Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Bartlett and Me

By Augusta Scattergood

Don’t all writers have one? A journal, a 3X5 box, a plain manila folder covered in coffee stains, maybe a document on the computer’s desktop? A place we stuff our favorite quotations, ready to insert one into a piece of writing or just reread for inspiration?

My quotation collection spills out from a leather-bound journal, its beginning inscribed with care, the last pages degenerating to a collected hodgepodge. I copy words heard on the radio. I pencil in favorite passages from books. I rip pages, willy-nilly, from magazines, everything from the New Yorker to Oprah.

My earliest collecting bears the date of July, 1957, summer camp in the mountains of Mentone, Alabama, when I meticulously copied snappy words and lyrics into my green Penney diary. If I listen hard enough, I can still hear one song as it was played and replayed that year on WMCT radio. My best friend and I rested on top bunks in our screened-in cabin and sang together: “When I was just a little girl, with long and pretty curls. My mother told me honey, you’ve got more than other girls. You may not be good looking but you’ll soon wear diamond clips...” 

I had no curls. It was a very long time before I wore a diamond of any shape. But, hey, a girl could dream. So I wrote in that diary and dreamed.

Years later, as a newly-minted school librarian, I sat in a 4th grade classroom one late September afternoon, listening to a bored, overworked educator report in, and my attention went right to the corkboard closest to me. I copied the words in strong, black ink, block letters: It isn’t easy having a true-false mind in a multiple choice world. And at that instant, I made that quote mine.

I still have that slip of notebook paper tucked into my quotation book.

In 1983, we relocated to New Jersey. Moving was a harrowing, lonesome, unrecoverable experience. Perhaps dislocated better fits what happened to me. Friendless in an unknown part of the country, when I took a wrong turn on the way to the supermarket or spent long days writing letters to old friends, I felt I’d never fit in.

I adjusted so well that now I hardly remember copying these quotations:

What’s worse, though, is saying goodbye – being at a stage when you are anxious to get to the next one and you don’t really realize it’s goodbye. How many people have been lost to me that way.
Laurie Colwin, Goodbye without Leaving. Recorded in my journal 6/84

And this journal entry from March, 1992, ten years into my life in New Jersey:
Dislocation can knock you off balance. If you’re in the wrong place, you can’t live your life right.
Jon Hassler, North of Hope.

It took a long time to love New Jersey.

Eventually I was guided through the maze of new friends, new restaurants, and new situations by quotes from Miss Piggy (“Eating in places with live plants in their windows is always good”) and Maurice Sendak (“There must be more to life than having everything”).

In 2003, as we were moving again, South, I recorded this, from Rick Bragg’s All Over But the Shoutin’:
Someday…some Yankee photographer will drive past, see it as quaint, and put a picture of it on a coffee table book. That’s where a big part of the Old South is, on coffee tables in Greenwich Village.

I love quotes from Southerners. This appeared on the announcement sign at a country church on a dirt road outside a small North Carolina town. Sandwiched between the starting times for Wednesday night Prayer Meetings and summer Bible School was this good advice:
If God is your co-pilot, then swap seats.

Once while driving through the Missisisppi Delta on a hot July morning, a retired farmer told me to notice the fields speeding by. “They say if you can hide a rabbit in the cotton by the 4th of July, you’ve got a good crop.”

That’s the kind of good information that needs filing away for a story. After all, the great Eudora Welty warns writers “Don’t ever have the moon in the wrong part of the sky.” We need to get those details right, and how else will we remember if we don’t write it down.

Now if only I could find a place for this favorite, from Charlotte:

We don’t want Zuckerman to think Wilbur is crunchy. He might start thinking about bacon.


Anonymous said...

I love quotes. I've been collecting them forever and have at least two shoeboxes full at this stage. That said, I don't tend to collect useful quotes that can be easily integrated into narrative. I collect ideas that can help form personalities. Thanks for sharing this post.

JLC said...

I've saved a lot fewer than you have, but I doubt I could figure out more than one title in ten without Bartlett! Loved this column.

Augusta Scattergood said...

Thanks, fellow collectors. I appreciate your comments!