When we were saying good-bye, my teacher gave me a present—a rust colored book with a small dark brown label on the cover. In gold writing, it said “Pictorial Webster’s Artist’s and Writer’s Notebook”.
She did not have to give me anything; really, she didn’t. I had been her student for only a short time, and I am guessing that the semester she had spent working with me had not been the easiest. This teacher has a very generous spirit, though. Regardless of whether giving a parting gift was unusual for her, the unexpected present made me feel appreciated or special, or one of *those* emotions that I have a hard time acknowledging.
I had just finished art school, where I had been making very large, graphite, figurative drawings—work that never contained words. Yet, my teacher had not given me an art book or a sketch pad. She had chosen something else for me.
Written on the back cover of the book, it says, “each page in this notebook features an engraving from the original 19th-century Webster’s dictionaries,” and it goes on to say it includes,”lots of blank space for sketching or [emphasis mine] writing.” In addition to this, the artist Johnny Carrera begins the preface by saying the book is explicitly not for artists or writers “who have never been intimidated by a blank canvas or page…for whom life’s beauty and fury come streaming out in orchestrated flourishes and paragraphs.”
When I first began using the book, I did what I had done many times before. I picked up my typical materials of pencil and eraser and set to work. I genuinely tried for weeks to put something down on the (not entirely) blank pages, but nothing seemed to be coming to me. I don’t mean that nothing was “streaming out in orchestrated flourishes.” I simply had nothing to offer. Hence, I laid the notebook aside feeling I’d failed.
Other than a generalized sense of desperation, I don’t remember what drove me to try once more. But months later, when I opened the notebook again—instead of drawing figures in pencil—I chose to write words in ink. Given my history, my depression, and my sense of myself, the only explanation I have for my willingness to attempt something new is the intentionally ambiguous nature of the book itself. The ambiguity allowed me to consider other possibilities.
I was supposed to be an artist not a writer. When I say “not a writer,” it is not just that—up until two weeks ago—all of my “public” writing had been limited to email and research papers for school. I also get abnormally and absurdly nervous whenever I think someone might see my words. In addition to this, I had hoped that completing my masters in fine arts would mean that I would be comfortable expressing myself through images.
Nevertheless, when I began writing, I treated the switch as incidental. I didn’t think of writing in my journal as a creative or artistic act. The most drastic departure for me was actually my decision to write with a pen. I would not be able to erase anything and all my mistakes would be visible forever. The ink’s permanence was scary, but it meant that who I was and what I was feeling could not be denied. It made it real.
I was severely depressed, but finally I was choosing to do something—something untempered by “shoulds.” I had found a safe place to store my truth; a place where all my monotonous, ugly, and aberrant thoughts could be tangible. The journal was my private testament.
After two months of writing fairly regularly, on a day when I was very low, I wrote about how I wanted to commit suicide. I talked about what I would do and how I would do it, but I also wrote that I was not allowed to act out any of those fantasies. I felt trapped.
I was forbidden from doing the one thing that I knew would solve everyone’s problem. As I wrote about my feelings, in this notebook that my encouraging and supportive teacher had given me, I thought about permission. Had my teacher given me permission to feel this way and to write these things, or was I completely distorting her intentions?
Whatever her motives were, she probably didn’t think I would use the journal to talk about my desire to kill myself. On that night in January when I wanted more than anything to die, I could not see that the equivocal nature of the notebook was in itself a gift. I was not open to the idea that maybe what she had given me was the possibility of something else.
My teacher gave me the chance to do something risky and the opportunity to see myself differently. Whether or not she knew what she was giving me with this present (a book or an idea) doesn’t matter. She gave me something because she wanted it to be mine, regardless of what that might mean.
I used the journal she gave me for a over year before it started to fall apart from wear and tear. Two weeks ago when I started this blog, it was almost exactly a year after I began writing in ink and also just as the book’s binding was beginning to unravel. These two things may be coincidental and not remarkable, but there is also a chance that they helped me by daring me to reach farther—to find another way and another place to share my experience.
Shortly after I finished school, I sent my teacher a thank you note and she graciously replied with a letter back to me. In it she wrote, “here’s what I hope for you: one day you will wake up and have totally forgotten that you once thought you weren’t any good.”
Mostly, I still wake up the way I always have, but some days I can see that it is impossible to know for certain that I am not a writer or an artist, or a story teller, or an idea-connector, or even someone who is good enough.