Sixteen years ago on a hot and brittle day in New York City, where I then lived, I had lunch -- a long and increasingly festive lunch -- with two New Yorker writers in the Algonquin Hotel, a spot much favored by the staff of that magazine. One of them was the poet and critic Howard Moss and the other the chronicler Maeve Brennan, who wrote the unsigned "Long-Winded Lady" pieces that appeared there from time to time. I was an editor at a publishing house in search of a book to publish, an activity customarily conducted over expensive and in those days often rather liquid lunches (Perrier was not yet the favored liquid) charged, of course, to a corporate account.
But the books that emerged from the lunch that day -- books, let it be noted, that actually were published, thus more than justifying this particular item on the expense account -- were not what made it memorable to me. What made it memorable was Maeve Brennan, a woman of legendary but fading Irish beauty, spectacular red hair, and a marvelously eccentric intelligence, and her gift to me. It arrived by messenger the next day at my office with a note from Howard Moss that said, "Maeve wanted you to have this." It was an Eye-Ease National 210 notebook with a mottled green binding. I can see it now, as clearly as if it were before me, as clearly as I can see the summer light on the dry pavement of 44th Street that brittle Manhattan day.
Maeve wanted me not just to have it but to use it -- to make notes, to keep the record. She had been talking about that at lunch, the importance of the record, and she was surprised that I kept none, other than the disposable (and interminable) lists to which I was as addicted as the guilty conscience to which they contributed and the pocket diary that told me whom I was having lunch with tomorrow. You must, she said, keep a notebook, and she had found the Eye-Ease National 210 best suited to that important task.
I was, frankly, touched, not so much by the gift as by Maeve's apparent belief that I, considerably younger than she, might have a thought worth recording, and after a few days I took the notebook home where it spent a year untouched on a shelf above my desk. I had had no significant thoughts, or none I felt worth recording, and I felt then that thoughts had to be "significant," "meaningful," though I couldn't have told you what a significant and meaningful thought might be. But then one evening, an oppressively sultry July evening a year later when my family was in the country and I was alone in the city and lonely, I took that notebook down, opened it, and wrote something, something quite ordinary, but which began to change my life: not what I wrote but the act of writing it, for the act of writing, however imperfect and approximate the words, gave me some illusion of control over the inchoate and fugitive day.
That, it seems to me, is reason enough to keep a notebook: for the illusion of control over the inchoate and fugitive day. But there are other reasons, too: sometimes it gives me delight, sometimes it gives me ideas for other things, and, most important, it has taught -- or is teaching -- me to tell what for lack of a better word I can only call the truth -- not the truth in any grand absolute sense but the simple spontaneous truth of the particular moment, which may not be the truth of the next moment but is nonetheless true for that -- and to recognize it when I see it. I can always tell, and I can tell when I lie, too, as I sometimes do: the tone gives it away. It's possible to fake a lot of things, but it's very hard to fake the tone of truth.
I did not become immediately addicted to my Eye-Ease National 210; any habit, good or bad, takes time to settle in and, in fact, it took me a few years to fill that notebook, which was about as long as it took me to begin to learn to use it. But eventually I was hooked, and when the original notebook was filled I searched for another identical to it; I was never able to find it but settled finally for the kind of notebook a friend brought me from England, the kind that students there use. It is important, I think, that a notebook be rather humble and unprepossessing; a fancy binding might make us believe too much in the deep significance of our passing thoughts. They are, after all, just thoughts, replaced in a microsecond by other thoughts. But still worth recording because the record itself is important. It tells us where we've been, like it or not, and maybe, if we read it right, suggests where we're going.