TOAST Magazine

On Keeping a Notebook | Fatima Farheen Mirza


Brooklyn-based author of A Place for Us, Fatima Farheen Mirza reflects on the art of journaling.

“In the journal I do not just express myself more openly than I could to any person; I create myself.” Susan Sontag

It begins because of a secret. No one to tell it to and nowhere to put it but the blank page. The secret isn’t what happened so much as how it felt. At age eleven this is a revelation: that there are layers to an experience—what is seen and what is beneath the surface. Brothers, grandparents, parents, all living under one roof. Even in the bathroom someone’s banging hurry up. The bedroom door is locked, the notebook retrieved from beneath the mattress, the pen’s cap chewed down. As a girl, I began to journal to discover who I was when alone.

When I teach writing now, I often assign an excerpt from Susan Sontag’s first notebook Reborn: Journals and Notebooks, 1947-1963. In the section titled ‘Notes from a Childhood’, Sontag lists her memories, capturing them in a single sentence before moving on to another. The sentences are simple, vivid, and seemingly unconnected:

On the train to Florida: “Mother, how do you spell pneumonia?”

Sitting on Gramp’s bed Sunday morning.

The dream of the Grove St. School being set on fire.

All the lies I told.

Daddy telling me to eat the parsley, it’s good, in the Fun Club.

Try it. Don’t think too hard. Don’t dwell in each memory, pin it down and then challenge yourself to go toward the unexpected memory and not the first one that naturally follows. Keep going until it feels like a meditation, you’re a girl squinting at the sharp sunlight reflecting on the water, someone’s calling your name. Go until the unremembered memory rises up between the ones that come easily to mind. Then look for patterns in your list, the connections between these disparate moments. What is your mind trying to tell you? Every time, I’m surprised by how the mind has its own agenda. How the pen is like a dog on a leash, tugging you to what you didn’t, at first, want to dig up.

Ghosts are misunderstood. So haunted they seek to haunt. But beneath their antics and their anger, their desire is simple, childlike. Look at me, they seem to say, I’m not ready to be invisible yet. But before they can be let free they have to be let inside. Argued and wrestled with. Listened to and affirmed. And then, finally, made peace with, bid adieu.

In quarantine, I practiced pull-ups until I injured my rotator, a muscle I didn’t even know by name until moving it felt like being pinched with a sharp, hot needle. Surprisingly, the treatment was not to let it rest but to reengage it in small increments, until that hot pinch is felt, the blood rushing there. The goal was to not limit my long-term movements in an effort to avoid that sharp short-term pain.

Writing is letting the ghosts in. A dog that drags you on its leash and takes you to meet yourself. Yes, the hot needle in the mind. The rush of blood before the healing. One year I wrote, ‘I forgive myself’ every day in my notebook to set a ghost free. Ignoring it had only limited my movements. Looking let it go.

‘Did you learn anything?’ My elementary school teacher wrote in white chalk beneath the word ‘Conclusion’ when teaching us how to write essays. When journaling, something about the self is always discovered. Yet, the discoveries feel like something you’d always known, something you carried deep inside you. It’s the same magic feeling of meeting someone you will love, that disorienting familiarity at first, are you sure we haven’t met before? It’s like coaxing yourself from the shadows into the light.

Fatima Farheen Mirza is a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop and has taught at The University of Iowa, Catapult, and NYU. Her debut novel, A Place for Us, is a New York Times bestseller and is being translated into seven languages. 

Caroline Tompkins photographed Fatima in Brooklyn, New York, where you can now purchase TOAST pieces from the beautiful concept store Bird. Fatima took us to her favourite place for writing, Café Regular, and her favourite bookshop, Community Bookstore.

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