marginalia

Marginalia: Journals, Who Are They Written For?

[Read the previous post in this series here.]

Who are journals/diaries written for? Is there always an intended or hoped-for other readership? This question is still often asked, even as, in today’s world of ubiquitous personal blogs and incessant social media posts (which are, clearly, for other readers), the personal diary/journal continues to thrive.

Thomas Mallon, in his A Book of One’s Own, asserted that all journals/diaries are for some other reader(s). That the thought of posterity and someone else reading them after one is gone is evident in the self-conscious, literary flourishes of many famous diarists like Samuel Pepys and Virginia Woolf, or in the explicitly-stated intentions of others like Anaïs Nin or the Goncourt Brothers.

After reading hundreds of diaries in the last several years, I’ve come to feel sure of three things. One is that writing books is too good an idea to be left to authors; another is that almost no one has had an easy life; and the third is that no one ever kept a diary for just himself.

Ronald Blythe, in Pleasures of Diaries, took a somewhat contrarian position that, particularly for those diarists for whom the writing is a compulsive daily activity, it is a manifestation of a neurotic need. That said, he too concurred that, ultimately:

The number of diaries which have been scrupulously kept for the diarist’s eyes alone must be comparatively minute. Lurking in the most private journals is the tremulous thought that, one day, they will get into other hands?

This need to relive, re-create or re-shape one’s own story by writing it down can be driven by sheer egotism or vanity and there are many examples of this. Take the Goncourt brothers, who are remembered more for their ambitious journals than for their novels. They moved in rarefied literary and political circles in a tumultuous France, documenting everything assiduously (for which historians and biographers of the many luminaries who crossed the paths of the Goncourts continue to be thankful). Yet, even these brothers were keenly aware of the transience within their world and, wrote, to capture the unique moments, first and foremost, for themselves:

Everything is unique, nothing happens more than once in a lifetime. The physical pleasure which a certain woman gave you at a certain moment, the exquisite dish which you ate on a certain day – you will never meet either again. Nothing is repeated, and everything is unparalleled.

Or, this need can go beyond callow self-absorption to an enlightened awareness – both of the self and of the world inhabited and experienced. As it did for Virginia Woolf, who always had an unblinking eye on posterity and other readers and used her diaries as a way of staging her professional writing:

What sort of diary should I like mine to be? Something loose-knit and yet not slovenly, so elastic that it will embrace anything, solemn, slight or beautiful, that comes into my mind. I should like it to resemble some deep old desk or capacious hold-all, in which one flings a mass of odds and ends without looking them through. 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. The main requisite, I think, on reading my old volumes, is not to play the part of a censor, but to write as the mood comes or of anything whatever; since I was curious to find how I went for things put in haphazard, and found the significance to lie where I never saw it at the time.

Yet, whether the purpose of the diarist is to capture personal experiences for self-preservation or posterity, to record the inner life, to serve as an outlet for gossip or to gain importance as future historical documents, the very first reader of the journal/diary writer is always himself or herself.

And, there is no denying that, in order for a diarist to sustain their writing for many years as a constant, daily practice, it must bring some private pleasure. Why else would we find diarists describing the most mundane things such as their daily eating habits or the umpteenth sunset? These private and varied pleasures, before any loftier goals vis-à-vis other future readers, make the diaries/journals worth reading and, in many cases, lift them to a literary form.

One of these very private pleasures can be a form of meditation. This was true, for example, of Lady Margaret Hoby, the earliest-known woman diarist in English. Living in Elizabethan times, she did not write with any hope or plan of being published or, indeed, of giving any pleasure to future readers. Her diaries were more as a spiritual exercise, a record of her pious pursuits like prayer, meditation and reading. Yet, a very detailed and accurate picture of women’s lives in those times was documented as a result:

Wednesday 15 August 1599–
In the morning at 6 o’clock I prayed privately: that done, I went to a wife in travail of child, about whom I was busy till 1 o’clock, about which time she being delivered and I having praised God, returned home and betook myself to private prayer two several times upon the occasion: then I writ the most part of an examination or trial of a Christian, framed by Mr Rhodes, in the doing where[of] I again fell to prayer, and after continued writing after 3 o’clock: the Lord made me thankful, who hath heard my prayers and hath not turned his face from me: then I talked with Mrs Brutnell till supper time, and after walked a little into the fields, and so to prayers, and then to bed.

Another private satisfaction is gained from being able to use such private writing as a kind of mirror to look into and perceive the world and one’s self anew and up close, warts and all. This was certainly true for author, Gail Godwin, who has said, of her private journalling:

My journals also allow me to keep track of myself, to trace the repetitions and the back-slidings, the underlying passions and the occasional growth spurts. They’re my way of dressing and undressing the soul, as the poet George Herbert advises us to do. To be a true journal keeper, (true to yourself and your journal, I mean), you have to have a confidential relation to yourself. A diarist divides herself into two. One confides in the other, warns the other, strengthens the other. Once, when I was in love with a very unsuitable man, I decided to write a dialogue between me and God. I said I don’t care, I want him and God said, “Okay, I’ll give you a sneak preview of what life will be with him.” And before I finished writing out the dialogue I was aware of things I had been keeping from myself. I was also laughing.

And, for many, their diaries offer a way to untangle the many confusing threads that weave through one’s life. Here’s British journalist, Simon Akam, in The Paris Review recently, on why he went back and re-read journals written in his younger years.

I was twenty-seven and uncertain of what I wanted to do with my life; I hoped reading my written record might give some better idea.

I’ve been a diarist from the age of thirteen myself, as described earlier. More than anything, my earlier years of writing were for me to get to know my own mind. Living with a large family where thoughts, opinions, and criticisms were expressed freely through every look or word, it was difficult to know just what one’s own mind needed or sought. The hordes of books I consumed back then also added to the internal buzzing confusion. So, the diary/journal became a necessity – a place to work things out for myself quietly, painstakingly and, yes, indulgently.

That said, I destroyed an entire set of volumes at nineteen, and then again at twenty-five). Each time, it was about starting a new phase of life and I thought, naïvely, that destroying the old diaries would help to close those chapters. Now, I know that, once you’ve actually written something down, brooded and mused about it in words and not just thoughts, the experience is even more intense and etched in memory, whether you hang on to the written text or not.

While I don’t often go back and re-read my growing diary collection of twenty-five-plus volumes, whenever I have, it has not at all been like stepping back into the same old past. Rather, it has been like discovering parts of me and my world that I just hadn’t been entirely aware of. And, these discoveries do illuminate the path forward, much like the study of world history often gives us broader contexts within which to view or approach our present and future. So, contrary to the beliefs of many non-diarists, keeping a journal is not about posterity as much as it is about being able to live a better, richer life. Surely this matters more than being remembered after one is gone.

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