Teri Orr: Scribbles and dribbles…
They are all shapes and sizes and colors. Some as plain as a brown paper cover and others — foil covered and shiny. Most fit in a back pocket of a pair of jeans. But not all. Some are over sized and have quotes on the front cover. They end up in large purses or backpacks. For all I remember of my whole life, I have had a notebook somewhere around me.
Like a hungry person at a lush cocktail party I am always sneaking little bits. If you linger just slightly where the best sandwiches are laid out or where the lemonade is being poured and you are lucky — little tidbits can fall right into the air before you. As a writer, your job is to catch them before they fall victim to the next set of great quotes/ideas/stories. And if the conversation lulls or the guests bore — you can take a photograph with words of the details — the temperature of the room or the veranda, the lace on the cloth or the table, the curtains. The sound of the wind or birds or the ocean. Or the children in the yard. Or the young couple cooing on the porch.
The mind plays tricks and tells you sometimes — no need to write this down — you always remember exactly everything about this moment. The softness of the lips, the tenderness of the touch, the casual toss of the hair, the slant of the light. But age teaches you differently — details fade. If you want to be reminded later of what happened in the moment you need to record the moment.
When I have time and some measure of determination I take my camera with me. Not just the quick snap from the phone — those will work like a quick note. But rather the full structure of a photo where I override the automatic and choose the settings, the focus, I make such selections with intention. The fade, the shade, the objects I will edit out later from the wide angle shot.
I am a mostly self-trained observer — though I have taken a workshop here — a class there. And I learned there are techniques to improve the capture of the moments. While you may think that means a certain attitude or listening skill or questions cued to start or continue conversations — mostly-like much of life — it helps to be even slightly prepared. Hence the obsession of the notebooks.
I tried a system once I had seen a most organized and successful young woman had created. She was fully color-coded for what should be in what notebook … Money stuff in a green one. Urgent stuff in the red one. Random thoughts in the brown paper bag looking one — pencil in there. Boards she sat on — in the blue one. I added my own touch with serious poems in the making and thoughts I briefly thought were brilliant — in the black one.
I was an abject failure at her tidy system.
I tried too just having one beautiful large notebook where I wrote with different colored inks to accomplish the same division of smart categories…
But then I’d be in a meeting and find a notebook in my bag and just start writing stuff. And I couldn’t find the write thing to right with — so sentences would look just like this later in the moment that when I looked for reason. The correct message needed to be corrected to make sense.
My life and therefore my notebooks are nothing that organized. If desperate I will write on anything with anything and have — inside gum wrappers and paper napkins — often. Match covers used to be a thing when matches were given out like mints. I write on programs at plays and while attending celebration dinners where the speakers have gone on too long. I have used lipstick in my house for a quick note on a sticky when no other implement could be found. Folks have given me notebooks with beautiful covers — hardbacks — and filled with thoughtful quotes or inspirational sayings. Those are wasted on me. I write over every surface. Often when I am in a darkened room — like a movie or a play or setting where the lights are too low to see my words. Those require a skill akin to an Egyptologist when I later try excavate the words or their meaning.
There is science now — or at least the science is again getting traction — declaring the way to retain information is not to type words on a screen but to have the brain understand the connection the hand has, to the movement of the words on a page … the weight of the words.
The man I loved more than any other once gave me a piece of calligraphy he found on a trip — he had it beautifully framed. It read — “Our aim should be, I think, to make letters live — that men themselves may have more life.” Edward Johnson. The letters are different sizes — black on white with the author’s name in red. In the years after our break-up I purged myself of reminders of that sad painful ending but I have never been able to let go of the simple elegant words — framed in shades of gray and black and white.
I shouldn’t be surprised it was the words that stayed with me.
There are blank journals — and they whisper … if I really tried maybe I could create stick-figure drawings kinda like The Little Prince. I could capture my travels in caricature. And I have a box of sharpened colored pencils for the day when I take that up.
On a spring day soon — when I decide I have the luxury of time and patience — I will gather notebooks from their hiding places and see if they need to be tossed or treated with reverence. The words wait — for a Sunday in the Park …
Teri Orr is a former editor of The Park Record. She is the director of the Park City Institute, which provides programming for the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Center for the Performing Arts.
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“I’ve been writing in this space for over 30 years now, and in all that time, there has never been occasion to write these words: He was beaten senseless by a Polish chef wielding a narwhal tusk.”