Seeing myself through a journalist’s notebook

Aug 12, 2016 05.00PM |

by Glenn Ong

EVERY phase in life can, I think, be summed up in an object: One that encapsulates happy times, hardships endured, or the mundane lull of quiet, uneventful days.

It could be a country flag eraser (if you remember that craze back in primary school), a pair of Goretex boots (if you’re serving the nation), or it could even be something intangible, like a thought, dreadful or otherwise (sleepless nights before the release of A Level results, for one).

For me, the past three months was a notebook.

I’ve wondered (not with fascination, but with frustration) for the longest time the journalist’s obsession with the cumbersome notebook. When conducting interviews, we were told, we should always use a notebook. When writing an article, we must always verify quotes from our notebook. When an editor is conducting a briefing, God forbid you don’t have your notebook. Never die before is it?

“A phone is just as good,” I would think to myself.

Later, I would be humbled by the knowledge that handwritten notes would serve as more credible evidence should somebody decide to challenge your reporting in future. I stopped resisting – there is no greater motivation than knowing it could some day save you from trouble.

Picture my defiance eroding into capitulation: Me waving the plain, immaculate pages of a notebook in the air, resigned and helpless, like a defeated soldier with a white flag of truce.

Thankfully, I managed the past three months without any real trouble. I had joined just two days after the Bukit Batok by-election, and so avoided the ground reporting. The people who would later become my friends weren’t so lucky – the past three months to them can probably be summed up with a warning letter from the police.

I searched my notebook for a defining experience, one that could inspire an answer to the dreaded question we were usually asked as our contract expired: “So, what did you learn?”

The question never came. Heng ah.

But as I sat ruffling through the pages, each one marked by illegible scratches and hasty punctuation, it dawned on me that my notebook isn’t just a log of the interviews I conducted. Neither was it a mere record of editorial briefings.

Objects tell stories. That’s what historians claim.

Indeed, I think the journalist’s notebook is simultaneously a diary, a novel, and a relic of history. Mine told stories in different ways. It was much like a poem, in that it was often abstract and at times undecipherable. But it was also a bit like prose, in that you could make out a rough chronology from cover to cover: Old malls, Vesak Day, 50 Faces, old malls (again?!), train breakdowns, the AGO report.

The notebook reveals traits and eccentricities of its user without stating them explicitly: Mine says I have a fear of approaching and bothering strangers, and that I was afraid of being brushed off whenever I muttered the words “Hi, I am a journalist”.

I drafted brief scripts of how I would introduce myself and broach the topic of the interview; I would steal occasional glances at them in my first few weeks on the job. I would tide through conversations with strangers by writing more words than necessary so I had a reason to look down and minimise awkward eye contact.

Have I grown thicker skin since? I can’t be sure, but at least I grew confident enough to phase out the scripts.

The notebook tells a story of cooperation too, even without reading those belonging to other reporters. You could notice gaps in logic and information, even when assignments were ticked off as completed: How dare one claim to complete “50 Faces” with just ten names? He doesn’t, not on his own. The notebook is a piece of fabric in the patchwork of a newsroom’s publications.

Or perhaps it is better compared to yarn, in its raw and unsewn form. You can make what you will of it, but you don’t have to. The notebook is a treasure trove in and of itself; it bears witness to parts of Singapore you’d never know about if you don’t talk to people you’ve never met.

Above all, I think my notebook tells a story of growth – incomplete and partial – but sufficient for now. It has more than one protagonist; it is growth with and through others.

At least for now, I’ll be putting the notebook away, definitely not for good, but perhaps for the better. Taking its place is a familiar red plastic file, one that I’ve used for the past two years in university.

And so it is: A brand new phase, another object that would tell a different story, or resume an old one where it was left off. I wiped the dust off the file.


Featured image by Sean Chong.

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