A big part of my book research has consisted of purchasing obscure, tattered tomes that have obviously passed through dozens of hands before reaching my global headquarters. One of the delights of obtaining such artifacts is the marginalia they sometimes offer—I just recently discovered, for example, a scribbled note in a discarded library book that read, “Nelly why not?” There is no Nelly mentioned in the printed text, so I can only assume that this mysterious Nelly had a hold on a reader’s heart. (Or maybe he just couldn’t get tickets to a Nelly show back in the early ’00s.)
The Knoxville-based artist Jean Hess obviously shares my interest in these stray shards of daydreams, as evidenced by her awesome collection of what she terms “childhood graffiti.” Here she is trying to explanation the fascination:
Much of what these children left behind spoke of familiar concerns – love and sadness; friendships and crushes; people, flowers, animals and mysterious creatures; homes and even the occasional car, truck or airplane. They have left messages, I think — poignant signifiers of a rather naïve or innocent past that is lost to us. So I am gathering the stuff of nostalgia, longing, and the idea of Eden. And, too, I like to think that this is an act of preservation and hence of respect for people who are now gone.
These doodles resonate because they were created in moments totally devoid of self-consciousness. The artists never intended for another living soul to see their work—these drawings were for them, and them alone. I so often find myself wishing I could achieve that uninhibited state of mind while writing. I’m actually not sure I ever have—or at least not since I scribbled “HOISOI RULES” on my 8th-grade algebra notebook.