On Nodding Terms

“I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not.”
— Joan Didion, “On Keeping a Notebook” —

Most things I write are deliberately self-reflexive (not this); I’m not a journalist or an historian. I can get away with a bit of navel gazing for several reasons, perhaps the most obvious of which is that only a few people ever see this, and your comments are usually kind. As I approach the third anniversary of the launch of this blog, though, I’ve been thinking about its purpose. I have never been able to engage comfortably with questions like oh, you have a blog? What is it about? Because everything has to be about something, doesn’t it? The subtitle, which I attached last year, doesn’t seem to help much. A memory project, it says. But what does that mean?

When I started writing at Randa’s Fans in February 2009, the first post was about a physical transition from notebooks to web, and embedded in that post was the assumption that I would continue the same kind of writing I’d done in those notebooks — just online, out in the open. But that’s not what happened, and it’s not what was ever going to happen based on what those old notebooks represent, what they contain, what role they played — an important one that has necessarily shifted over time. I wasn’t simply switching platforms, moving the journals into an online environment. Rather, I realize now, I was leaving them behind.

I recently read Joan Didion’s essay, “On Keeping a Notebook,” in which she writes, “Why did I write it down? In order to remember, of course, but exactly what was it I wanted to remember? How much of it actually happened? Did any of it? Why do I keep a notebook at all? It is easy to deceive oneself on all those scores. The impulse to write things down is a peculiarly compulsive one, inexplicable to those who do not share it, useful only accidentally, only secondarily, in the way that any compulsion tries to justify itself. I suppose that it begins or does not begin in the cradle. Although I have felt compelled to write things down since I was five years old, I doubt that my daughter ever will, for she is a singularly blessed and accepting child, delighted with life exactly as life presents itself to her, unafraid to go to sleep and unafraid to wake up. Keepers of private notebooks are a different breed altogether, lonely and resistant rearrangers of things, anxious malcontents, children afflicted apparently at birth with some presentiment of loss.”

Unlike Didion’s notebooks, and mine before, this blog is distinctly not private, and yet in her essay there are nevertheless markers for understanding one’s (my) obligation to write things down. With any writing the compulsion is channeled into practice, and there is value in that practice, both in the habit and the content. Just like any other skill or trade, for improvement to occur some amount of practice is required. Maybe there are fruits of that practice, and maybe not; it depends on how one defines fruits, I suspect. My old notebooks, meticulously kept and ordered, nonetheless suffered from an errant unpredictability. Yet in the space of those blank pages anxiety waned as I filled them up, and a lot of crucial, difficult work was done. But it was not for public consumption; it couldn’t be. And so there was no accountability. No one knew or cared whether I wrote in them or not. There is a freedom that springs from such an absence of parameters; in that negative space creativity can flourish in a way that might seem like luck (only accidentally, only secondarily). But what about a practiced creativity? A honed craft? Something more intentional? A public audience, or at least the fleeting perception of potential reading publics, changes things. Three years ago I wanted that change.

Since then I have posted a lot of nonsense. There have been times when I have surely felt the pressure to get the next thing posted, when I have privileged quantity over quality, but I try to resist those impulses. When, categorically, I take a look at what is here, several themes appear — and perhaps unsurprisingly, the biggest theme has been books and writing, with posts about Julia Child’s memoir, David Plouffe’s The Audacity to Win, Judy Shepard’s memoir, meeting Augusten Burroughs, hearing Jonathan Franzen read, thinking about summer reading and the classics … and more recently Welty, Maxwell, and the insufferable Caitlin Flanagan.

There’s also been music — hearing the B52s, Natalie Merchant, Loretta Lynn, and Patti Smith — and then other things more difficult to classify, like the Facebook post, the posts about Enoughness, Christmas in July, acronyms, my Broadway musical, a whole series from Paris and, of course, saying goodbye to Ray.

A more surprising category is sports. And yet, there’s been golf, figure skating and, by far the most popular post on this blog, and the one that is found with some regularity by people randomly searching Google (what they are searching for I will leave to your imagination), is the one about the NFL.

As I read Didion’s essay and looked back over these three years of blog posts, I started to have a better understanding of what Randa’s Fans is about, a clearer picture of what I’m doing here. And it’s this: “I imagine, in other words, that the notebook is about other people. But of course it is not. I have no real business with what one stranger said to another at the hat-check counter in Pavillon; in fact I suspect that the line `That’s my old football number’ touched not my own imagination at all, but merely some memory of something once read, probably `The Eighty-Yard Run.’ Nor is my concern with a woman in a dirty crepe-de-Chine wrapper in a Wilmington bar. My stake is always, of course, in the unmentioned girl in the plaid silk dress. Remember what it was to be me: that is always the point.”

But I still won’t know what to say when people ask.

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5 Responses to On Nodding Terms

  1. lizabeth says:

    You write it down so we can see a glimpse into your beautiful mind, how you see things and describe them so we see also. It’s a gift from you to us and it will always be cherished. Not everyone can do this.

    My Dad has little yellow legal pads of most of his life..one page per day of what he did, had to do, chose to be most important to him for that day. Most of it is about going to work, making money to support his family, one job or two, whatever it took. But also how his creative mind build really important things and brought them to be. A gift we will always treasure and will be a light for his grandchildren to follow, learn from and a goal to be like him who had good values and stuck to them.

    Gifts like you have to give are very rare. Follow your heart and continue to share it with us.

  2. Keri Cole says:

    Well, Randa, I’m just glad that you do it. You remind me to spend a little time being articulate with my thoughts, and you encourage me to leave some space for writing it all down. Now isn’t it funny that I’ve turned your very personal blog into something that’s actually all about me!!!???

  3. Jill Johnson says:

    You may think me a bit over the top— and well, you know I am at times, but I return to your writing (I hate the word blog) for the “small moments of overwhelming astonishment”… and what is all the more astonishing is how many there are.

  4. tracy says:

    Whatever you’re doing, darling, keep doing it.

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