notebooks. They were the notebooks for the 'nomad' book, which I had kept when I burned the manuscript. Some I hadn't looked at for at least ten years. They contained a mishmash of nearly indecipherable jottings, 'thoughts', quotations, brief encounters, travel notes, notes for stories... I had brought them to Australia because I planned to hole up somewhere in the desert, away from libraries and other men's books, and take a fresh look at what they contained. (75)

Chatwin's descriptions of the tools of writing remind me of a line from Derek Bickerton's introduction to the first edition of Language and Species:

"A book is a machine to think with."

Bickerton was mostly referring to the way in which the process of writing shapes the writer's thoughts and ideas, but I think there's a lot to be said about a writer's choice of venue, so to speak. There's something about a sexy new notebook that makes you want to write... or fills you with the fear of sullying those perfect blank pages with utter drivel. Either way, it is no wonder that Chatwin was so particular about his choice of tools. In Chapter 30, the author waxes almost poetic in describing these books and their role in his writing (the italics are Chatwin's, the boldface emphasis mine):

...I put my pencils in a tumbler and my Swiss Army knife beside them. I unpacked some exercise pads, and, with the obsessive neatness that goes with the beginning of a project, I made three stacks of my 'Paris' notebooks.

In France, these notebooks are known as carnets moleskines: 'moleskine', in this case, being its black oilcloth binding. Each time I went to Paris, I would buy a fresh supply from a papeterie in the Rue de l'Ancienne Comedie. The pages were squared and the end-papers held in place with an elastic band. I had numbered them in series. I wrote my name and address on the front page, offering a reward to the finder. To lose a passport was the least of one's worries: to lose a notebook was a catastrophe. (160)

The last line of that passage fills me with chills every time I read it. I lost a notebook while traveling through Europe with Jongleur during the summer of 2002, when my purse was stolen in Roma Termini station. The only items of monetary value in that purse were a digital camera and my Dutch passport --- my bet is that they were removed as soon as possible and the rest discarded, if the thief had any brains at all. Which means that my notebook probably ended up in a trash can in or around Rome central train station. Unfortunately, I don't speak Italian, or I would have gone directly to the janitors and offered them a reward for the missing item. I might have been able to explain to the more or less completely useless station police that my purse had just disappeared and could someone please get on the P.A. and offer a hundred-Euro reward for its return, no questions asked? It would have been nice to feel like I was doing something about the problem, but instead I got to wait in line for the one English-speaking station police officer (there were six), and discover that she was also the only one in the office who seemed to do any kind of work (the rest served the important function of standing around, smoking cigarettes, proudly displaying guns on their hip belts, and directing all queries, even the ones in Italian, to their one female colleague). It was like I could feel my brain dissolving as I waited for half an hour to fill out a theft report. There were literally seven months of thought recorded in that notebook --- it was the first in which I stopped separating writing drafts from journal entries from notes on everything I saw or read or listened to, and concentrated on just writing. It was working, too --- freed from attempting to organize what I wrote into separate notebooks, I had generated probably a year's worth of raw material. And now it was gone. My hands are shaking as I type this, but whether from frustration, rage, or grief, I couldn't tell you. Probably all of the above.

Chatwin writes:

In twenty-odd years of travel, I lost only two [notebooks]. One vanished on an Afghan bus. The other was filched by the Brazilian secret police, who, with a certain clairvoyance, imagined that some lines I had written --- about the wounds of a Baroque Christ --- were a description, in code, of their own work on political prisoners. (160)

If I never lose another notebook, I will be very happy indeed. I was lucky --- my Palm Pilot was in a pocket when I was robbed, so I didn't lose that as well. My wallet, Eurail Pass and U.S. passport were always in my pockets on that trip. Les moleskines gained a lot of appeal that day, for being pocket-sized. The very next notebook I started, within minutes of finally getting out of the police station with a carbon copy of my theft report, fit reassuringly in my pocket. I immediately started trying to recall everything I had written in its predecessor, but of course to no avail. A list like:

  • notes and such on needed edits to my thesis
  • observations from Apocalypso Now! nodermeet
  • notes and thoughts/analsyis of The Spiral Dance (now more than ever, I give in and want a copy)
  • beginnings of sex book (glad I started it!)
  • Checkpoint Charlie Museum notes: IS SELF-DEFENSE VIOLENCE?
  • D-Day 2002: I'm really glad we wrote it up on GrokSoup but it's sad that the program of the Normandy Veterans' Association's Ceremony of Remembrance was probably lost (must double-check when we get back)

only barely begins to describe the contents of a leather-bound journal of several hundred pages, three-quarters full of an exciting experiment that looked like it was going to be very valuable indeed. It is at best a starting point for reconstructing some of the intellectual work begun in those pages and months. What can never be recovered are the glimpses of feeling I got from rereading some of that notebook's more tear-stained pages. There. I've said it. That hurt more than I thought it would. I didn't just lose part of my mind with that book, I lost part of my heart and soul, if you believe in the latter. But enough about me. While we're on the topic of hopeless bleak despair, there's an appropriate Moleskine-related passage from The Songlines that needs sharing:

Some months before I left for Australia, the owner of the papeterie said that the vrai moleskine was geting harder and harder to get. There was one supplier: a small family business in Tours. They were very slow in answering letters.

'I'd like to order a hundred,' I said to Madame. 'A hundred will last me a lifetime.'

She promised to telephone Tours at once, that afternoon....

At five, I kept my appointment with Madame. The manufacturer had died. His heirs had sold the business. She removed her spectacles and, almost with an air of mourning, said, 'Le vrai moleskine n'est plus.' (160-61)

There's a finality to the shopkeeper's last word on les moleskines that turned out to be false, happily enough --- the Moleskine is back with a vengeance. As of this writing, it is available in the classic pocket size as well as a larger size; in ruled, unruled, graph paper, or nice, thick, arty sketch pad paper; as daily or weekly diaries (kind of like day planners); AND with several sexy new cover textures and colors besides the classic black oilcloth. There's also Moleskine address books, and for the even more organizationally-minded, books designed for notes on places, with sections for "bed, food, people, sights, facilities." And finally, for everybody who loved the little expandable pocket at the back of every Moleskine notebook, there's Moleskine memo pockets, like a pocket-size accordion file for loose papers. Likewise, I'm recovering from my lost journal. Its successor, filled in less than a month, was instrumental in helping me write this, for instance, and my current notebook is filling just as rapidly, with all of the kinds of writing previously mentioned and some of my first attempts at fiction in literally years. Most recently, my data entry capacity expanded with the acquisition of my very own Palm Portable Keyboard, which enables me to make multiple backup copies of data and minimize the losses I so dread.

The moral of the story is WRITE! Just keep writing, all obstacles and invonveniences be damned. You can work out your ideal system as you go along.

To quote Paul Simon,

You wanna be a writer?
Don't know how or when?
Find a quiet place, and use a humble pen.

—"Hurricane Eye", You're the One

Whatever your humble pen is, may it serve you as well as Chatwin's moleskines and my PPK.

Works Cited:

Bickerton, Derek. Language and Species. Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1990.

Chatwin, Bruce. The Songlines. New York: Penguin Books, 1988. Copyright 1987, Bruce Chatwin.

Simon, Paul. "Hurricane Eye", track 10 of You're The One. Warner Brothers Records, 2000.