Still reading about Charles Darwin, this time Annie’s Box, a lovely family memoir written by his great-great-grandson, Randal Keynes. Annie of the title was Darwin’s daughter, who died at the age of ten. This book has loads of personal detail about the family itself, and weaves Darwin’s professional life with his years as a husband and father.
Darwin comes across as a devoted parent whose fascination for his children stemmed not only from fatherhood but from his work. Keynes mines Darwin’s many notebooks for insight into his ancestor, and Darwin’s enthusiasm for a wide array of topics shines through as we read of him designating notebooks for his various explorations.
His “natural history of babies” began in a book with a white vellum cover, inside which he noted how his infant son “stretched himself just like old person” and how, when Darwin touched the sole of his baby’s foot with a piece of paper, “it jerked it away very suddenly and curled its toes, like person tickled, evidently subject to tickling…. What can be origin of movement from tickling?”
I love the idea of Darwin scribbling away in his books, a different one for each topic, and how he let his thoughts tumble forth at random, not worrying about how illegible they were or how awkward the sentences. These were private notebooks at the time, and obviously an integral part of his process.
For me, the act of writing by hand is still an important part of my work, though so much of my writing day is spent at the computer. I tend, in the early stages of a project, to stay away from the computer altogether, and simply carry a book with me, so I can jot down my thoughts as they come — at random, without context, but full of promise that they will somehow be strung together into something legible and compelling.
Occasionally I’ll even paste images or articles that seem connected to my thoughts, so the books take on a kind of scrapbook look over time. All of this is such an essential and intimate part of my process, and has been since I started writing seriously. Sitting in front of the blank computer screen is too daunting early on, not to mention uninspiring. But when a story starts to take shape, or when a character seems human, I’m rooted in my chair, fingers on the keys while I work the notes into something more cohesive. Things grow from there.
But even once the story gets going, there are still times when I’ll move back to the notebook — times when I’m stuck and need a closer physical connection to the page. So for me, it’s very much an act of moving back and forth between the old-fashioned notebook and the computer. We can make “notes” now on the computer, and do so many things that mimic handwriting — scratching a red line with the Track Changes tool, and adding our new ideas in red, or any colour we like. While I use those tools extensively, I don’t use them exclusively. They aren’t quite (for me) the real thing.
Strangely, with The Occupied Garden, I made a notebook after the fact. The research and writing of this book was such a long an arduous process that I had trouble letting it go and moving on to something new. So I began to collect notes and images that hadn’t made their way into the final story, and I placed them into a book that became a memento of that time.
I’ve never stayed loyal to one brand of notebook, as much as I like the idea of that. Certain projects seem to require certain types of books, and I like to feel that out when I’m looking for a new one. But recently I came across some gorgeous ones called Cover Stories, given that their covers are taken from vintage hardback books and transformed into spiral-bound journals. The maker of these charming journals, Eva Kolcze, says that for the most part the books were rescued from a box in a rummage sale or a shelf at Goodwill.
“I feel as though I’m giving the books a new life and purpose,” she says. “There are certain books that I’ve found recently that are far too special to turn into journals, for example I recently came across a 1939 Pears Encyclopedia and a tiny book about John Ruskin which was probably printed in 1903.”
A great lover of hardcover books, she says she chooses the images for their “distinct colours, illustrations, fonts and stories they contained.” That they contain them no longer is a little unsettling for me as a writer, but then again maybe it’s not such a disturbing idea that decades from now one of my own covers evolves, and provides inspiration to a scribbler like me.