Trips Down Memory Lane: On Inhaling Old Notebooks

By Chelene Knight


I’ve always envisioned Fall as the best season for fresh starts and rebirth, while Spring has always been a reflective season where I look back at previous months and years while documenting and acknowledging my progress. As I write this, I am looking at a tower of old notebooks stacked high on my desk. I always buy the same type of notebook. The kind that is bound with gold spiral rings, and wide pages with thin, faint blue lines. These are the notebooks that house everything from terrible free writing to old entrepreneurial business notes. The point is, I have snapshots in time, I have imageless memories to revisit over, and over again, but what is the purpose of looking back? 

I’ve had conversations with many people (and not necessarily just writers or creatives) who say they don’t like to look back or they try not to, as this would somehow derail the forward motion. I think this is Ok in theory, but I believe that folks who deny themselves the opportunity to look back, miss out on celebrating how far they’ve come. If I take a huge literal jump, but never let myself look back to see that initial set of footprints in the sand and my feet where they stand now, then I have to rely on others to tell me how far I’ve jumped.

I pulled a notebook from the middle of the stack, and found my initial free writing that eventually turned into a micro story about a boy named James. He had a super strict mother who was constantly yelling at him to quit trying to be an artist. It was a super rough piece that eventually took a complete 180 and became my novel, Junie which is now near completion. Looking back at that terrible micro story with all its gaps, was a chance to relive the whole process for the novel’s conception, and that was a major treat. Looking back isn’t always about dwelling on the past, it’s a chance to relive things, and to re-catch all the bits that got missed.


Finding gold

Aside from the journey, the gradual progression, and the imminent growth, one of the best parts about looking through old notebooks is when I find something I’d written then that I needed to hear now. It happens so often! Every now and again, I feel this pull to rip through an old notebook, but then I also carry this heaviness, and the usual set of questions present themselves: Am I going to be triggered by something I wrote long ago? Will I be embarrassed? Will I still agree with my younger self? But I still dive in anyways ‘cause that’s how I roll.

Last week, I found a note in an old business notebook that said “charge what you are worth.” I definitely needed to hear THAT! As someone who has been running two online businesses and constantly feeling the pressure to lowball myself financially to make services accessible for all, that note almost jumped off the page and punched me in the throat. I spoke back to it “yes, I will.” I know I need the constant reminder that I am good enough and that the work I am doing is of value. Looking back at old notebooks has become a necessary routine and one that I enjoy immensely. It also serves as time away from the screen which is always a plus.



There’s more to old notebooks than the obvious trip down memory lane, there’s a 99 percent chance I’ll run into something that will send me to the floor rolling uncontrollably from laughter. In my old poetry notebook I had written some cheesy poem from 1998 that made no sense at all—a poem that I am so not about to include here—but reading it made me feel good about how far I’ve come and the laughter was a good sign that I can laugh at myself and that I don’t have to be serious all the time. Writing is often serious work. We stress ourselves out over every detail. So if there’s a small chance that I can find some hilarity in my own creative process, then you better believe I am going to revel in it, at least for a moment.


Welcome Distractions

We all talk about not wanting to be distracted while writing, well, with the whole world currently being encouraged to “self-isolate”, what better way to spend the time than to pour over all your past writings! This is the one time I have welcomed a distraction in and had it be fruitful, fun, and replenishing. This is the true meaning of self-care, in my opinion. To go back, to look back, to celebrate, to laugh, to shift gears, to re-catch. I don’t know … I feel like there is so much negativity out in the world, but if I can claim a few moments to myself just to focus on the good for a bit, and recharge my batteries, to inhale my notebooks, then I’m doing my part in some small, micro way. 

I don’t have any of my notebooks from my youth or teen years. They are lost in the closets of many houses. Many, many houses. Sometimes I wonder if anyone found them piled up in some dusty box covered with knick knacks. I wonder if they bothered to flip through the pages. I wonder if they laughed at my youthful thoughts and ideas like I would have if I had the chance to revisit them. And this is my biggest regret. Not that I couldn’t take them with me, but that I didn’t even get the chance to inhale them. Maybe this is why looking back is such an important part of my everyday process. Either way, I challenge everyone to look back at least once, to admire the leaps, and laugh at the stumbles.

The views expressed by Open Book columnists are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.

Chelene Knight is the author of the poetry collection Braided Skin and the memoir Dear Current Occupant, winner of the 2018 Vancouver Book Award. Her essays have appeared in multiple Canadian and American literary journals, plus the Globe and Mail and the Toronto Star. Her work is anthologized in Making RoomLove Me TrueSustenanceThe Summer Book, and Black Writers Matter.

The Toronto Star called Knight, “one of the storytellers we need most right now.” In addition to her work as a writer, Knight is managing editor at Room, programming director for the Growing Room Festival, and CEO of #LearnWritingEssentials. She often gives talks about home, belonging and belief, inclusivity, and community building through authentic storytelling. 

Knight is currently working on Junie, a novel set in Vancouver’s Hogan’s Alley, forthcoming in 2020.