LONDON, ONTARIO – Of all literary forms, diaries are the most various and numerous. Almost everyone has tried to keep one for at least fifteen minutes and every diarist reinvents the form to fit his or her requirements. I kept mine pretty steadily from about the age of 16 to 35, erratically thereafter, and hardly at all since turning 50. The three main ways that diary-keeping has been helpful for me are in sorting out primary relationships, coming to terms with overarching questions about meaning and existence, and as a sort of literary workshop.
Back in the day, getting dumped was always a major spur for blackening the pages of a journal, as were those times when I seemed to be moving into significant relationships – either romances or deep friendships – with new people in my life who were calling out some hitherto unexpressed capacity. I have long subscribed to the Platonic idea that young people can be utter mysteries to themselves as well as others; not really knowing what they’re about until the right teacher or friend comes along and demands or inspires the expression of previously unsuspected modes of thought.
And over the course of a long relationship, diaries have also served as tools of upkeep and maintenance. During those seasons when my marriage slips into a bit of a trough or a once-stimulating friendship starts to sputter along, I’ve taken up the diary to try to figure out just what it is that I’m not handling very well or am too reticent or conflicted to say out loud with that particular person.
Probably the closest thing I’ve got to that sort of diary going on right now is a chain letter that is circulating among the four Goodden brothers where we’re reflecting on aspects of our upbringing and how, for good or ill, these formed the men we are today. What’s particularly wonderful about engaging in such an exchange with older brothers who were on the scene when I drew my first breath is a) how much we don’t have to explain and set up before we’re all on the same page and b) the three-fold multiplication of primal stories and events that either slipped my mind or I never really took in.
The most consistently committed diary writing of my life occurred when I was in Jungian dream analysis. That entire process is directed by what turns up in your journal and if you haven’t been recording your dreams and the most significant insights and experiences of the past week, then your analyst has nothing to work with. The second most prolific period of diaristic ruminations was when I was trying to figure out if I was prepared to give my life to Christ and what denominational form that giving was going to take.
Nearly all of my journal writing of the last fifteen or so years is of the ‘literary workshop’ variety and happens when I’m experimenting with what I’m writing – sometimes with particularly long or complex articles and more typically when I’m working up fiction or plays. When the narrative isn’t tethered to any actual record of events and can go in any number of directions, it’s very useful to test drive some different possibilities and see what they lead to and how they hold up.
People who claim that diarists are all self-absorbed narcissists have not read many diaries. In my reading experience, at least, very few diarists compose portraits of themselves that could be construed as particularly flattering or heroic. Indeed it is not uncommon for diaries to be undertaken because their authors are bewildered or appalled with themselves, and by charting the day to day flow of their feelings and thoughts, they hope to pinpoint bad habits and weaknesses and make changes.
In his introduction to The Pleasures of Diaries: Four Centuries of Private Writing, Ronald Blythe makes the point that in England at least, the real glory years for diary-writing commenced with the suppression of the Catholic Church when thousands of people suddenly lost regular access to confession and had to come up with an alternative means by which to lay out - not just the deeds they'd committed which they consciously knew to be wrong - but also their deepest and sometimes their dodgiest and most disconcerting musings so as to cast some light upon them and see what they actually signified.
Once you’ve ‘cleared the deck’ with a good confession, the next time you are tempted to recommit some tired old sin, it suddenly stands forth with a wonderful clarity. Do you really want to go down this sad road again? And then go through the humiliation of having to confess it again? Regularly confessing with the same priest who knows something of your background adds a layer of armour to your will in resisting repeat offenses. And so does writing it down in your diary. When your November 19th entry threatens to recount the very same blunder of behaviour or thought as November 18th, you will be sorely tempted to either give up diary writing as a pointless exercise or devise some way to move on or take this dilemma in a different direction.
Jordan Peterson makes the point that we’re threatened by a similar kind of psychic blockage with our current mania for monitoring our public and even our private speech for unacceptable thought-crimes. Diaries, like confession, and like free-ranging speech and conversation, provide an essential opportunity to find out if what we’re thinking or questioning has any value by letting our mind off its leash and putting risky thoughts out there. If it’s manifestly nutty or insupportably poisonous, that will soon enough become evident and then we’ll be compelled to take a different tack. But wouldn’t it be a good thing if we didn’t punish people for admitting what they’re thinking and daring to take such thoughts for a trial run? And how many times have positive breakthroughs been made because somebody had the nerve to say, “Look, I know this may sound really goofy but I’ve been wondering if maybe we could . . . ?”
I used to beat myself up sometimes when I noticed that I was hardly keeping a diary at all when things were chugging along well but I got over that. I know how it might appear – lots of diary-keeping in my teens and 20s, concentrated spurts in my 30s and 40s, and precious little since – it almost sounds like the outline for a story to be entitled The Little Train That Ran Out of Steam. But diary keeping has always been a springboard for me and was never my ultimate goal as a writer. And because of the highly personal slant that I bring to so much of my writing, I’ve already got a public outlet for a lot of material that I might have to work out in diaries if I was a different kind of journalist with a more circumscribed beat.
A retired judge who’s been enjoying this blog commented on how autobiographical it frequently is; how he’s getting a real feel for the particulars and the contours of my life, one installment at a time. “Pepysian Accretions,” he calls them, which strikes me as a perfectly apt term both for the incremental way that diaries grow (one line of reflection naturally leading to another) and the way that accumulation of accretions first taught this aspiring writer how essays and stories and books are developed.
But while I don’t really write diaries anymore, I haven’t lost my appetite for reading them. On those Mondays when I’m not foisting another autobiographical accretion on my readership, Hermaneutics is often devoted to books and I note that in the eleven months since this blog got underway, three of the essays have highlighted the writers of diaries: February 26 on Roy McDonald, August 19 on Amelia Harris and September 4 on Harold Nicolson.
While I do indeed enjoy the many volumes of diaries that have been published by writers who are acclaimed as great novelists and playwrights and journalists – such as the irredeemably bitchy Evelyn Waugh, the courageously quirky Noel Coward, the self-lacerating Malcolm Muggeridge – I reserve pride of place in my affections for that handful of writers we know for nothing but their diaries: Anne Frank, Victor Klemperer, Francis Kilvert and the great original accretion-meister himself, Samuel Pepys. These great souls recorded their musings with no thought of any sort of recompense or audience but only because they wished to better understand themselves, their world and the times in which they lived. The testimonies they left behind are, each in their own way, as distinctive and direct as a hand print on the wall of an ancient cave that declares: “I was here.”
And one final note about diaries. The passage of time does remarkable things to them. I think it’s been about 20 years since I had the nerve to drag my sorry ass through all eight fat volumes of my own. I cringe, I blush, I mutter, “Oh, you poor idiot,” and, “That won’t pan out.” But I also have occasional cause to say, “It took you long enough but good for you for finally figuring that out,” and, “Yes, she’s the one. She’s going to put you through the mill but hang on as if your life depended on it because it does.”
And, believe it or not, the same kind of radical reappraisal can take place when re-reading other people’s diaries. Laid low several Christmases ago with a doozer of a cold, I was allowed to take to my bed for a 72-hour uninterrupted immersion in one of my gifts, a spanking new edition of the diary of Samuel Pepys (1633 – 1703). Though the Folio Society refers to their three-volume edition as a “shorter Pepys” (it clocks in at about 1,000 pages), it was easily three times the length of the further-abridged edition I had read in my mid-20s. That edition had cherry-picked the rowdier and randier bits of Pepys’ chronicle of ten years, presenting him as a roaring, red-faced Toby jug of a man; a loveable hypocrite.
For me, the quintessential page in that earlier reading hailed from September 3, 1666, when we find Pepys out in his yard digging a hole in which to bury his stash of wine and Parmesan cheese to save it from possible immolation as the great fire of London swept closer to his home. In my 20s, that incident seemed farcical and undignified. Perhaps it was the contrast between the awesome scale of the encroaching disaster and this tiny measure taken to preserve a couple of life’s small pleasures. But in my 60s, it seemed eminently practical; the action of a man who recognized the value of a good thing and wished to preserve it if he could.
Much to my surprise, what I encountered in my later reading was a supremely competent man, the son of a tailor and a ‘washmaid’, who rose on his own merits and hard work to the very top echelon of the English civil service and court society. When the diary opens, Pepys is 26 years old and as Clerk of the Acts to the Navy Board, is one of the party dispatched to Holland to bring the exiled King Charles II back to England to reclaim the throne. In addition to providing invaluable first-hand accounts of such world-shaping events as the Restoration and the Great Fire of London, Pepys also gives us a view of unparalleled intimacy of how life was lived in 17th century England.
He was always ready to set his work to one side and give himself fully to the pleasure of the moment whether it was conversing with friends, attending concerts and plays, making his own music or reading. The private library that he assembled over his lifetime was arguably the finest in England and is preserved to this day at Cambridge University’s Magdalene College.
It is, of course, another sort of pleasure that Pepys gave himself to with dismaying frequency that has sealed his popular reputation as a hypocritical buffoon. But what came through to me loud and clear in that fuller, later reading, is how much he loved his wife and how tormented he was by his unfaithfulness to her. And it occurred to me that perhaps he was compensating for that failure in truthfulness – that he was trying like so many great diary writers to redeem himself – by achieving such a rare fidelity in the account he left to us of his life and times.
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