Category Archives: Outcomes

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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127 diaries

Beginning on a sixteenth birthday, the books of many colors, shapes and sizes accumulate for over three and a half decades. While the set of books may have a few, always telling, gaps—the last semester of high school and first semester of college have no entries, nor does the whole first year of a particularly grueling professional term—for the most part, the diary steadily tracks a life from teenage years across the full arc of family and career.

Its handwriting starts out with squarish loopy cursive letters, then shifts at age 18 to compact, legible printing reminiscent of laboratory notebooks. At times the color of ink is coded to the writer’s state of mind—dark blue for a creative mood, green to explore a change, red for heightened alert, brown for domestic routines—and at times the facing page fills with related notes, quotations, dream accounts, or taped-in mementos.

Many of the books reserve a blank page at the beginning, as if anticipating the addition of a title page. Blank pages appear at the end of many volumes too, giving the impression of a writer who wants to preserve space for additional writing—as if she might find herself locked up somewhere with nothing but these journals, needing to continue to write.

When I dip into the journals, I experience vivid fragments of “what it felt like to be me,” as Joan Didion puts it in her brilliant essay “On Keeping a Notebook.” But I have never sat down and read them all from beginning to the present—a project that could take weeks, or even longer. When a volume ends, I put it on the shelf. But some part of me has always planned to return. Why else keep them? Will someone want to read them in the future? Someone other than the older self of the diarist?

Of all the vast array of books on how to keep a diary, few consider what eventually happens to all those completed volumes. Alexandra Johnson wrote Keeping A Trace, which offers advice for looking back through one’s diary to identify running motifs, patterns, and story arcs that the writer couldn’t yet have perceived at the time of writing. She discusses the diary as a source of insight and material for other writing projects.

Diaries even play a role in history. Historians’ work relies on letters and diaries, not just to record big events, but to reconstruct daily life among ordinary people. Working with 19th-century diaries in a library archive, deciphering their tiny, spiky script to find out what the diarists thought and felt, I sometimes wonder if I’ll bequeath my diaries to an archive, to serve as a record of everyday experience and observations from the late 20th century and beyond.

What to do with 127 volumes of a diary? Currently, the three long rows of variegated books fill the shelves in an upstairs bedroom closet. As the hand-printed lettering—all in blue ink, this latest time—spirals into the last pages of Volume 125, I have the next two blank books standing by, ready to fill. A lifelong habit of diary-keeping ripens into a Journals Project. I have preliminary ideas about what this project may involve, and I’ll write about them in future posts. The first stage involves reflecting and exploring possible directions. Just like the open-ended process of keeping a diary.

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