Saturday, 29 June 2013

For My Eyes Only

“I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read on the train.”   Oscar Wilde The Importance of Being Earnest

So I keep a diary. So what? Writers have done since writers first began writing, and there have been posts from Sassies in the past on this very subject. But the last time I visited a school and asked how many children did, only a smattering raised their hands, and this got me thinking.

Why is my diary as important to me today as it was when I was a child? Has its role in my life changed? And why does the diary form in fiction still hold a fascination for us if many of us are no longer keeping our own?

I could not survive without my diary. An inflated claim? I don't think so. I feel bereft if I forget to pack it on holiday: I have to rush out and buy a new notebook immediately – not for the Wildean reason quoted above, I should add. Ever since my teens, the diary has become less a record of things I have done and places I have visited, and more a place in itself; one of refuge, a sanctuary.

At its best it has kept me sane by allowing me to air thoughts and feelings I knew I could share with no one else. And of course it has meant that I can record happy times that are a joy to revisit – and are sometimes an inspiration for fictional writing. At its worst it has been a seething cauldron of secrets and emotions that were certainly much better kept between its covers than held up for public inspection. But even such supposedly negative material benefits from revisiting, if only to remind me that I have been here before, and all things shall pass.

I have no doubt that keeping a diary has also helped me hone the writing that I produce as a published author. Years ago, when my desire to Become A Writer was something that I kept a well-guarded secret, I would scribble away, feeling that this, at least, was writing of a sort. And it was – it was a rehearsal for the day when I would Become A Writer For Real.

We still love to read diaries. There is something irresistible about spying into the confessional. The first fictional diary that I loved, along with many children of the 80s, was The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, aged 13 ¾. Since then I have devoured many more in this genre, from the hilarious Bridget Jones’s Diary to Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s more disturbing The Yellow Wallpaper. More recently I have roared with laughter at Jo Nadin’s Rachel Riley diaries. And I have been entertained and moved by celebrities giving readings from their real-life journals on “My Teenage Diary” on Radio 4.

So is the diary doomed other than in its fictional form? If so, what effect will the loss of the convention of journal-keeping have on future generations? I am not suggesting that anyone will want to read my diaries (indeed, I very much hope that they will not), but those of famous writers, politicians and commentators have given us much in terms of historical insight and human empathy. And then there is possibly the most famous diary of the 20th century: that of a young girl who never lived to tell her story, so her diary had to do it for her. Otto Frank had to steel himself to read his daughter’s private words, as he knew that she had never wanted him to do so, and yet he recognized how important they were for the world to see, and thank God he did.

Will we have to rely on blogs for this in the future? And, assuming anyone will bother to trawl the ether for such material, will blogs really give us the same insight as that of diaries, originally not intended for public perusal?

For a while I wrote a personal blog, lampooning my life and my family. It was not the kindest thing to do, but at the time I found it cathartic and liked the way other people connected with it and commented on it. It was a vastly different exercise from writing a diary though. It was, essentially, an exercise in showing off.

A diary is by its very nature lacking in artifice. In a blog there has to be an element of putting on an act to the world, in the same way we do every time we step out of the front door. My diary is something for my eyes only; something kept hidden between those covers, sometimes even under lock and key.

I hope the convention is not dead. I hope that my children are secretly scribbling away by torchlight, under the duvet. And I hope they never get to read my diary, just as I am sure they would never want me to read theirs!

“For obvious reasons, I never told you about my notebook, with a cover as green as mansions long ago, which I use as a commonplace book, a phrase which here means 'place where I have collected passages from some of the most important books I have read.’”   Lemony SnicketLemony Snicket: The Unauthorized Autobiography


JO said...

I couldn't manage without my diary. I live alone - it's the place where I have the 'you'll never guess what happened today' conversation, the place where I practise what I should have said to the rude man in the post office, the place where I can admit to all those uncomfortable, human feelings that keep us all going. I'll never, ever, show it to anyone - but it matters to me, It feeds my well being. If it is helps my writing - that's a bonus.

Sue Purkiss said...

Enjoyed this thanks! It's a bit tricky to know what to do with a person's diaries once they're gone, though. We have my father-in-law': he made a brief entry every day, sometimes just about what he'd been doing, who he'd met and so on, sometimes more reflective. None of his sons have shown any inclination to read them, and his wife really felt they should have been destroyed - but I can't help feeling that somewhere, deep inside, if you keep a diary you have a faint wish that one day someone might read it and *understand*...?

Daisy Bumpsa said...

It's possible to keep a completely private blog, that no one else can see. I used to keep a diary, but after a partner found it, read it and used it against me, I didn't do it again for 15 years. After a very traumatic break-up recently, I kept two diaries. One a hand-written, very personal diary. The other a public but anonymous blog. The blog was sardonic, sometimes very vicious, but always humorous. It was a lifeline. Although very people knew it was mine, it made me craft a short piece of writing - usually only a paragraph - most days. It was the act of concentrating on making it readable, honest and funny that kept me going, while the private diary was a lifeline in a different way - outpouring for no one else's eyes. Diaries have different functions :-)

A Wilson said...

Daisy, I know what you mean about the blog making you "craft a short piece of writing". I felt that way too, Nd the is a part of me that misses it. Sue, I could not destroy someone else's diary! I think you are right that people do sort of want someone to read it one day. I would be mortified to have been in Daisy's position though. In fact, there are a few of my diaries which I did destroy in my 20s. I. Regret it now....

Penny Dolan said...

Interesting responses. Being of a pessimistic/suspicious nature, I'm more of the "what if X reads this?" mindset re diaries. Daisy's unhappy diary tale is just the sort of thing I dread, so a cross between a diary and a commonplace book suits me at preseent.

When I really need it, I opt for the Julia Cameron 3-morning-pages splurge, and they are definitely not something I'd want anyone else to get hold of.

Laura said...

Something struck me about the way you mentioned the school children who didn't raise their hands when asked if they kept a diary, Anna. We all know it's self-expression's greatest tool, but unfortunately many children today would feel embarrassed saying they keep a diary, and this is why many of them don't start one in the first place. Admitting to keeping a diary in front of school peers can lead to teasing, bullying, isolation and even classmates trying to find the diary so they can read it. Sometimes they're afraid they're being written about, but worrying trends suggest they can't understand the idea that some people need a private place to explore their emotions and write their deepest thoughts.

A Wilson said...

Laura, that's awful! I had never even considered the embarrassment/bullying aspect. How sad.