A writer’s equivalent to the sketchbook

A few weeks ago, wandering London’s Hampstead Heath for the first time, I watched Rachel record her impressions — not just the appearance of objects, like a camera, but her impressions, her looking itself — in a sketchbook, and I wished, not for the first time, that I, too, could lay claim to a sketchbook. Rachel is a potter, but that gives her the generic artist’s right to make little drawings everywhere she goes. I do not have that right. I’ve tried to carry a sketchbook, but it makes me feel like I’m cheating on my marriage to literature. What’s needed is a writer’s equivalent. All artists, not just the visual ones, should be able to feast on the world anywhere and carry boredom’s kryptonite in their pockets.

Writing represents just like drawing. But due to the extraordinary power of writing’s medium, it can represent sensory and intellectual and emotional experience. You’d think this would make writing even more portable and ubiquitous than drawing, a perfect pasttime at the park and in the gallery, on lunch breaks and after dinner. But they don’t teach writers to carry notebooks like they teach artists to carry sketchbooks. In all the classes on writing I took in college, no one ever assigned me that basic exercise of drawing class: “Here’s a blank book. Fill it everywhere you go.”

Sure, there’s the “writer’s notebook,” as classically described, for instance, by Joan Didion’s essay “On Keeping a Notebook.” She records fragments of conversation and the sartorial ensembles of people she sees. There are also many examples of notebooks like Henry James’s magnificent volumes of notes for his novels. In their own way, James’s notebooks are as astonishing and final a statement of creativity as Bach’s two- and three-part inventions. But neither of these books contains a single instance of the writerly equivalent of a sketch, a rough but complete record of an impression, suitable for study in its own right and not merely an accrual of material for later, larger, more premeditated work.

The writer’s notebook, as kept by James and Didion, is for accumulating raw material, but the sketchbook is for practice. The writer’s equivalent of the sketchbook should also be for practice. Perhaps that makes it unnecessary, since the performance of writing is an infinitely revisable one, while the painter, for instance, or potter, faces crucial moments, makes irrevocable gestures, and has a reason to practice the physical movements of art.

But I reject that disembodied view of literature. Perhaps not the glyphs, but certainly the words I use, do arise from gesture, mood, short-term memory, what I see, smell, how warm it is, whether I am watched or alone — from my body. If I haven’t written for a while, it’s hard to start. If I’m constrained to write for many reasons for many hours, my prose suffers. I can’t revise a piece properly immediately after I’ve written it. Writer’s bodies affect how they write, so surely their bodies can be trained to help them write better.

What would a real equivalent of the sketchbook be like, then? One could fill a notebook with evocations in words of sensory impressions, a direct correlate of the sketchbook, merely substituting words for lines. But that seems inadequate, as if an artist limited themselves to making rubbings of the textures of things, bark and leaves, gravestones and brick walls. An artist with merely tactile interests would be like a writer with merely visual ones, would be failing to employ the full range of their medium.

But writing about thoughts or emotions — those additional
aspects of the world available to the writer — is innately digressive. From the moment, I mean. Once the writer’s mind gets to work on a thought or an emotion, they — or I at any rate — tend to wander. To wander into the realm of dialectic, if thinking, or into the realm of therapy, if feeling. One of the most important functions of the sketchbook, on the other hand, and something I would like to capture in this hypothetical writer’s equivalent, is training the artist to attend to the moment.

It is the actual act of drawing that forces the artist to look at the object in front of him, to dissect it in his mind’s eye and put it together again; or, if he is drawing from memory, that forces him to dredge his own mind, to discover the content of his own store of past observations. (John Berger)

The writer’s equivalent of a sketchbook would therefore require an entirely new frame of mind. It would require a simultaneous use of and disengagement from the machinery of language, which seem of themselves to take the writer away from the moment.

(Perhaps that’s wrong. In the tradition I was born to, influenced by and stemming from the Bible, naming is creative, life-giving. “In the beginning was the Word.” The author sets things into independent motion with a word. Perhaps my difficulty in using the medium of language to accomplish the simple acts of recording that come so easily to lines and colors is the result of a psychically deep conviction that writing is more creation than representation. But then, in Buddhism for instance, to understand and name a thing is a way of dispelling it. If there’s anything to Buddhist mindfulness, perhaps this very act, right now, of noticing a potentially deep-seated illusion about language — that by using it I’m breathing the breath of life into it and therefore inevitably bifurcating the moment, the impression — is enough to overcome it.)

The closest I have come to this ideal equivalent of the sketchbook is when I go to art museums alone. When I do that, I like to pick a painting and sit in front of it for an hour or two, writing down what I see and think. I try to overcome the philistinism of a defective art education, not through a spurious connoisseurship, but by actually inhabiting an artist’s way of looking for a while.

Ironically, the closest I come to an artist’s sketchbook is in looking at art. I’d like to forego that crutch.

  • An hour or two! I remember reading that study saying museum-goers look at each painting for an average of 9 seconds. I thought, pshaw!, I can beat that. So now for me it’s 8 seconds and I move on. Without spurious connoisseurship I’d be in big trouble.

    In the olden days, everyone of a certain level of education was taught to sketch, so a writer’s sketchbook was an actual sketchbook. I wish I could do that, but my attempts to learn some drawing have been acts of comedy.

    I suppose the commonplace book is something like a sketchbook. Some sketching is not much more than copying. But at least the hand is in motion; perhaps also the mind.

    • This reminds me of something I read in John Berger recently:

      In a book published a few years ago and written by an important curator in France it is suggested that the museum of the future will be mechanized: the visitors will sit in little viewing boxes and the canvases will appear before them on a kind of vertical escalator. ‘In this way, in one hour and a half, a thousand visitors will be able to see a thousand paintings without leaving their seats. ‘

      ***

      Yes, I suppose the commonplace book is a sort of sketchbook of the biblio-landscape.

      What one really wants is something like the notebooks of Goethe or Ruskin. All means of representation rallied to the task of recording insatiable sensation.