I have a serious love affair with leather-bound journals. I love paper in general and can geek out for an hour even in the stationary aisle of a CVS. It’s a lifelong thing. Take me to that wall full of leather-bound journals at Barnes and Noble and watch me be mesmerized by the beauty, the inspiration, the possibility. They are all the things I love about writing, bound up in mystique and beauty and hope.
When I first discovered leather bound journals as a “I’ll never be able to publish anything” aspiring-to-aspire, twenty-something writer they held an additional allure because they were so damn expensive. I knew I shouldn’t spend my weekly food budget on a journal but the pull was too strong. After weeks of deliberating, I did, buying the most gorgeous one in dark brown, embossed with a fleur-de-lis on the cover.
I brought it home and looked at it lovingly. Such responsibility! It was so perfect empty that I realized I could but mar it with my scribbles. I looked for my favorite pen. I remembered that in Argentina the nuns used to make us adorn the first page of each notebook with a drawing of something meaningful, like a view of the Andes with the Argentinian flag waving in front of them. They were called caratulas. I tried to think of something “caratula-like” to write on the first pristine page. I failed. I put the notebook away. I worked to come up with something important enough to say. I eventually wrote a few pages in it but was too crushed by the need to make everything I put in the book perfect. I only wrote in it when I had something fully formed and important to say. No idea stories. No disjointed lists. Just perfection. I stopped using it at about page 15.
I’ve repeated this leather notebook exercise many times since then. The wall of leather-bound journals never fails to draw me and seduce me. Sometimes, if I’ve been at the end of one notebook (I’ve written through dozens in my life), I’ve allowed myself to buy a leather one. After the first time, the experience has been fraught with ever more expectation, not just of all the brilliant things I want to write but also with the memory of all the times I’ve failed. I have never gotten to the end of a leather notebook.
Eventually I gave up on buying them. They were just too special for the doodlings and half-formed thoughts I tend to scribble. I would never do one justice, so I would never buy another one.
But something changed when I published my book. It’s funny that finally getting the approbation of the publishing industry helped me see how little it actually means. How messy everything is, writing and life and what we put in notebooks. How crippling it feels to want to do everything right all the time. How it keeps us frozen, locked up, unable to peer inside and face it all, the beautiful and the mundane, the heroic and the craven. How we can only speak our truths if we put everything on the proverbial page, including the things that are half-formed and not pretty.
I bought a new leather notebook. I wrote the first thing that occurred to me on the first page. “I live.” Perhaps still a bit self-aware, still wanting to make a caratula with words. I pushed on. I wrote outlines for novels. Wishes. I cringed when I realized I was using a different color pen, yet made myself forge on anyway. I had to draw arrows when I was writing a character sketch, then wrote a diary entry in between, then went back to what I was originally writing. Such disorganization! Such imperfection. Not nearly good enough for this pretty book.
It helped me give myself permission to think differently. Because, in life, if we only want to create polished works we won’t ever let ourselves write the first draft. If we only want to be our perfect selves we won’t let ourselves be our real selves. The book isn’t pretty for its perfect leather cover, but for the truths I let myself write inside it. And sometimes truths come in fragments and stops and starts and cross-outs. And that’s okay.