“It was a very good story. I thought and thought. I thought of a mini reading response in my head. I got a piece of lined paper and wrote. Some days I got tired and took a break. Other times, I wrote one or two pages. I’m still writing today, in fact.”
Jane Kamensky, the Director of the Schlesinger Library, studies how ideas and symbols move through populations over time. “I often tell this story about Copley’s painting of John Hancock, which was done in 1765. It’s one of the quartet of patriots that lines the big entry gallery to the Americas wing at the MFA.”
“I want my reader to really think about what I was thinking at the time. I want the reader to know about me.”
“Hancock is perched over a ledger,” Kamensky continues. “He’s portrayed as a young merchant. His uncle has died and he’s inherited this great fortune—that’s the occasion of the portrait. I joke that we have the tendency to look at it as though he’s sitting there in 1765 with this book and this pen practicing his signature for the Declaration of Independence eleven years later.”
“I want my reader to know exactly everything about all the details. To think exactly what I write. I want my reader to know everything.”
“I collect state quarters as a hobby. I’ve been collecting since I was five years old! I have a ton of quarters right now, but my goal is get all of them in my book around 2008 when the last quarter comes out. But until then, I’m searching for North Dakota, the latest quarter.”
Prior to the first day of third grade, we were instructed to decorate the outside of our Writer’s Notebooks with a collage of things we cared about. I cared about “BOOKS”, a bouquet of pansies, the Food Network logo, a bowl of fruit, a basket of fruit, two strawberries, a baby-grand piano, a packet of New! Mega M&Ms, “Nonfiction”, two grey-and-white ragdoll cats, and Hershey’s Extra Dark Chocolate. And, of course, the North Dakota state quarter.
“My objects are important to me and remind me of stories. The idea is that whenever I look at an object, right away, I remember the story that it reminds me of.”
Those objects on the cover of my Writer’s Notebook—that long list of trinkets that sounds more like a Mother’s Day wish-list than an eight-year-old’s favorite things—were the most accurate description of me. I imagine that there is a landfill somewhere that contains the neat stack of magazines from which I gutted each of the photographs that make up that collage. And I suppose that that months’ worth of “Cat Fancy” and “Better Homes and Gardens” forms the most accurate description of all that is not me. That my fledgling self is somehow a bunch of pictures taken from a foreground of nothing.
“It feels like I’m back when it happened. I can see the picture in my head.”
Writer’s Notebook, then, is nothing more than a catalog of things. My third grade self is captivated by playing cards and how to use them, by my brother’s dusty school projects under his bed and where to find them, by half-size double basses and when to tune them, and by Kindergarten shoelaces and how to tie them. The first essay I ever wrote, embezzled with Microsoft ClipArt and all of zero citations, is a list of things, too:
“Graphite has many uses. It is used in tennis racquets, fishing rods, and fire doors. Graphite is also used for brake shoes, electrodes, graphite powder, golf clubs, automobiles, and aircrafts. In addition, it is used in rocket engines, rocket nozzles, paint, and bricks.”
If Writer’s Notebook ever ends up in a museum some thousand years in the future, Senzer will become synonymous with Webster and Diderot. If you don’t know who those people are, it’s because you only know what they wrote about. After all, you use gimcrack and curios and baubles every day. And if you are unfamiliar with those words in the previous sentence, you should go and look them up in Webster’s dictionary. And if you don’t know what a ‘dictionary’ is, you should go and look it up in Diderot’s encyclopedia. But good luck finding any information about either of those two men in their respective books. Their names belong to objects, now.
Kamensky notes the difficulty of determining how one’s past identity translates to the present. “The person who wrote those documents does not know how their life turned out and does not know how the world turned out. When we’re dealing with the biographical questions of people becoming themselves and the question of confirmation bias and a self-fulfilling prophecy, we have to remember that people are making it up as they go along.”
As much as I want to, I can’t look at Ben’s Nobel Prize-winning treatise on graphite and claim that it planted the seed of his interest in chemistry today, because it didn’t. I can’t read “My SHINY Bass” and say that it inspired 11 years of Ben playing the double bass, because it didn’t. When I wrote about these things, they were exactly that—things. They were things I read about in “TIME for Kids” and “World Book.” They were things that were hanging up in the classroom on some stock poster ordered from an educator’s Christmas catalog. But they weren’t me, and they didn’t have anything to do with me. These penciled words, fossilized between frail, jaundiced composition book pages, are graphite.
“It’s not a category of thing. It’s a lens.” Kamensky gestures to her wall of textbooks. “If my question is what happened in such-and-such period of American history, then the textbook is a tertiary source, because it is a synthesis of the writings of other historians based on documents from the times they looked at.”
“One night, I got to stay up until 12:00 midnight. That’s when the ball would drop.”
“A research paper is, in some sense, a secondary source because the researcher reads other things to write it.”
“I looked at the time. It was 11:59. Only one more minute left… 60, 59, 58, until…”
“Certainly, at the point where any historian looked at [your writing], they would be primary sources. It could be any genre of source—diaries, letters, television shows, interviews, data sets, voting records, newspapers—but it is some kind of direct witness from the period of time you are talking about. That’s its primacy—its rootedness in time.”
“…5, 4, 3, 2… and this was it. The key to 2006. It was going in the lock and now it just got pulled out.”