I have low shopping resistance to little notebooks. You know the ones…they’re about 4×6 inches big (small) or smaller, fit into a pocket or purse, can sit perfectly on a nightstand, wait patiently in the glove compartment of a car, and could be tucked inside a file folder for in-progress stories.
I learned the hard way that my memory isn’t programmed for instant recall. After I experience an event, I hold a jotted blurb of it in my head, and when time permits, I sit at my computer and try to hammer out a flawless, detail-packed recollection. While I’m typing, I believe what I’m writing is moment to moment perfect, but in actuality, the finer details and impressions the event made on me weigh in at a fraction. I wouldn’t have believed this if it weren’t for one event in my life.
In the few days before my father’s death at 93, I wrote an extensive list of the countless ways he touched my life, helped shape my life, boosted me up, patiently listened, and cheered me on. My father was my mentor, my hero, my teacher, and my best friend. I wished I could stop time. I couldn’t stand the thought of facing a day without him. Each night, although we lived only 20 minutes apart, we hung on the phone for an hour or so, sharing our day with each other, telling jokes, laughing and remembering old times. And then he was gone.
During his last days, I couldn’t be moved from his side. My left hand held his hand while my right hand never stopped writing in a little, yellow, 4×6 notebook on my lap. I wrote a letter to my dad. I recalled memories as they rushed back to me, and I wrote of the heart-breaking experience of losing him. And then a month later I misplaced the notebook.
Time passed. I sat at my computer, trying to type the events as I remembered them happening. I tried to remember the thoughts and feeling I had…. Then I read what I had written, satisfied I captured my father’s last days perfectly.
Yesterday while straightening out my notes for a story, I found a little, yellow notebook. I almost didn’t want to open it. I found a quiet place to sit while I turned the pages and returned to three of the hardest days of my life. What I read touched my heart. My own words made me cry. I read—stunned—at the critical pieces time had taken away from my memory. What I had recreated on my computer was a fraction of the event.
Since that day, I have purchased and made many more pocket-size notebooks. Important moments can happen at any time of the day, and I never want to risk leaving the details to memory for later when they have softened.
If we are going to tap into our lives for emotional events to bring into our writing, those events must be faithfully recorded—in the moment or as close to it if possible.
What I learned from what I had written in my yellow notebook and what I captured later on my computer is this: The pages I filled while sitting beside my father were a perfect example of showing, and the pages I typed later were nearly 100% telling. Showing vs. telling. Emotional vs. distant. Three dimensional vs. flat.
Do you keep notebooks everywhere you go? Do you write your thoughts on anything handy from backs of receipts to napkins? Is there an event in your life you are glad you were able to write about in the moment?