In August of last year I bought a large leather-bound unruled notebook. I don’t have the notebook anymore, and I don’t remember the brand, but it was black and heavy and felt substantial when I pulled it from my bag and placed it on my grandmother’s dining room table. My grandmother was 89 years old at the time. Her mind was going. She was paying me to take care of her, to spend evenings and nights in her home—a house she and her husband, dead now ten-plus years, built with their own hands when they were young. This was in Ohio. My first novel was a few months from publication and I was starting on my second. That’s what this new notebook was for—writing my second novel.
Joyce Carol Oates writes her novels in longhand, I’d recently read. I wanted to write a novel in longhand too. I wanted to be a great writer.
So between tasks for my grandmother—preparing her dinner (often just a sandwich on white bread, frozen because she went through a loaf so slowly, or a pan-fried hot dog or reheated pasta that one of her daughters had brought her that afternoon or half a pint of chocolate pecan ice cream I’d purchased for her on my way to her house—these were the things she liked), dusting her floors, showing her more than once how to dial from the old flip cellphone she never did use—I sat at her dining room table and wrote in that notebook. I wrote with a Montegrappa Symphony Yellow fountain pen I’d been given as a gift a year before. I still have that Montegrappa, but I rarely use it now because I’m left handed and fountain pens have proven problematic.
I’d stop writing at 7 PM, when Wheel of Fortune came on. With my grandma I’d watch it, and then we’d watch Jeopardy!. “You have to read a lot of books, Shawn, if you ever want to be good at Jeopardy!,” my grandma would say at least twice per episode. “And I don’t mean novels and stuff like that. Real books. You have to read real books.”
And after Jeopardy!, she’d go to bed. I’d walk her over to the stairs, but the stairs themselves she insisted on climbing unaided. Her daughters never did understand why she stayed in that house with the stairs, why she wouldn’t enter an assisted living facility or something. After she went to bed I’d pour myself a beer or a cider and write some more.
I wrote like this for about a week before I gave up. I wrote a single chapter, about 3000 words, before I finally admitted to myself that my handwriting was abysmal, that I’d never even be able to read back what I was writing, so what was the point.
I stopped bringing the notebook and the Montegrappa to my grandmother’s with me. I spent the next two months eating with her instead, talking to her, listening to her stories, not caring that they were the same stories every time and that yet the details always changed, that sometimes in the stories her husband was still alive, that sometimes in the stories she had three children and sometimes only two, that she’d ask me about my sister, who no one in our family had spoken to in three years, and say “Whatever happened to that girl? What was her name?”
I moved from Ohio to Montana in October. My first novel came out in November. My second is now finished—I wrote it in Scrivener.
Near the end of February, 22 days after her 90th birthday, and 11 days after my 24th, my grandmother died.
I recently bought two new notebooks. They’re nothing special, just softcover Moleskines, one small, which stays in my back pocket, the other larger and either on my desk or in my bag. They’re both unruled like that first one. Writing in them comes easier to me now, although I don’t why. I fill their pages daily, with either a black Pilot G2 .7 inch or a red Uni-ball Vision Stick Micro Point Roller Ball. I wrote in 30 minutes the 700 words that became this essay in the large one. I can usually read what I’ve written now, too.
Shawn Mihalik is a writer, editor, and publisher based in Missoula, MT. He is the author of two works of fiction: The Flute Player, a novella, and Brand-Changing Day, a novel. Shawn can be found on Twitter at @shawnmihalik.