As it happens I am at Monticello, relaxing in the garden pavilion, looking at desiccated ladybug husks caught in spider’s web. Though it is early March, and I am at an elevation of around nine-hundred feet, it is quite hot. This is Thomas Jefferson’s fault. On the south-facing side of the plantation is a long rectangular garden terrace set below a grassy slope that enhances the flow of warm air. His aim was to create a longer growing season for his asparagus and squash and to experiment with the plants—such as the Chile strawberry and the Marseilles fig—that did not naturally grow in the mountains of Virginia. Jefferson had an obsession, perhaps even a fetish, with applying the scientific method to gardening. He divided his terrace into twenty-four squares, with each plot containing different vegetables, and took notes on which varieties excelled in the environmental conditions and on the length and productivity of growth cycles. In the same place where I am sitting, Jefferson would have at hand a surveying compass, and a level, and a host of drawing instruments. He recorded his measurements onto a series of ivory tabs and then later in his office transferred the information into his notebooks.
My mind circles back to fetish. The word connotes sexual desire enacted upon objects, people, minds. I have no evidence that Jefferson labored on his garden in an act of sexual sublimation. Indeed, I heard one of the guides talk of Jefferson’s affair with his slave Sally Hemings and his siring of six children. His libidinal drive was clearly not being directed into the layout of his submural beds. Yet something about his dedication to flora, perhaps his love, rises above mere gardening.
And I think of the Moleskine in my hands. The notebooks have an obsessive fan-base—they elicit a secret desire for the black leather cover, like a Norwegian sex toy. I scrawl a few words on one of its center pages about Jefferson, about the ladybug husks, not knowing if I will use these images and thoughts. I have owned the notebook for years, yet have barely filled one quarter of its pages. When I jot down a sentence or two, I choose a new place at random, and over time this has created an odd collage of abandoned projects: a postmodern anti-novel, a sentimental coming-of-age classic, an epic Viking saga. It has become a patchwork, a montage of ideas unfurling through the pages. Beyond my own vague ambition, I do not remember the precise details of these works or what they really meant. The text lies fallow on the acid-free paper, abandoned by my good intentions.
For what it is worth, the Moleskine is an intricate example of bookbinding. One, at least, in the early days of its production that attracted a discerning clientele. Ten years ago writers and poets sought out this object of permanence for their notes and ideas, to add gravitas to their words. For twenty-dollars you received, as you do now, two-hundred sheets of Italian paper, a leather cover, a black ribbon bookmark, and a band of sturdy elastic that keeps the pages flat. At the rear of the notebook is an inside pocket, which contains a folded piece of paper describing the origin story of the company. In essence, Moleskine is a reproduction of an older idea of a notebook. The company wanted to base theirs upon the notebooks of Hemingway, and in doing so tried to imagine what a writer today would want.
Over the years, I have attended many writing conferences. I remember one in upstate New York hosted by a prestigious liberal arts college. At the daily craft talk held in an oak-paneled theater, hordes of young hipsters filled the aisles. I had rarely seen so much flannel. With rolled cigarettes tucked behind their ears and tight jeans carefully turned up at the boot, the men sported dark unkempt beards and huffily ignored the young women sitting nearby. As the writer stepped to the lectern and began to speak, dozens of Moleskines or cheap knockoff versions were dutifully brought out, and with a practiced hand, the elastic snapped off. She read a lecture on narrative structure and point of view in the stories of Chekhov. For thirty-minutes she provided insightful commentary and elucidated her points with a panoply of references to “The Lady with the Pet Dog” and “Volodya.” Much of the audience, though, appeared bored. They wanted real wisdom, that is how to get published. After the writer was finished discussing her latest project on Tolstoy, the conversation morphed into a series of questions: What are agents looking for? Who is your agent? Can you give me his e-mail? His address?
So am I the same as these people? I would like to think I am not. But we share the Moleskine in common, the same impulse to write our stories on its pages. I suppose the medium does not matter, although I have heard Moleskine owners described as pretentious and over eager to fit into the writing world. There is something quite disheartening in seeing someone else repeating your behavior, your life—and I have found it difficult to rise above the assumptions implicit in owning one. Several times I have been informed that publishing is a healthy indication you have transcended the usual writing life clichés and it is the platitude I vacuously repeat to anyone who asks. The Paris Review, The New Yorker, and Granta are magazines of pedigree, notches for the literary curriculum vitae, though not mine. In the company I keep, the publishing world is charged as insular and the common assumption is that networking is the best method to secure a book deal. Writing conferences supply the brie and sharp cheddar and the cheap bottles of merlot and then, if you are lucky or momentarily fogged by the sulfites and tannins, a few minutes of access to people in the industry. But then who does the publisher pick? The person with the best notebook? It is strange that an art that values the individual voice could be so engendered with surface-level homogeny.
These days the Moleskine is a sign of a newcomer or a Sunday dabbler or worse: a dilettante. Labeling oneself as the latter would be brave. Rather than the vague optimism of up-and-coming or rising literary star, dilettante suggests superficiality—a non-serious approach to art. The word, though, is rooted in a person who takes delight in things. I see this quality in Jefferson. Though he possessed a deep knowledge of gardening and devoted his retirement to the grounds of Monticello, he enjoyed his work and even the re-writing of his discoveries into his notebooks. There is something here beyond the act of recording or simple posterity. Writing offers a chance to reconstruct the land around us and to create worlds that didn’t exist before. There is delight in me when I have finished a draft of a story. Whether I have situated it in Lhasa or in southwest Virginia, I have tried to locate something true. Perhaps it is the empiricism that I admire in Jefferson. Like a writer, he was unafraid of discovery—a lonely fashioner of meaning, afflicted with a desire to explore and record.
Recently on a Sunday morning in Washington D.C., I was talking to a friend who was planning to write a science fiction epic. A novel, he told me, that will transcend the books I’ve read. I agreed to join him down at the bookstore to talk through the writing process. We met at Politics & Prose and browsed the aisles. We looked over some new releases, discussing the size of advances and the nuances of publishing contracts. At some point the conversation turned to craft and how such an innocuous term is related to literature. I tried to explain that craft is only the beginning, the building blocks of fiction. He shot me a sideways glance, a kind of wounded deer grimace. I thought for a moment about how to encourage him, and I rattled off a series of superlative abstractions: vision, persistence, belief.
I felt cheapened by my regurgitating of the slogans printed on motivational posters. It is as though I had reconstructed the facets it takes to become a writer in a few simple words. I know my advice had been vacuous. Yet he seemed reenergized, and near the register he was giddy when he noticed the rack of Moleskines, and doubly so after I talked of their virtues. Hundreds of black rectangles were sealed with crisp sheets of cellophane. For a few minutes he perused the options dedicated to wine tasting, owning a dog, art appreciation, chocolate connoisseurship, wellness. Though little of the variation related to the processes of writing or indeed fiction, he chose a smaller notebook. So it can fit in my pocket, he explained.
In the basement café, we sat and drank some coffee. We talked about his job at Homeland Security and how he wanted more time to enroll in an online writing class. He needed a structure to aid his learning, deadlines to force him to write. I counseled him, offering him more supportive vagueness: Yes, feedback is always useful. He brought out his Moleskine and ripped off the translucent wrapping. Flipping through the pages, he said, Is this right? The pages were divided into discrete numbered sections. He had purchased a planner. Still, on January 1st he managed to crib some notes on his imagined alien world and its final destruction.
From Jefferson’s garden you can see the sloping top of Montalto. The higher peak rises several hundred feet above Monticello, and it makes sense that Jefferson purchased the land so no one could look down on his estate. Now ramshackle apartments—which were once barns—dot the mountainside. The guide says they are modern and an eyesore and will be removed. The peak will return to how Jefferson saw it. I am not certain how to process the continued obsession at Monticello. This plan is a continued effort to recreate one man’s vision. After Jefferson died, his garden fell into disrepair and was buried by the cumulative detritus of the seasons. The garden was reconstructed in the late 1970s from several archaeological digs and the detailed plans in his notebooks. He had lain out his vision in black-and-white. Unearthing the centuries of shifting soil gave a blueprint, a starting point for the gardens as they are today. As I leave Monticello I make one last stop at his gravesite, where beyond the iron bars that protect the family cemetery lays Jefferson’s marker. Among the tarnished nickels on the marble plinth are coins from all over the world. Whether they have been tossed there for luck or to commemorate him as a president, I am not sure. I write down the detail anyway and head to the car.
Christopher Linforth has recent work published in Whiskey Island, Gargoyle, Swarm, and other journals. He lives and writes in Lexington, Virginia, and he can be found online at christopherlinforth.wordpress.com