From Old Notebooks

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“As the writer wrestles with his book and his family, we reexamine our thoughts about the writer. It’s a performance in which writer and reader have equal billing.”

There’s much at stake in The First Book. The first-time author wishes to make a good impression and, if things work out, to seduce the reader. The reader, for his or her part, hopes to love the book but looks for signs of weakness. Both parties are blind—there is no track record, no laurels; there is no critical lens. The writer covers up the bumps and bruises. The reader looks for poise and power. But if a first-timer appears sure and strong, most likely this is an illusion—beneath the polish, the writer, like the reader, is uncertain about the book’s performance and its fate.

In From Old Notebooks, Evan Lavender-Smith reveals what other writers, especially first-timers, try to hide: the influence, the bravado, the insecurity, the bravery, and the cowardice and the hubris of writing—all in the hope of creating something original.

From Old Notebooks is a collection of aphorisms, ranging from ideas for stories, novels, memoirs, and movies, to musings about books, sports, family, linguistics, and philosophy. At first the book seems like a notebook of jottings—from the mundane to the magnificent—revelations that hit the writer while in the car, at the library, or on the john. But as we attempt to find a narrative thread, we come to understand that the writer, Lavender-Smith’s proxy, is trying to make sense of it all, too. And from here the project emerges: the writer will turn his jottings into a book, a book which will be called From Old Notebooks. Let’s call it F.O.N.2.

The idea for the book is set, but it’s aim is unstable. The writer’s attempt to categorize the project is ongoing: is F.O.N.2 a journal? a memoir? a novel? a “memiovel”? This doubt lends the book its improvisatory feeling, turning the writer-character into a reader, a reader who must examine and interpret his own content, content that continually outpaces his own understanding of it.

The “plot” of the book is the evolution of its own creation.

At different points, the writer-character is concerned about F.O.N.2—Is this too cute or too smart? Will I finish it? Will I publish it? But he’s also a dreamer. He imagines a future book entitled The Illusion of Improvisation in American Literature from Kerouac to Lavender-Smith, wonders to whom he should dedicate the unfinished book, and schemes against his future literary executors. The sudden tonal shifts, from dread to dreams, portray this writer-character in different roles, from chump to champ. The reader’s response to all this is complex and fluid, too—the writer-character, as a personality, is elusive. Take for example the following series of thoughts culled at random, all of which deal with the writer’s family:

Will Jackson develop an aversion to books because his father neglected him on their account? Nearly every day now he grabs a book from my hands and speaks angrily, “Dada, stop reading!”

It hurts to wear my baseball glove with my wedding ring on.

To live in the white creases inside Sofia’s elbows, the backsides of her knees and knuckles.

Three things I would try my hardest to save were my house on fire: flash drive, baseball glove, first-edition Gravity’s Rainbow.

Three more: Carmen, Jackson, Sofia.

I am tempted to cut out that patch of skin from Sofia’s back containing her birthmark—crimson relief of Kauai—before it fades any further.

Jackson, pointing at a moth fluttering by: “A Life! A Life!”

The image of beauty that would instantly dispel all doubt—Jackson taking a bath, Carmen raising two fingers to her lips, empty autumn baseball field—for which I am constantly on the lookout and never able to resolve.

The writer-character, caught between freedom and family, is an exaggerator and a minimizer. He’s abstract and lucid, direct and indirect. He makes us shudder and swoon. The result is dynamic. As he wrestles with ideas about the book and his family, we reexamine our thoughts about the writer and the book. It’s a performance on both parts, a performance in which writer and reader have equal billing. Lavender-Smith isn’t afraid to let his guard down, to sit at the bottom of the tower, however long he daydreams about climbing it. He shows how a writer, like a reader, is always plodding in the muck, hoping to resolve the contradictions.

And if the job proves impossible, there are the creases and the birthmark and the son who sounds like Virginia Woolf: “A Life! A Life!

From Old Notebooks is many things: a meta-novel, a family memoir, an essay on form, a book about the First Book, an ode to self-reliance, a pillow book for aspiring writers. Above all, it’s a performance, a first book in which Evan Lavender-Smith plays his different roles, interprets his own lines, and practices his own voice—all in the hopes of emerging as himself.

Kevin Evers writes essays, reviews, fiction and nonfiction. His work has previously appeared at The Millions. He lives in Somerville, MA. More from this author →