Monthly Archives: August 2019

Self-centered

A personal journal brings the reader completely inside the writer’ s head, taking this process to such an extreme of self-reverberation that the reader can see the world only through the diarist’s eyes and hear nothing but the voice of the diarist talking to itself.

“For those who object to a diary’s being a self-portrait, I suggest that the diarist must be present in his own diary as a barometer, indicator, receptor, thermometer, and echo-sounder, as a compass, commentator, footnoter, reporter, documentarist. His presence there is indispensable” (148). In this passage from her book The Novel of the Future, Anaïs Nin lists numerous metaphors of the diary as a tool or instrument to illustrate how a diary frames its writer’s distinctive way of perceiving the world.

Not just the eyes, but the whole body of sensation is shared with the writer as the reader takes in through the language of the diary a world of heat and cold, tastes and smells, discomforts and delights. The reader partakes of sensory experiences perceived through the lens of the writer’s emotional attitude. The same place or event might be felt by different people as exciting, disgusting, ordinary, unusual, satisfying or frightening—specific language used by the diary writer guides the reader in how to react and respond.

In this way a constructed self or “persona” (original meaning: mask) makes its first appearance, gradually takes on a fuller shape, and proceeds to develop layers of complexity as pages of diary unfold. An initial impression formed by the reader after the first few entries—maybe of giddiness, piety, or lack of imagination—is modified as later entries contradict the attitudes originally expressed.

Maybe the writer encounters new experiences that moderate an earlier attitude, or realization sets in that the writer has slipped up in keeping resolutions articulated at the beginning of the diary. With time a young diarist may gain a more mature viewpoint, an idealist may become disillusioned, or journal-keepers highly critical of others may inadvertently reveal their own hypocrisy.

It’s hard to say which we appreciate more as readers: the blossoming of conscious self-awareness, or an insight that the writer misses entirely, even though it’s clearly evident to whoever reads the diary. When reading fiction we might label this experience either dramatic irony or an unreliable narrator, because we know there’s an author pulling the puppet-strings behind the narrator, in control of the effect. The reader of a diary potentially plays a more central role in creating its meaning—that is, it’s up to us to make sense of what happens on the page. We may fill in what the writer never does see, or bring to the diary our privileged knowledge of what will happen after the final entry was written.

As we look through the eyes of the diary and listen to its voice, we temporarily become that self and follow its entries along a path of continual response and adaptation. The following comment by Eudora Welty in her book On Writing could apply to this feature of journal-keeping: “The frame through which I viewed the world changed too, over time. Greater than scene, I came to see, is situation. Greater than situation is implication. Greater than all of these is a single, entire human being, who will never be confined in any frame.”

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Does your diary need a code?

Nothing signals “keep out” to potential readers more than a cipher, shorthand system, or code. Since the earliest years of the genre, writers have guarded their diaries with barriers—whether on every page, or only in selected entries—by using abbreviation, elements from other languages or alphabets, and symbols.

These codes don’t just make the diary challenging to read; in some cases they may render it invisible. During the Second World War Donald Hill, a British pilot held in a Japanese prisoner of war camp, disguised his diary as a mathematical grid that looked like a multiplication table.

Beatrix Potter, who later wrote the famous “Peter Rabbit” series of children’s books, kept a childhood diary written in a code she invented. In its pages she could record her frustrations with the social restrictions placed upon privileged young girls in Victorian England, without fear that her mother would punish her for expressing such inappropriate views.

Anne Lister, whose bold and rakish life was recently made famous in the “Gentleman Jack” BBC television series, kept a 19th-century diary even more voluminous than that of Samuel Pepys. Lister encoded the diary in what she called her “crypt hand,” a personal cipher based on letters of the Greek alphabet and other symbols. She devised the code in her early teen years to communicate secretly with her first love, a girl she met in boarding school.

Other examples abound. Pepys himself used a secretarial shorthand system to keep his diary safe from casual prying eyes; he added further layers of opacity by translating the more graphic details of his sexual exploits into a school-boyish mélange of Italian, Spanish, and French words. While this move probably wouldn’t do much to hide unfaithful behavior from his (French-born) wife, scholars have speculated that the naughty spice of foreign words may have enhanced Pepys’ own enjoyment of the memories upon re-reading.

Diaries kept entirely in code can prove nearly as cumbersome to generate as to read, and people wishing to conceal a whole diary nowadays have plenty of options for password protection and software encryption to keep the whole thing secret. But even pen-and-paper diarists can boost their level of privacy at special moments with a light touch of coding—perhaps by recounting events in indirect or elliptical language, inserting a symbol, or leaving strategic gaps.

Betty Jane Wylie, in her book Reading Between the Lines, points out that many diaries, especially those kept by women, “have a code of their own—subtle hints, ellipses, or deliberate omissions that force us to speculate or make educated guesses” (p. 26). While it’s relatively easy for the writer herself to recall the full story with help from her diary’s hints, or to fill in the omitted material based on the content of her memories, those readers who are farther away in time and not directly acquainted with the writer may never be able to crack the code.

In this way, the writer restricts a thorough reading of the diary to her own future self and to those close to her, who already know enough to fill in the gaps. As for strangers, only those who care enough to pursue the clues and conduct research will prevail: “Reading between the lines, rereading after other facts are revealed, breaking the diarist’s code, and perceiving other facts or contrary emotions with hindsight or with outside knowledge of her life and times, the reader begins to feel like a detective” (Wylie, 27). Even more, the reader begins to emulate a family member or close friend of the diarist, thus earning the right of access to the diary. (I’m indebted to Kaitlyn Goss-Peirce for this last insight.)

Based on her study of midwestern diaries, Suzanne Bunkers found that when a diary speaks evasively—or even remains silent—about something emotionally charged, like a taboo subject, the writer may in fact be expressing something very difficult in the only way possible. Such evasions and silences constitute “encoding” because they attempt to “transmit a message in an oblique rather than direct manner” (“Midwestern Diaries,” 194): “Indirection, contradiction, deviation, and silences” are paradoxical ways “of breaking silences, that is, of finding ways in which to speak” [italics added].

Arthur Ponsonby in his classic English Diaries (1923) is referring to material censored by an editor when he grumbles that “stars, blanks, initial and dashes are often very annoying and tantalizing to the reader.” The use of symbols, gaps, and abbreviations can also serve the diary’s original writer when they wish to track something in their lives that they prefer not to spell out. They may be summarizing material that honestly means more to the diary-keeper than it would to any future readers and that might be dull to read about in repeated detail, such as the current state of their digestive system, the day’s weather, or how often during a given period they paused to pray. In some cases, readers have nonetheless been intrigued enough to make extensive efforts to devise a legend and find what was hidden behind those encoded marks.

For the contemporary journal-writer the option to encode parts of a diary may offer a useful tool—one that has earned a place in the diary tradition. When an experience, topic, emotion, or relationship feels uncomfortable or even perilous to discuss explicitly, it can still find a place in the diary if noted indirectly, in disguise, or in a fragmentary way. Include just enough information to jog the memory and preserve what matters to the writer’s ongoing life. Ingenious use of codes can minimize the risks of betraying privacy or planting a landmine that others (such as the writer’s descendants) could trip over in the near or distant future.

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Your diary in one word

When journal-keepers try to sum up how their diary works, or what it means to them, they’ll often use a metaphor. If you want to see a book that pops with diary metaphors on almost every page, Alexandra Johnson’s Brief History of Diaries (2011) provides a good starting-point.

From Johnson and other sources, I looked at more than 250 diary metaphors from nearly three centuries of English-language writers. Taken together, most fit into just a handful of categories, and from this pattern an interesting picture of the diary begins to emerge.

To start with, many people think of their diary as a tool—an instrument for observing, measuring, and navigating through life’s experiences. These writers might portray their diary as a camera, a thermometer, a magnifying glass or microscope, a time machine, a compass, or a map.

And what unknown territory do they claim to discover or chart with these instruments? Possibilities include measuring progress toward professional goals, gains in mental health, health and wellness habits, or the spiritual growth of the journal-keeper.

Related to this type of description is the diary as a formal record: a set of data to consult later, perhaps at some point of reckoning that requires evidence or proof. From this perspective the diary may look to its writer like an account ledger, a ship’s log, a witness statement, a field notebook, or an inventory.

An even broader view of the diary describes it as a miscellany: a big comfortable container into which the writer can toss the raw material of life. The writer may hope that while stored inside, the contents will undergo transformation and clarification. In this class of metaphor we find objects like a specimen case, a tote bag, or a storage bin. Virginia Woolf’s famous passage describing her diary as a “deep old desk or capacious hold-all” exemplifies this category, especially as she goes on to say:

I should like to come back, after a year or two, and find that the collection had sorted itself and refined itself and coalesced, as such deposits so mysteriously do, into a mould, transparent enough to reflect the light of our life, and yet steady, tranquil compounds with the aloofness of a work of art. (Woolf, Diary, April 20, 1919)

Beyond gathering and sorting random experience, some people experience their diary as a place to develop skills and produce new work. This type of metaphor may depict the diary as a creative refuge where writers feel free to experiment with style. “For a writer,” Kristine Dugas writes on the first page of her doctoral thesis on Literary Journals, “a journal is a work-space.” Metaphors of the diary as a sketchpad, studio, crucible, workshop, or playing-field convey how they put their diaries to use.

Metaphors describing the diary as an inanimate object like a tool, container, or workroom don’t tell the whole story. The perception of a human presence, a person inside the diary—perhaps seen through a lens, window-frame, or mirror—may strike the journal-keeper even more strongly.

Gail Godwin, in her essay “A Diarist on Diaries” (Antaeus 61, 1988) explains how she has “found many sides of myself in the diaries of others. I would like it if I someday reflect future readers to themselves, provide them with examples, courage, and amusement.”

Parallel to this image of a mirror, writers have compared their diary to a portrait or a shadow of the writing self. These writers may address the diary as their alter ego or companion. The diary develops a personality, often with more freedom to air its views, desires, and attitudes than the writer may feel comfortable expressing outside its pages.

These categories don’t exhaust all the possible diary metaphors. You can devise a unique image that expresses how you see your diary—this is an exercise I’ve sometimes asked students to do.

James Boswell probably wins the prize for the most quirky and unforgettable diary metaphor. In 1783 he published a newspaper column (“On Diary”) in which he tried to persuade readers of the value of keeping a diary.

Boswell worried about the problem that even the most ordinary life offers vastly more experiences than a writer possibly has time to record. “I do not think it possible to [keep a diary],” he acknowledged, “unless one has a peculiar talent for abridging.”

To convey his idea of condensing the multiplicity of life into a concise journal entry, Boswell confided, “I have thought my notes like portable soup, of which a little bit by being dissolved in water will make a good large dish; for their substance by being expanded in words would fill a volume.”

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