At the behest of my agent, who apparently believes there are a few tricks of the nonfiction trade I could apply to my own wayward transcriptive musings (stuff like not needing to include every single adjective in the English language in every single sentence (as well as avoiding excessive parenthetical asides) (perish the thought!)), I have been re-reading John Steinbeck’s “Travels with Charley,” which I first pretended to read many years ago in college for some class I’m sure I flunked. (I must admit to being relieved at having my agent recommend to me this particular volume; I would have been bummed had he recommended something like “Dick & Jane” or “What Color Is Your Parachute?”) Though assuredly dated, I have been amused by Mr. Steinbeck’s erudite observations as he jaunts around the curvy back roads of America with a faithful cur at his side, a subject about which I know a thing or two.
The passage that has thus far most captivated me most though has nothing to do with his travels with Charley per se, but, rather, one component of his pre-trip preparations:
“I thought I might do some writing along the way, perhaps essays, surely notes, certainly letters. I took paper, carbon, typewriter, pencils, notebooks, and not only those but dictionaries, a compact encyclopedia, and a dozen other reference books, heavy ones. I suppose our capacity for self-delusion is boundless. I knew very well that I rarely make notes, and if I do I either lose them or can’t read them. I also knew from thirty years of my profession that I cannot write hot on an event. It has to ferment. I must do what a friend calls ‘muling it over’ for a time before it goes down. And in spite of this self-knowledge I equipped Rocinante with enough writing material to take care of ten volumes.”
I have long thought I might be the only writer who eschews, or at least is not much attracted to, note-taking, and that has long concerned me, like there’s something lacking in my wordsmith DNA. At a recent literary event, I watched slack-jawed as my friend Philip Connors, author of the highly acclaimed “Fire Season,” displayed literally 20 or so huge file boxes of notes he had taken prior to penning his latest work, “All the Wrong Places,” which is actually a rather slender volume. I mean, Phil’s notes-to-book-length ratio reminded me of one of those house-sized antique espresso machines you see in rural Italy, the ones that are adorned with all mystifying manner of levers and gauges and knobs and buttons. For seeming hours, those machines clang and clunk and hiss and spit until finally out comes this astounding cup of captivating magic.
I have seen Facebook posts by Craig Childs, author of “House of Rain,” among many others, making reference to, and showing photographs of, fastidious note-taking binges. And there I sit, with maybe a sentence or two drunkenly scratched with a borrowed felt-tip pen upon a cocktail napkin or a coaster, illegible because some inebriated idiot (read: me) sloshed a frothy cerveza upon it, simultaneously wasting beer, ink and future enlightenment (or at least future remembrance).
Understand: When I’m interviewing someone who will likely be pissed and/or litigious if I misquote him or her, then, sure, I take notes, mostly of the inaccurate variety. Other than that, “taking notes” — a concept and a process that covers much conceptual and practical ground (journals, diaries, logbooks, musings in the margins of day-timers, jots on the sides of maps, palimpsests, scribbles upon the backs of hands, social media posts et al) — to me writs a thought, a notion, an observation in stone. It’s like attaching a sea anchor to my later freewheeling rumination. Once something is on paper, I have trouble subsequently allowing my imagination to wander unfettered to the often-inappropriate, often-unsalable, often-libelous place it is meant to go. Of course, there are often issues with accuracy, or a lack thereof, as a consequence of my desultory attitude toward note-taking. Many times I have cursed myself for not jotting down a salient fact or two, like, as but one random example, whether the young intern who got mauled by a tiger at the feline sanctuary I am currently writing about, ever sued her employer. (Shit!) That’s the creative trade-off, I guess, though I understand, for many writers, these issues are not mutually exclusive.
Though I get it that not all notes are fact based, my generally note-free system makes it much easier to subscribe to the philosophy that facts ought not hobble a good yarn. Either way, I now have a very utilitarian quote from a card-carrying famous person to justify what amounts to vocational laziness on my part.
I’m sure my agent is tickled pink regarding the positive influence his recommendation has had upon his client.