Thursday, October 1, 2009

Trial by Blank Book

I collect blank books. When I discovered that Jimmy Buffett has a trunk full of blank books he’s collected over the years which are still, well, blank, I realized my dirty little secret wasn’t quite as shameful as I thought.

Isn’t it funny how comforting it is to find just one person out of the billions on our planet who exhibits your own particular brand of obsession? Knowing I was not alone gave me permission to buy even more blank books. Really, you just never know when you might need one.

When we go to heaven (note my optimism), I’m certain we will be able to find the answers to all those burning questions that puzzle us in life. What is the answer to the question of life, the universe, and everything? Is it really 42 and do you need a towel to calculate it? What killed the dinosaurs? What causes autism? What is the unified field theory and can an angel explain it to me so that I really understand it? Was Chaucer gay? Did Shakespeare write his plays (I think so) or was their author really the Earl of Oxford? What is my dog thinking at any given moment?

I’ll be sure to ask a few questions about blank books, too. How many blank books stay blank for their entire earthly existence? What percentage of the total is that? Is there a special library in heaven for blank books? Do the angels write in them so they don’t feel so useless?

Take this lovely book, for instance. It's made with handmade paper by bookbinders from Thailand. I bought it at a craft fair in Greensboro, North Carolina, more than a decade ago. I've never written in it. It's too pretty. I might mess it up.

Blank books represent potential: words, sentences, paragraphs that can express meaningful thoughts in a relatively permanent form for someone to read. Reality can't always live up to potential, however, and fear of failure--that our words won't say what we want them to say in the way we want them to say it--keeps these books blank.

Or maybe it's just me. Fear of failure has kept me from doing a lot of things. Writing a novel, for instance.

I've had an idea for a novel since 1987. It came to me during my senior year at Duke, when I took a graduate seminar in Medieval History. I've done a lot of research over the years and have actually written scenes and whole chapters. The dirty, stained book on the left below contains some very bad scenes for the novel:

The pristine book on the right is still completely blank because I switched to composing on the computer after Nick was born. A few years and about 50 single-spaced pages in Microsoft Word later, I lost it all in a corrupted floppy disk incident.

Please don’t ask. It’s just too painful.

I have a number of blank books like the ones above that hold paper craft ideas. I have filled them with hundreds of card and scrapbook ideas over the years. Unfortunately, I almost never look in them when I need inspiration. I just stare at my stamps and ink and hope the Muse will speak to me.

Please remind me why I took the time to fill these notebooks in the first place.

Here is a lovely leather-bound blank book, similar to several others purchased at Barnes and Noble or Borders over the last 15 years. Each has some writing in it, but nothing finished. This one contains a journal I wrote to Nick when he was in my womb. See his first portraits? Who knew a lima bean could be so cute? I did the same thing for Jack, but predictably, Nick’s is much fuller than Jack’s.

Second children get gypped, every time.

In the interest of full disclosure, I went looking for the first blank book I remember buying, which was in college. I thought it would be in a Sterilite storage bin in the basement skulking, hidden from view, but apparently in a temporary fit of sanity, I threw it away. It contained all that remained (maybe ten pages) of the poetry I wrote in college.

When I got bored in class, I wrote poems. This is ironic, as two of the classes that bored me silly were poetry classes covering poems far more stunning and intelligent and skillful than my angst-ridden whining could ever be. I loathed twentieth-century English and British poetry until I went to graduate school, when I was finally mature enough to appreciate them. In college, though, the beauty of William Carlos Williams and the WWI poets was lost on me.

In my defense, I did love T.S. Eliot’s work even in high school, so I wasn’t a total idiot. Just be grateful I threw my own poems away, or I might have actually shared some of them with you. What has been read cannot be unread.

You're welcome.

This is among my best-loved blank books, one that will die happy knowing it was really useful and loved and frequently handled. It contains my Christmas craft project and gift notes for the last five years: pages of shopping lists, project check-lists, who got what and when it was shipped, and tips for the next Christmas. Without this notebook, bus drivers and church secretaries would have bleak Christmases indeed because there's no way I would ever be organized enough to remember how important they are until sometime in February, when it would be embarrassingly late to give them a Christmas gift.

I pulled the Christmas book out a few days ago to start getting ready for Christmas 2009 and found this staccato tidbit of information: "Make less bulky Christmas cards--and larger ones. A2 size is so small. Ribbon knots are so bulky. Make flat cards."

Sadly, it's a little late for this advice. I've already made 80 or so A2-size cards, many of which have ribbon knots on them. Oh, well. At least I try.

And that's what blank books are ultimately all about: trying. Trying to overcome fear and anger and depression (which worked, for the most part). Trying to express ephemeral thoughts in a more permanent form. Trying to remember too much stuff. Trying to document wonderful moments and feelings so they can be remembered at a later date and shared with loved ones. Trying to be organized in thought, word, and deed. Trying to find myself through words and sketches and random ink marks on pages of books.

Nick has acquired my love of blank books, but his rarely remain blank. Instead, he fills them full to bursting with drawings, ideas, words, lists, whatever. He's not afraid to write in the pretty books. I hope it stays that way.

Over the years, I've become far less concerned that my blank books remain either unfinished or completely blank. I don't take life nearly as seriously as I did when I wrote bad poetry in college. I may never write that novel, but by heaven above, I've already written a lot of essays in my life. The word essay originally meant a trial or an attempt, and came to be used to describe short pieces of writing that try to explain, explore, argue, or reflect upon a rather focused topic.

Yoda said, "Do. Or do not. There is no try." He was wrong. We should keep trying. Sometimes we'll get it right. Sometimes, we won't.

And that's okay. As long as we keep trying.

What are you trying right now?


  1. WOw, I hopped out to your blog from Doris's and out of curiosity went on to the non crafty one... amazing, I have a lot of blank books too! LOL... I knew there was something attracting me towards you and your blogs! quite a connection! I have some since I was 11 yrs old, even though we have moved house from country to country, all my collections follow me!! Thank you for sharing your knowledge and many other things! Happy that I bumped into you even if it is through the cyber world, it still feels good! Hugs always!

  2. What a lovely surprise to read someone else collects blank books! I have loved journals for decades. It all began with one of those 5-year diaries in my very early teens! So glad you wrote about this. And yes, I too cannot write/draw etc in a beautiful book. That old "my thoughts aren't special enough" inner critic is pretty loud! Love your blog! Ann

  3. Thank you, Ann and Germaine! I didn't think Jimmy and I were the only ones with this weakness!

  4. I'm trying not to think about how much I'd like to baby to be born already. I am not known for my patience.

    I agree about the blank books - I can't even buy them because I know they will mock me with their beautiful clean white pages. I like to touch them and imagine setting them under about six books on my bedside table, but that is pretty much as far as I get.

  5. As a teen I loved blank notebooks--and filled them. I got my first hardcover blank book for my 18th birthday, a gift from my mother. I have filled MANY since then, including a gorgeous leather one with a hand-tooled cover that my husband bought for me in New Mexico. I just write in them, and I have art journaled in one. Nothing special. In the last five years, most of my writing has moved online, but I have a collection of blank books, most given as gifts, some purchased, that long for me to carry them with me like I did in college and write, write, write.

    I've been journaling for 36 years and wonder what to do with all the words. Last year I burnt some of my writing. Undecided what to do with the rest.

  6. Oh good, there are a few more of us out there! Thanks for another chuckle.

  7. Blank books require worthy handwriting. So I don't have a single one. But I do have a Directory on my computer called "My Story". If you have to write, you have to write. :-)

  8. I've always felt so guilty about my unfinished journals! After reading this, I don't think it's a bad thing anymore.

  9. You mean we are actually supposed to write in these lovely blank books?? LOL. Not way. I might mess one up!! Screwing up a card is no's only a single piece of paper...easy to toss (usually). But screw up a journal....GASP. Much happier collecting, stacking and admiring them. (So happy I found this essay. Very therapeutic...and much cheaper than therapy!)


Thanks so much for taking time to comment!