Young writers may think their truest work is far beyond them, and that’s after they’ve convinced themselves that, yes, they are in fact writers. So begins the self-deprecating yet excessively vainglorious task of finding one’s voice in art. Much runs through the mind in this creative savagery. We look back to understand what started this whole mess, and in doing so try to show resolve because we think it sincere. We proclaim to no one in particular that literature has changed our lives, and that we’ve grown sensitive to the unspoken, deeply felt rituals surrounding the written word and its creation. We overlook the work we’ve actually accomplished. The practical gets ignored, and how our engagement with those simpler, less poetic things mattered.
Obviously, I’m talking about day planners. Let’s start from the top: every September, the powers that be would grant fresh planners to the pupils of St. Lucy’s School in the Bronx. I didn’t know where they came from or who paid for them (thanks mom), but there they were, a new batch of spiral-bound beauties to help us remember our homework and extracurricular activities. Their pages of tightly compartmentalized existence made me feel ready for all that was to come. After mushy summers, order was suddenly brought to the universe. I believed I would accomplish anything because I wrote it down in a book.
I thought the kids who neglected their planners were mad. Was maintaining one really that exhausting? I’ll answer that question for all my erstwhile classmates:
Wrestling with blocks of your own chicken scratch wasn’t just a nagging reminder of how much work you hadn’t finished, but a break from doing anything pedagogically applicable until you reached college, where maybe those skills were expected of you by professors for the sake of creativity or time management. Through a planner’s base intent and structure, you get to make shapes and words that not only mirrored your thoughts, but your own way of thinking. Consulting with myself, I devised shorthand to record homework, sketching out different approaches to its completion in patches of terse reportage. After that, a planner was a great invitation to doodle. Empty stretches left by holiday weekends and Christmas break made for prime drawing space, as if the planner was designed, even with all its hard lines and protocol, to subvert utility. Looking back at months of packed directives, awkward musings, and arcane symbols was similar to gazing at a microchip. At a glance, what I wrote within and across the margins made an alien network of information, my squiggled filigree a mystery to the uninitiated, but still seemingly purposeful taken as a whole. Everything was assembled and, somehow, the work got done.
Planners informed some of my first regular writing exercises, encouraging journalistic acumen and creative silliness. They offered an early chance to edit and annotate, my lumpy lists and atlases melding with the reference materials offered in their back pages. It made owning a notebook necessary and writing seem to close to me, even if I didn’t really think I was writing.
At this point I could go on about the social conditioning implicit in my experience with planners. Conditioning children to micro-manage themselves and regiment their production can be seen as some sad strain of Foucaultian self-surveillance. I could write about all these interesting theoretical thoughts in my planner, you know.
Okay, so maybe the planner as social tool would keep me too consumed in the process of production to notice I wouldn’t get to own the stuff I meticulously planned to make, from elementary school onward. That’s writing, isn’t it? In a world where your work is undervalued if not outright ignored in the marketplace, you’re lucky enough if you get to say you own it at the end of the day. But once the year ended and my planner lied stuffed and tattered, it felt like my handiwork. It now wore a year of twitchy expressions and the imprints of my hands. It speaks the way I do. My bad habits and attempts at forming better ones – my life –are made manifest in its lines. Is a scheduled appointment or birthday reminder art? Maybe not, but the commitment of keeping a planner and making yourself known and physical in such a way at least raises the question. Appointments that would end in parting or thoughts that would stay stuck in your head are transposed so you can see them differently, translating the most basic occurrences of your life through an active craft of writing. When unpredictable messages begin to leak from your documented old routines, the primary purpose of planning to do and know, not just preparing to perform either, is revealed.
Book-lovers are sensitive to the physicality of records, knowing that their personal scribbles and footnotes change a copy into their copy. That’s why I chose the Hobonichi Techo as my planner for 2015. Designed by the casually brilliant copywriter and renaissance man Shigesato Itoi, the techo is meant to record thoughts that appear in the “hazy, blank period of time [people] can’t put a name to.” As planners become more than a compendium of tasks, they become what the techo strives to be. This might seem like glib pandering to notebook fetishists, but the techo keeps things understated, flexible, and, honestly, how dare you for doubting Itoi. Taking feedback from users, the techo allots each day its own page of graph paper to customize as they see fit, and is filled with data like a spice and herb visual guide, descriptions of heads-or-tails games from around the world, and a pictograph on how to wash oneself in a ryokan, or traditional Japanese inn. Like any good planner, it provides more info than you usually need, just in case.
“Even as the planners are all the same containers, they have unique shapes as clay formed by hand,” states Itoi in his mission statement for the project. “There will be days when you couldn’t catch a fish, and there will be days you won’t fish. But with 365 days in a year, over time your net will fill with plenty of minnows. Such is the wealth of our thoughts.”
Itoi’s concept is admirable, yet it still prompts a certain self-awareness that makes me question if I’m interesting enough for a fancy, devil-may-care creative planner. “Am I drawing enough absurd doodles in the margins around my daily tasks?,” I might ask myself as I count the ways I can make my shorthand notes look sloppy-chic in all the right ways. “Surely I could’ve pressed more lilacs between last May’s pages. They’d perfectly frame that romantic poem I wrote on the 24th, right next to my last physical’s bloodwork results.”
Hobonichi’s website displays user-submitted photos of techos, which doesn’t help. How long does it actually take these proud record-keepers to manicure a page? Could they really just slap perfectly framed pictures of their dogs next to sophisticated drawings and still manage to immaculately write all their goals around them? Surely their penmanship isn’t that whimsically rounded all the time? Many might want a perfectly messy life, one that plays hard but looks easy. I’m not sure if my messiness fits the bill.
My concerns are ridiculous, of course, but so are my planner habits. I’m sloppy, but I like to work with the lines I’m given. Any neat partitions separating my ideas are just there to give me comfort and pretend I’m being efficient. Messy, but practical. Just like Benjamin Franklin.
“Let all your things have their places. Let each part of your business have its time.”
Franklin was supposedly industrious enough to have a planner named after him. “The morning question: What good shall I do this day?” was a masthead of one of his documented day pages, a pretty noble frame of mind to get you going, especially for a man whose definition of “good” and “getting oneself going” proved quite flexible. Though it seems in his planner he didn’t let himself off the hook. He recorded his transgressions with black dots in an effort to track moral imperatives he set for himself, like “Order” and “Temperance.” Tracking one’s own failures is an interesting premise overshadowed by the can-do associations of the day planner. In conversations of personal achievement and goal-setting, procrastination seems to end as soon as we get in the habit of using one. There only seem to be tasks completed and work that will surely get done once they’re committed to planner stock, which as we all know is made of fairy pulp bound in unicorn floss and magically engineered to guarantee success.
I don’t actively chronicle my failures in my planner, but they’re in there. The repetition of delayed publication dates, news articles meant to be read; all the projects I can’t seem to bring myself to officially put on the backburner. Reminders like that sometimes make my planner look like it belongs to Jack Torrance, but it’s also a plain revelation of how I work in my own words. I didn’t have to overthink or romanticize my process to figure out why or how I write. Within my planner, the story of my stories can be told. No meaning necessary.
Andrew Marinaccio is a Bronx-based journalist with experience in music criticism and tech business reporting. He often scrambles to write things down. Sometimes those things wind upon the Internet.