Safe Havens: Why Half-Filled Notebooks Feel Like Home

On the surface writing seems such a glamorous pastime.

A labour of love; witty; delicate, even. To me, writing feels more like an orchestral exorcism (god, that sounds oddly sexual).There’s no red wine, brooding stares or candlelight. Instead, I gladly settle for a pound shop version of playing Ben Howard or Laura Marling on my tinny phone speaker as I furiously pen monologues of intense emotion.

In the spirit of drama, I will be so bold as to define my life by half-filled notebooks; pages that are physical locations onto which I pour my overflowing thoughts. My lengthy passages are a mixture of anxiety, existentialism, and self-reflection. Brain splurges, as I graciously call them. Bursts that don’t knit together like parts of a jumper, but are, instead, a jumble of consciousness. The longer I press the ‘off’ button on my own reality, and deflect the needs that linger in my gut, the more visceral the process.

It’s a stubborn old lesson, but I’m slowly learning that challenges are, in fact, there even if you choose to ignore them, and so, writing should never be postponed. The peace that comes with catharsis is a short-lived victory, and must be coaxed out time and time again. Putting pen to paper offers me the opportunity to reconnect with myself; to wrestle with, and strive to accept, the uncomfortable. And it’s a bloody painful process sometimes.

Notebooks splayed out. First is green and pink. Two and three are black and red, featuring flowers and Amy Winehouse.
Some of my highly dramatic notebooks.

Aside from being a place to rant about my housemate having sex very loudly in the room above mine — a heavy feature one fateful summer — my notebooks also act as portals into my inner mind, full of half-finished projects and philosophical questioning. In these safe havens the words come easily. They are unrestrained by the pressure of my own expectations, which is a paradox I usually have perfected.

Much to my endless frustration, the security of knowing that these words aren’t meant to be for grand things often brings out the grandest thoughts of all. A catalogue of dreams and ideas, these fragments hold enough content for a lifetime. Poems, doodles, succinct solutions to the world’s most complex problems, you name it. Ever in fear of being ‘misunderstood’, I leave this material locked up in acid free paper and magnetic clasps. My words become time stamps for versions of myself that no longer fit, like old clothes kicking about in your wardrobe. But, how often do we synthesise our most present identities into the perfect outfit? And how long do our words truly align with our authentic selves?

You see, my notebooks encompass my shifting obsessions, tastes and phases as I glide and fight towards learning more about myself.

Eden’s top songs from Spotify Wrapped 2020. No 1, 3, and 5 are all from Harry Styles’ Fine Line album.
Proof that I am, indeed, a tad obsessive. Was a good album, though, was it not?!

Take, for instance, my A6 Paperblanks Amy Winehouse notebook. This crimson delight became a dumping ground during my first two years of university, when I found the prospect of becoming a poet dramatic and mysterious. I even took the notebook along to a couple of open mic nights and nearly had a heart attack when I left it unattended in a pub. God forbid anyone read the depressed monologues in-between the neatly packaged poems I had performed earlier that evening. I realised very quickly that successful confessional poetry relies on a vulnerability I was just not willing to give. I was already holding myself together with masking tape, antidepressants and deliberate ignorance. The last thing I needed was to over-examine how paper thin I was feeling, particularly for the consumption of an audience. So, the notebook was abandoned, almost full at this point, which is testament to my commitment to purging, or perhaps punishing, myself through self-indulgently miserable literature.

When I sidelined poetry, a Flame Tree notebook detailing an illustration of Troilus and Criseyde by William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones became the flavour of the month. At this stage, I had begun to learn about the ever-elusive world of curation, visual art, and creative production (it’s a world that still feels elusive to me, a kind of one foot in, one foot out, situation). I brewed up creative concepts and hopes for exhibitions, bound up in embossed foil and gold ribbon. With that notebook I spent afternoons lying diagonally, stomach first, across my bed to catch the summer sun through my bedroom window. I passed an hour resting on my forearms in the itchy grass of the Boboli gardens in Florence, naming the project that became MEDUSA. With its pages I observed long cramped car journeys across Scandinavia with people that now belong in a different chapter of my life.

Perhaps most formatively, through that notebook I nursed the hurt as creative relationships broke down and idols became merely flawed people. Rather tellingly, it’s then that the notebook bookmarked for creative brainstorming was left alone. The endless mind maps ceased; the paragraphs no longer ran wild; university got in the way; life carried on.

This decommissioning of notebooks is quite the habit. When I returned from briefly living in Spain, a leather journal gifted for the trip quickly became a relic. When I graduated from university, a notebook bought in a desperate attempt to manage my final year workload was retired half empty (need I say more). When I realised that life cannot be quantified into a list of tangible achievements — or rather that I fell behind on the ‘documenting’ and hopefully started the ‘living’ — my bucket list book gathered dust. Most poignantly, when my relationship of five years ended, notebook upon notebook suddenly began to reflect a period of my life now confined to the past; disjointed from the person I was fast becoming, yet undeniably part of the clay that helped shape her. When circumstances shift, so does the journal.

At twenty three, as I settle into less chaos and more consideration, I’m shaking the guilt of leaving my beautiful books half-full. I’m a person, which means constant change, flux and evolution. Like every chapter in our lives, notebooks have to be left or archived when growth comes calling — one page in, or none left at all. Their covers tell me of times gone by — who I was, what I wanted, what I believed. Life does not fit into neat and tidy segments and sections, or neat and tidy notebooks. Yet to me, there is nothing more tangibly hopeful than the promise of a blank page and a fresh start. On crisp paper you can shape your hopes, dreams, impressions and desires. You can confess your deepest fears, uncover unnerving honesty and dance in your wildest self-delusions.

But for all the pain and beauty of time gone by, I wonder, when has a notebook and the world it upholds served its purpose? Can its words, so emotively crafted, ever sit vacant on the page? Maybe one day my prized possessions will find themselves indifferently left on the curbside for Tuesday morning recycling. Perhaps they will inhabit a realm so distant from my own that I deem them immaterial. Yet, paper or pulp, I’ve slowly realised that the physical future of these books is infinitely less important than the process of half-filling them. I don’t know what wild, fanciful, thoughts will enter my head as the years go by. What I do know is that it will be the act of writing them down, rather than any careful preservation, that sparks wonder. After all, it’s the meaning of our words in the moments we pen them that build and break our spirits.

Eden is a writer, artist and journalist. She also works in digital marketing and runs MEDUSA, a feminist arts and culture platform. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.



Writer and thinker exploring homecoming, culture and connection. Co-founder of feminist arts organisation, MEDUSA. Newsletter called 'Yearning' on Substack.

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Eden Szymura

Writer and thinker exploring homecoming, culture and connection. Co-founder of feminist arts organisation, MEDUSA. Newsletter called 'Yearning' on Substack.