I’ve only been writing my secret journal of things, places, and events for about 18 days now, but I’ve very much enjoyed the exercise. Since the journal is focused on concrete things, I count it as part of the day’s writing, and it’s a great place to write something down even on days (like today) when I don’t feel like doing any substantive work.
I keep the journal in Evernote, which does make me kind of twitchy (I hate putting anything into a closed system–one where I don’t control the actual files), but I figure as long as I export it every once in awhile, there’s a limit to how much I can lose. And there’s something very pleasant about updating it from my phone or about casually browsing backwards. Unlike with my last journal, I actually want to read this one. What happened in my life, I wonder. What did I see? What did I hear?
Once you start recording concrete things, all kinds of interesting stuff happens. Your novelistic eye awakens. For instance, I’ve begun to notice that even in description and summary, what I focus on the most are incongruities: maybe someone is wearing something that seems out of character, or they do something that alters my opinion of them. In order for something to be interesting, there has to be tension in every line between what you expect and what actually happens. And that’s just as true when noting things about your real life as it is when you’re writing about a fictional one.
It’s also interesting the sort of things that I write down. I think that before I read The Life of Johnson I could not have written this journal, because I simply wouldn’t have known what to write about. But that book made realize that a chronicle of conversations can be interesting too. My life isn’t that interesting, so I mostly tend to note down either conversations that I’ve had or stories that people have told me. I try, oftentimes, to record actual dialogue. I mean, it’s made up, of course, just as all remembered dialogue is made up, but it’s fun to try to capture the actual cadences of conversation.
Anyway, I looked and looked through my journal to see if there was anything that I felt comfortable sharing, and I found something! I went to court recently to support a friend (she wasn’t on trial, but she had an interest in the proceedings), and here were my notes upon returning:
“Went to Court today. It was the arraignments and sentencing court on the seventh floor of the courthouse. Very institutional building, with pew-like seating and very high ceilings. A massive flag hung, facing downward, behind the judge, but it was wrinkled and worn. He was a strange looking guy. His hair was black and white and brushed in two waves to either side of his face. He affected a paternal demeanor but talked very fast and seemed harried. It was so institutional, this processing of people. In front of the judge is not an open area, but a bullpen, in which the prosecutors and (I assume) the public defenders sit and work. The judge was surrounded, on all sides, by huge stacks of paper. I only saw one black person on their side—a woman clerk. Otherwise everybody was white, except for one Asian public defender.“Reams of papers could be written about the semiotics of court. It’s a strange place—different from most city agencies—because there’s both a friendliness and a gravitas. Even the sheriffs aren’t as menacing as police normally are—they double as traffic guards and ushers. And there are so many staff people, so there’s always someone to talk to. You’re never fully lost at the courthouse, as you might be at the DMV.“The judge, too, attempts to be very congenial. For instance, when releasing a man five days early so he could make thanksgiving, he said, “Not to pry, but do they want you home? Sorry to ask, but the answer’s not always yes.”“And yet there’s a mercilessness to it. This is a raw, brutal processing of people. The judge speaks rapidly, rattling off the phrases he’s required to say. I especially was struck by his listing of fines, “$85 criminal appearance fee, $35 processing fee, $40 printing fee” that they have to pay in order to leave.“You also have no idea when your case will be called. You sit there—maybe for hours—waiting and hoping that the next name will be the one you want to hear. But you don’t know.“The action grinds to a halt for long periods of time as the judge and his clerks and the lawyers convene about things that are arcane and poorly understand. And the acoustics are so bad that you can’t ever hear what the judge is saying. Many of the proceedings are relatively minor. Was surprised that prisoners have to come here for things which are so small. One prisoner appeared with the request that his mom be allowed to pick up the phone and speakers that the cops had confiscated when he was arrested.“The fist seemed ever-present to me, no matter how much they tried to hide it with their courtesies.”