I am fascinated by the notebooks of writers and artists–the doodles, bits of research and notes to self, the handwriting, the bad early drafts.  There is something necessary in the sheer chaos of a notebook or a box of clippings, scraps, and other ephemera. So much goes into the making of a book, a story, a single poem.

A notebook I used while writing In the Place of Silence

A notebook I used while writing The Good Sister

Even my own notebooks and file boxes fascinate me. Sometimes I have no idea who that person was who wrote all those notes, clipped so many articles, drew so many pictures, used so many different colors of pens, cut up passages and taped them together in reverse order.  Writing envelops you when you’re in the midst of it, seals you right up with it.  It can be useful to see, especially when embarking on a new project, that a good piece of writing often begins in a big mess with quite a lot of  bad writing involved.

That’s also partly why I love looking at notebooks and early drafts of work by writers I admire.  While I was in Dublin a few Junes ago, I was lucky to see a William Butler Yeats exhibit at the National Library of Ireland (The Life and Works of William Butler Yeats), where a lot of early, handwritten drafts of his poems were shown. Wonky handwriting, strikethroughs, botched titles: it was comforting to know that even the greatest of writers can sometimes begin a little off, or take wrong turns.  Yeats’s “Crazy Jane” was earlier named “Cracked Mary.” Cracked Mary had made it as far as a typed draft of the poem, but Jane hovers, handwritten, in the margins, then takes over to finally become its title, “Crazy Jane and the Bishop.”

Every piece of writing you see in print–final, published–looks clean and simple, every word in its place. But its history is likely chaotic, beginning in a kind of Pandora’s box, in the disjointed form of clippings, photographs, diary entries, diagrams, and notes, all clamoring at the lid, wanting to discover what it all means.

And even when the writing is published, perhaps it is never perfect. At a Colum McCann reading for Let the Great World Spin, he stopped in the middle of a paragraph, read it again, reread it, and then finally, chagrined, he looked out over his audience and asked if that sentence made any sense. “No,” he answered for us. “No, it doesn’t.” That sentence had managed to hold onto its chaotic beginnings, giving us readers a glimpse inside that box.