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Pages, Empty and Filled

Pen and notebook

We have so very many notebooks.

Ratty spiral notebooks in primary colors with the springs distended, half of them with front covers torn or missing entirely. Marble composition books that would fit in a fourth grade classroom. Well-loved Moleskines full of fiction. A host of interesting, more distinctive books: the one with the large copper rings and the cork cover, the green rubber Celtic rune notebook, the notebook covered in luminescent dragon skin.

We had a shelf of them already. As I’ve been excavating our rooms and recovering our living space, the notebook supply has spilled into another shelf, and then still into another room. There are dozens of them. Over a hundred. Almost none of them full, and not a single one of them empty.

For all that I’ve used computers for most of my writing since I was a child, these notebooks contain my dreams. Thoughts and prose captured away from digital recordings. Or during times when I chose to write by hand to give my thoughts the liberating momentum that comes from being unable to edit. There is a purity here that I–who am disdainful of the whole concept of purity–am unable to deny.

Some of the books are crammed with notes from the elaborate year-long roleplaying campaign I ran, which I secretly believe is one of the greatest stories ever told. A lot of it was planned and I have many pages of documentation on various hard drives. But much of it was conceived in the creative heat of those desperate few hours of cram-preparation before each game session. It only exists in scribbled notes that barely make sense even if you can decipher the liberties I took with the physical shapes of the Latin alphabet.

There are my dream journals. Every few years I try this again. I might be about to do it soon. I keep making noises. Eventually I’ll listen. Dream journaling is a strange endeavor, but what always amazes me is that when I read the chronicle of an old dream I can feel it. Like I just woke up. Dreams from my first journal of 15 years ago are clearer to me now than the one I had yesterday morning. So much of it comes back. The images, the strange unconnected emotions, the sense of logical unreality that is fully tangible, utterly ephemeral, and entirely unique to each individual dream.

I don’t know what to do with all of these notebooks. Some of them have plenty of room to still be used. But I always feel strange writing in a book that has the tatters of an old story. It’s like if I was to wear a single sock for a few hours, take it off and toss it in the back of the closet, and then years later start a new outfit by digging out the sock and putting it right back on my foot. Also, I have a strange relationship with my socks.

Notebooks still feel like magic to me. Even though it’s hard to remember when they really were magic. A place where anything was possible. A place where the past and the baggage of old scribbles and old ideas didn’t matter. Nowhere was it more true than on the New List.

J.K. Rowling understands. It was one of the most delightful moments in my first reading of the first Harry Potter book, which I have read many, many times since then. When Harry gets the list of school supplies he will need to attend Hogwarts. We see the list. Exactly as Harry sees it. It’s right there, in black and white, on the page. It isn’t tossed off and forgotten. It is spelled out.

It’s a moment where everything is real. Tangible. Defined. Harry hears that he is a wizard, that he is about to enter a world of magic and has an enemy and a destiny. It’s all so impossible. So abstract. Then he opens that letter, reads about the school, and sees that page of school supplies. It lists books. It lists the color and type of clothing he needs, and in what quantities. It lists parchment. It lists ink. This is a real place he’s going. Just like the other places he knows, only a little different.

It happened every year. My mom and I would sit down and look at the list of new equipment. It was always beautifully precise. 4 black marble composition books, medium rule. 12 number 2 pencils. 3 packs black erasable pens. I remember in 4th grade the rule size on the composition books changed. We were going to have to write more to fill the same number of pages. I remember going into 5th grade, and for math we would need a protractor and a compass. I didn’t know what either of them were until then.

It meant that everything was different. But not just for its own sake. It had rules. It had rituals. It had its own set of magical tools required for the exact tasks my new classmates and I were about to undertake.

The implements displayed the potential. The pens and rulers and specifically colored markets. I would lay them all out on the dining room table and look at them. Were the pencil’s sharp enough? Did I have enough folders? They were the tools of the trade.

But the notebooks had the power. They were the ritual space. They were where everything would happen. At the moment it was all potential. That’s where it would all become real. Whatever they taught me. Whatever I wished.

Notebooks are never going to be that magical to me again. I know that, and I accept it. So much of the transition to adulthood is a slow diminishing of the magic, as you fill in the corners of the map and leave less and less room for the dragons. None of what you put into a notebook can ever equal the endless wonder whispered by the unspoiled page.

We have so very many notebooks. There is a lot written on them. A chronicle in fragments of decades of my life and imaginings. But there are more empty pages than filled ones. I may no longer believe that my 4th grade teacher is going to show me the secret of the universe. But it’s out there, somewhere. Maybe it’s swimming beneath the surface of one of those blank pages. Maybe it’s just waiting for the moment ink touches paper, and I at last, after thousands of years of human thought and a single lifetime of my own searching, write it down.