This past weekend, a friend and I met up at Unnameable Books in Brooklyn. Waiting in line, I saw one of the guys at the register carefully peel the price sticker off a small orange thing and then give said small orange thing to his colleague. It was a Rhodia 3 x 4 graph pad. When I asked him if the store carried them, he said no, that he had just gotten one for him. (Even though they don’t sell Rhodia products, you should stop by their store on 600 Vanderbilt Avenue if you’re in town because they are great people with great taste, obviously.) The No. 11 really is the perfect check-out counter notepad—it hardly takes up any space, but it’s easy to find (thanks to the bright orange cover), and it has just enough room in its pages for quick math, reminders, phone numbers, and on-the-fly notes.
My friend and I left the store and realized we had both secretly bought the other a book. I got him Gilead by Marilynne Robinson and he got me A Manual for Cleaning Women: Selected Stories by Lucia Berlin. Berlin lived many lives, battled alcohol addiction, and worked odd jobs until her 40s, which was around the time she started getting her books published and teaching. (I hope this is heartening for people comparing themselves to their published contemporaries, especially during NaNoWriMo…) While she had a modest, admiring readership during her lifetime, it wasn’t until 2015, when FSG published A Manual for Cleaning Women, that Berlin’s work garnered financial success.
Her stories are quiet, strange, grounded in the wonder of everyday things. The introduction to the collection is written by Lydia Davis, a writer I love and highly recommend if you’re into the things listed in the previous sentence. Davis’s love for Berlin’s stories is undeniable and the reason why my friend thought I’d love them, too.
Coincidentally, I came across the New York Times review of Lydia Davis’s latest collection yesterday. She, just as fortuitously, mentions Lucia Berlin in an essay about notebooks and revising. Davis writes,
“[Berlin] was always watching, even if only out the window […] A writer’s embrace of the world is all the more evident when she sees the ordinary along with the extraordinary, the commonplace or the ugly along with the beautiful.”
If you’re hitting a wall, whether creative or emotional (or both), maybe it’s time to get on a train or bus with a notebook, and just look out the window, notice the patterns. As Davis writes in the aforementioned essay, “maybe the notebook is a place to practice not only writing but also thinking.”
There’s something life-affirming about noticing these small coincidences, about how some things just come full circle. Make sure to be open to them—and write them all down when you can.