“Insights don’t usually arrive at my desk, but go into notebooks when I’m on the move. Or half-asleep.”
~ Hilary Mantel
All over the country this week and last week have been marked by students and teachers going back to school. As someone who is neither a parent caught between joy and grief over nine months of planned activities, a student laden with new books and class schedules, or a teacher hoping to share their love of learning, back-to-school doesn’t affect me directly, but I still find myself wistful for my own school days.
For me, back-to-school shopping was a balance of tolerating the need for new clothes (my love of fashion came late) with my absolute addiction to school supplies – and addiction that thrives to this day, though I’ve transitioned to frou-frou stationery and office supplies. Pens and pencils were vital of course, as well as erasers, correction fluid and, later, blank diskettes (remember, I went to school before USB had been invented, let alone cloud computing).
The keystone of back-to-school shopping, however, was the notebook.
Every year (sometimes every semester) I would spend what seemed like hours choosing the perfect notebook. Some years, perfection came in the form of a basic three-ring binder, with blue fabric wrapped around the heavy cardboard cover. Other years, with no small amount of hinting from teachers who sensed that my organizational skills needed a bit of a boost, I would convince my mother that spending eleven dollars on a Trapper-Keeper – you know, one of those tri-fold binders covered with puffy plastic that included a color coded folder for each course – would be a Really Good Idea. (Some of those actually lasted through the first quarter of the school year. No, really.)
Whatever binder I chose, every fall my mother would buy a ream of notebook paper. Because she knew me well, this would always be college (narrow) ruled paper, ideally with green lines, not blue, and those slightly rounded corners. She thought I just liked the color, but writing by hand is a tactile thing. I liked the way the pencil would skate across this paper, and I also liked the faint rasp a ball point pen would make against the miniscule imperfections caused by a slightly higher rag content.
As I grew older, binders fell out of use, and I began to favor spiral notebooks. Often, I would have to ask my mother for two such notebooks (again, always college ruled), one for school, and one for my own writing. People who knew I loved to write would often give me “blank” books or fancy journals, and while I appreciated the thought then (and still do), I prefer spiral notebooks even today; they’re less intimidating, and somehow reassure me that the whole Anne Lamott-labeled “shitty first draft” is a valid part of the craft of writing, in ways pretty notebooks never did, or do.
I haven’t been in school for decades now, but I still feel the urge to take advantage of back-to-school sales and stock up on supplies. These days, I do most of my writing at the keyboard, because I type faster than I can write (90 words a minute, error free, and no, I never took a typing class), but I still like the feel of a pen (micro-fine point, black or peacock blue ink) on good paper from time to time. I keep a “magic notebook” of single lines and random thoughts near my bed, and leave my iPad on top of it at night. Moleskine notebooks in various forms (I like the tablet-style reporter’s notebook best, but the ones that are sort of like sophisticated composition books are lovely, too – mine are pink) occupy the desk in the living room, and can be found in almost every other room, and in my purse if I don’t have an actual pocket-sized Moleskine, I have a similarly-sized (but much less expensive) Field Notes notebook.
In the last scene of the musical Sunday in the Park with George, the contemporary version of the title character opens a children’s reading book that belonged to his great-grandmother and reads the words, “White: a blank page or canvas. His favorite – so many possibilities.”
For me, the back-to-school notebook wasn’t just a place to take notes or keep homework. It represented a fresh year full of new possibilities.
Today, the reason for buying a new notebook hasn’t changed, but that feeling is still just as fresh.