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by Pat Laster


Do what you most want to do, whether or not it is of any value to anyone else. –M. L. K. Fisher, As They Were p. 61
“… [W]e go to the past not as students but as scavengers, on the look-out for what we find there…” – Editorial on Robert E. Lee, Arkansas Democrat Gazette, Jan 19 2012
           One definition of “compendium,” according to Wikipedia––the one that most fits my early conception of this project––is “A list or collection of various items.”
            In a directory of titles by Miranda Seymour in the July 25, 2010 issue of The New York Times Book Review, one book was “a compendium of useful information for gardeners.”
           That sounded like what I wanted to put together: a compendium. Not for gardeners, of course, but for the columnist needing material, for the trivia nut, for those collecting or studying names, genealogists and so on. An olio, if you will, which a crossword puzzle clue said was an “eclectic assortment.”
              The idea became an obsession, a direction for the assembling in one place of all things journaled lo these many years, items that I thought at the time important-interesting-ironic-idiotic. It seemed the perfect way to gather my hundred-or-so journals, and organize the material into sections.
            A couple of writers suggested I should make some of the selections humorous so I set about to learn how to write humor. What better source than The Portable Dorothy Parker? As I read, I took notes.
           Notes, notes, notes. I’m certain that I have taken more notes than there are soldiers in Iraq, Afghanistan, Germany, South Korea, and all the other places where US troops are––or have been––stationed. I have more notes than all the banks around the world; more notes than the longest Beethoven symphony. My notebooks would fill a shelf of the Library of Congress.  If I were to count them, I likely would have more words in my journals than Henry David Thoreau.
           It is common knowledge that from 1837––1862, Thoreau wrote over two million words in his Journal, a compendium of private thoughts and experiences that ultimately filled forty-seven manuscript volumes. Its purpose and contents evolved over those years, and the Journal that began as a conventional record of ideas and reflections, grew into a writer’s workbook. It  eventually it became the principal imaginative work of Thoreau’s literary career––free from the restrictions imposed by conventional editors and reviewers.
           My notes, too, reflected what resonated with me at the time. And I wanted to rediscover what prompted such a hoarding of words.
           I read one of Dorothy Parker’s reviews from Constant Reader: the New Yorker pieces about books and people written 1927-1933, and now first collected in a book, (Viking Press, 1970). In “The Private Papers of the Dead,” Parker began, “I think that the Journal of Katherine Mansfield is the saddest book I have ever read.” So private was it, Parker wrote, that “one feels forever guilty of prying for having read it.” I ordered it, not a bit nonplussed about reading someone else’s private moments. If they were so private, why were they eventually published?
           My notebooks are not private. In fact, should they even be called journals? Early each morning, I jot down dreams, anecdotes from the newspaper and other periodicals. I’m not like Jane L. who writes in her journal only when she is going through emotional upheavals. She has directed her sister that upon Jane’s demise, those journals are to be destroyed.
          When this huge task of organizing and publishing a compendium of journal jottings comes to fruition I will be happy. Then, at the announcement of my “final journey up the golden streets past the dogs of the self-publishing industry whimpering on the sidelines, to visit forever with all the saints who have passed before,” [see section titled Euphemisms for “died”] I will get my revenge.
          I must be careful in transcribing from my journals. Alex Kuczynski in his review of Emily Fox Gordon’s Book of Days, says of one essay, “she writes that she couldn’t form a coherent narrative from her notes, so she just included the notes.” His caustic comment: “Isn’t her mandate as an essayist to take the stuff of life and form a narrative, a thought, a juicy little bit for the reader? I felt neglected by these dreary excursions into her notebook.” (New York Times Book Review, Aug 22, 2010, p. 8.)
         But wait! “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country,” a short story written by William Gass, was described on the e-notes website this way: “Gass not only makes short lists of names and objects, but he also creates the very structure of the tale from his ingrained habit of list-making.”
         Aha! So I’m not the only one who makes lists and develops stories from them!
The reviewer continues, “The story, in brief, becomes a list of lists. There is no regular story line or even normal paragraphing but rather a series of journal-like entries, each one with its appropriate subtitle such as ‘People,’ ‘Weather,’ or ‘Place’–– three subtopics already in my manuscript.
         “There is only one voice,” the reviewer adds, “that of the unidentified poet-narrator, who is living in the dismally boring town...”
         Claire Harman’s Jane’s Fame (Henry Holt and Company, NY, 2009) contains this line: “The publication of Austen Papers 1704-1856 was a ‘fascinating dossier ... of family letters, accounts, wills and contracts.’” Ten pages later, she notes, “Metcalfe’s Pride and Prejudice ... was the first to treat Austen’s work as a text (emphasis mine) rather than a story.”
         Aha! again! There is precedent for what I want to do!
         Harman continues, “Metcalfe included quotes ... notes ... appendices, lists, etc. [He] was the first person to acknowledge that [these things] might be worth recording.”
         What if someone went through my journals like Professor Zapp, in David Lodge’s novel Changing Places (parody), exhausting every conceivable angle of Jane Austen’s oeuvre:   “historical, biographical, rhetorical, mythical, Freudian, Jungian, existentialist, Marxist, structuralist, Christian-allegorical, ethical, exponential, linguistic, phenomenological, archetypal,” etc. ?
         What would the late Ann Talley Kinnaird–– poet and teacher in Hot Springs, Arkansas, during the late 20th century–– say about the above list? She didn’t look kindly on lists she said during one of our Steel Magnolia writers’ meetings. After that, I compiled a sizeable folder of lists from my readings, but she died before I could argue with her.
         Though it is too late for my first novel, perhaps for the second one, I will mimic John Steinbeck and Jon Hassler. Both writers have books with titles that include the word “journal.” Steinbeck’s Journal of a Novel (Bantam, 1969),which he wrote with pencils as warm-ups to East of Eden. I also read Jon Hassler’s My Staggerford Journal (Ballentine, 1999).
         In researching Tristram Shandy for another piece, I came across a review of a Laurence Sterne collection of stories. “The book is in the form of a ranty journal that supposedly draws from Sterne's own travels. He intended to publish four volumes but wrote only two before other pursuits and eventually death caught up with him.”
         The Tristam Shandy reviewer didn’t read “Journal to Eliza” – a personal correspondence, because he “didn't want to pry into his private life.”  [That’s strange. I thought writers liked to find as much dirt and secrets as were available.]
          Online definitions of journals include newspapers, professional magazines and literary publications. Semantics aside, I will call my notebooks-full-of-writing-ideas and jottings “journals.”  And the bulk of my journal writing I will call Journal Jottings.
                Another warning against making this volume a mere trivia dumpster came from Meryl Gordon in a review of two books on Jackie K. Onassis. She says of one of the authors: “[He] has delivered a notebook dump, including lengthy chunks of unredacted quotations, as if he couldn’t be bothered to differentiate between the deadly dull and the delicious.” (NYT Book Review, Jan 2, 2011).
            I have found at least one precedent for making lists. In Nora Ephron’s I Remember Nothing, she titles one chapter “Twenty-five things people have a shocking capacity to be surprised by over and over again.” Toward the end, two chapters are nothing but lists. One, “What I Won’t Miss,” and two, “What I Will Miss” (when I die/become senile, etc.).
            In a chapter on journals, Robin Hemley in Turning Life Into Fiction (Story Press, 1994) cites Peter Handke’s use of the journal form in his novel The Weight of the World. He quotes from critic June Schlueter’s article about Handke’s book in what sounds like my collection:
          “. . . Each entry stands as an independent fragment of experience. The seemingly random images, observations, memories, and thoughts . . . create a mélange . . . .”
         My hope is that writers will find and develop their own ideas in this volume based on names, places, mini-biographies, historical tidbits, rarely-used words and phrases, idioms/figures of speech useful for their own compositions.
~ ~ ~ ~
SURNAMES NOT IN ANY LIST - added June 16, 2015. Needs to be in the section of SURNAMES.

Greenspun, Berg, Swinnie, Razor, Pepper, Purser, Tutor, Leath, Enos, Cline, Low, Kuby, Zent, Gathercole, Hacker, Pride, Azure, Salmons, Goda, Bells, Sherry, Bellhouse, Gentle, Antrim, Saltsman, Monday, Stock, Sturgeon, Pickinpaugh, Campa, Alleyne, Burden, Na, Bay, Sandy, Stair, Blades, Walli and Holly.