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Thursday, 11 March 2010

Dear Diary


2010-A4-Diary I’ve never kept a diary. I’ve owned several. It was not an uncommon present when I was young but they were little appointment diaries, three days to a page and not much room for anything. Once I’d written in the family’s various birthdays and anniversaries there never seemed to be much use for the damn thing. I did try once to record what I did during the day – got up, went to school, came home, had my dinner, watched TV, went to bed – but all that underlined was the mundanity of my existence. I never thought to pass comment or judgement on anything that was happening in the world let alone in my life. I couldn’t affect any of it so why bother wasting time moaning about it? Consequently the diaries ended up in drawers, thence to bins and onward to landfills. I couldn’t tell you the last time I owned a diary of any kind. I think I was offered one in my last job and refused it. I mean, what would I have recorded – got up, went to work, came home, had my dinner, worked some more, watched TV, went to bed – that would have been worth recording?

pepys_walk The first diarist I ever heard of, and this is probably true of most people in the UK at least, is Samuel Pepys. Here’s an entry:

Saturday 5 September 1666

At the office all the morning, thinking at noon to have been taken home, and my wife (according to appointment yesterday), by my Lord Bruncker, to dinner and then to a play, but he had forgot it, at which I was glad, being glad of avoiding the occasion of inviting him again, and being forced to invite his doxy, Mrs. Williams. So home, and took a small snap of victuals, and away, with my wife, to the Duke’s house, and there saw “Mustapha,” a most excellent play for words and design as ever I did see. I had seen it before but forgot it, so it was wholly new to me, which is the pleasure of my not committing these things to my memory. Home, and a little to the office, and then to bed, where I lay with much pain in my head most of the night, and very unquiet, partly by my drinking before I went out too great a draught of sack, and partly my eyes being still very sore.

You know, once you get down to brass tacks, it’s not that different to what I might have written: went to work, had my dinner, saw a play, worked a bit more, went to bed. I know there’s more to his diaries. He lived during turbulent times and so as a historical document many of his entries are of interest but his reason for writing was far more personal. Pepys' vanity is usually given as the reason for his need to write a diary. Being proud of his achievements, writing down events involving him gave him great pleasure; re-reading even more so. That reminds me of the famous quote by Oscar Wilde:

I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read. – The Importance of Being Earnest, Act 2

I’m not actually sure Wilde kept a diary.

Apart from never having kept a diary I’ve also never read anyone’s diary. Growing up no one I knew kept a diary for me to peek at apart from my friend Tom. His mum used to read his so he used to write weird and upsetting things for her to read. I have no doubt that if I’d kept one my mum would have read mine which was another good reason not to keep one. Diaries aside, as a boy I never actually committed any private thoughts to paper in case someone found them and, even when I started writing poetry, much of which was autobiographical, I was still cautious.

When I first heard the term ‘blog’ it was described to me as ‘an online diary’ which you could leave open for all and sundry to read or keep private. For about a minute I considered the latter option, maybe a minute and a half, and then decided against it. By this time there was actually stuff happening in my life. I’d recently been divorced and was meeting lots of interesting women online; I had a fun job training people and my students had become a proxy family. There were lots of things happening and then there was all the stuff that had happened. And yet I didn’t write about it. I’ve never written about it. It never seemed appropriate subject matter. Writing about myself felt self-indulgent, egotistical. Cherry-picking bits from my life to use in poems, stories and eventually novels was perfectly acceptable but writing about what I was doing and how I felt about it seemed a waste.

Looking back, now that my memory is failing me, I have to say I do regret somewhat not recording my thoughts and feelings – I still remember the events – but I continue to find myself shying away from starting any kind of personal writing project.

Lis H photo My friend, Elisabeth Hanscombe, recently posted a delightful self-portrait and suggested, even simply as an exercise and for no one’s eyes other than my own, that I attempt something similar. I’ve thought about it quite a bit since trying out lines in my head but I find I can’t. My big problem is precision. I find it exceedingly hard to say exactly how I feel. But what are you doing just now, Jim? I know, but I use a rather broad brush when I’m writing a blog even a personal one like this. As long as you get the gist then I’m happy. I still consider blogs as throwaways. All my other writing gets backed up, printed out, numbered even (certainly as far as the poetry goes) and basically cherished but not the blogs. If my service provider died a death then so would all these hundreds of thousands of words. I’ve already lost millions of words in e-mails, all gone, read and forgotten.

The closest thing I have to a diary are my poems, over a thousand of the things stretching back forty years just about. I can remember quite a bit about the circumstances surrounding each poem. No one else would. So they’re really in a kind of code, a code that’s utterly dependent on my ability to remember and, as I’ve said, the memory is fading faster than I ever anticipated; in fact I never ever pictured not being able to remember things. I expected my sight to go, my teeth to fall out, my hair to turn grey and all the other things one normally associates with aging but I never thought I wouldn’t be able to remember things. And yet I still haven’t started a diary or any other kind of journal.

Kenneth Willimas Most diaries never get read. If you’re Kenneth Williams or Michael Palin and have lived much of your life in the public domain then, yes, people are interested but only because of who you are and the things you get to do because of who you are. No one’s going to phone me up from the BBC and ask me to go off gallivanting around the world with a camera crew. So the only things that people are ever going to read of mine are the things I can get published in the broadest sense. And even then people will only continue to read me if I’m interesting, if I keep their attention, which is why I keep myself out of my blog for the most part because I don’t have a very interesting life. In fact it’s downright boring – most people’s lives are if we’re being totally honest.

The impulse to keep a diary is to actual diaries as the impulse to go on a diet is to actual slimness. Most of us do wish that we were slim diarists. It’s not that we imagine that we would be happier if we kept a diary; we imagine that we would be better—that diarising is a natural, healthy thing, a sign of vigour and purpose, a statement, about life, that we care, and that non-diarising or, worse, failed diarising is a confession of moral inertia, an acknowledgment, even, of the ultimate pointlessness of one’s being in the world. – Louis Menard, ‘Woke Up This Morning’, The New Yorker, January 6th, 2010

Boring is only a part of it. I find when I start to write about myself, to peel back the layers of the onion as it were, that I find myself groping for words to adequately describe how I feel, not simply about myself (but writing about myself is the hardest) but also about the world about me. I think about myself all the time – who doesn’t? – and I suppose that’s evidence that I at least find myself endlessly fascinating but who is to say that anyone else would? But let’s just, for the moment, say that I do have a wee potential audience out there, expressing accurately what I’m thinking or feeling has always been a problem for me. I can describe my characters in vague terms and let my readers fill in the blanks and make them their own – I expect them to do that – but you can’t do that with me. Of course you all have done. We all do.

I say that Elisabeth Hanscombe is my friend but the fact is that she’s a woman in Australia that I’ve never met, never spoken to and have only exchanged a few e-mails with. And yet I like to think about her as a friend because there really isn’t a suitable word to accurately describe our relationship. The word ‘e-friend’ has been kicking around for a while but I don’t know about you but I find it slightly offensive; it’s a sub-category of friendship. The fact is that I have very few true friends in the real world. I know a lot of people but I have always regarded friendship as something to be earned; you drop everything when your friend needs you, you put up with crap from your friends because they’re your friends, you trust your friends and expect them to trust you. It’s a word that should signify something and yet it gets chucked around as if it’s nothing and I think that’s wrong. I’m sure Lis thinks of me as a friend. I’m sure if we lived closer we’d meet for coffee and talk about meaningless stuff rather than feeling that everything we write online has to mean something.

I don’t like writing unless what I’m writing means something. There should be a point to it. I never set out just to write. And I edit constantly. I don’t see a diary as something one edits. The whole point is to capture the moment. Nothing you’ve ever read by me has that rawness. Even this, by the time you get to it, with has been worked on over several days, picked at, tweaked and polished . . . and then passed to my wife to edit and if she thinks I’m revealing too much then out it goes.

In his article in The New Yorker, from which I’ve already quoted, Louis Menard proposes three theories as to why people keep diaries:

ego-id The ego theory holds that maintaining a diary demands a level of vanity and self-importance that is simply too great for most people to sustain for long periods of time.

The id theory, on the other hand, states that people use diaries to record wishes and desires that they need to keep secret and to list failures and disappointments that they cannot admit publicly have given them pain.

And the superego theory, of course, is the theory that diaries are really written for the eyes of others.

Am I vain? Orwell thought we were:

All writers are vain, selfish and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives lies a mystery. Writing a book is a long, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand. – Why I Write

but I don’t think I am. Self-conscious, yes, without a doubt but not vain so much. As I’ve admitted I do use my own life experiences in my writing but I’m not really interested in me as much as the experiences are things that everyone can relate to. What’s the point writing something that no one bar you can relate to? Which probably means that I always have some future reader other than myself in the back of my mind no matter what I’m writing.

As for documenting my heart’s secret desires or responding to the googlies that life’s tossed at me, the former seems pointless – I don’t even try and fulfil these vicariously through my fictional characters –the latter does find its way into poems usually and often after a long gestation period. That’s something diaries don’t allow you, time to think, enough time to think; maybe I’m just a very slow thinker.

My daughter used to keep a journal, a handwritten one, but I’ve never read it. I used to buy her nice books to use or maybe I bought her a book to use. (See, if I’d kept a diary I could look that up.) After a while she moved onto an online blog and then as far as I’m aware it all dried up. I think a lot of that had to do with her life becoming a lot more settled so that all she has left to do is write: got up, went to work, had dinner, studied for uni, went to bed and so on and so forth.

Palin Diaries I’ve never bought the diary of any famous person. I did have a copy of Michael Palin Diaries 1969-1979: The Python Years in my hand once. I just thought: 700 pages, I’ll never read 700 pages, and considering the fact that I bought The Pythons’ Autobiography by the Pythons when it came out and only ever looked at the pictures I thought that was a wise choice. I also found a copy of The Kenneth Williams Diaries in a charity shop once and still didn’t buy it not even for reference. I’m not sure whose diaries I would buy. Larkin’s aren’t available since he instructed that they be burnt after his death. I might’ve forked out a few quid to read them. Or maybe not. Williams’ diaries from all accounts are more about self-loathing than vanity, a preoccupation with the self but not necessarily a healthy one; Larkin’s may well have been the same. I do know that whenever I’ve thought about writing about myself I always start off with my negative qualities which is perhaps why I’ve never got very far down that road.

I’ll tell you one diary that I did like the look of. I saw it in a gallery in Edinburgh maybe twenty years ago. It was a photo-diary, one self-portrait a day for 365 days all taken with a Kodak Instamatic. Well, 364 days since she fessed up to forgetting one day. I wanted to admire her honesty admitting to that but then the cynic in me thought she might have done it deliberately – dodgy buggers them artists.

If you are a diarist then all power to you. Please don’t think I’m having a go at you. I actually think I’m a little jealous if I’m being honest but I’ve tried to avoid this kind of honesty as best I can up till now so I don’t think I want to go there. Not today anyway.

If you are interested in reading the diary entries of complete strangers you might want to have a trawl through this free online diary site from which I have extracted the following entries to conclude on:

courtneyisme’s profile:

I shall remain nameless, ageless and genderless. I'm a figure skater, 5 7", grade 9 and recently gained 12 pounds, making me a lardo of 122. I usually write my food from the day in an actual paper journal, but fear of my mother finding it, and it being easier writing it on this online diary, I have switched to this.

I think Courtney may be a girl.

Right now im tutoring. School was dumb, but when is it not? Did I mention that I love my phone? I love being able to use the internet on it lololo. The kid itutor just ran to the bathroom. Hes so dumb I cant stand it. Dumb people irritate me so much. Im feeling better right now. I hope the anger doesnt come back. The only thing om worried about is that im letting him off too easily....

5th January 2010 – Jane

I haven't got any things to write. Today was just like any day. No free periods. And I have lots to study. I hope I'll study better today.

4th January 2010 – Alia (not her real name)

I'm at work now. I am REALLY REALLY REALLY fed up of working here. My co-workers are assholes. My boss is A MONSTER! I don't know what's keeping me here. Actually I do know. I still have to finish my Psychology diploma, and the last 2 exams of Piano. I'm just so lazy. I need to get off my ass and start doing something... else I'm going to be stuck here forever - THE HORROR!!!

16th September 2009 – Angel

I viewed the front of Stacey’s house on google earth and am almost sorry I did. I feel almost as hurt and as jealous as I am wowed by it. It’s a fucking gorgeous house! Totally my dream house. It had a really cool odd shape and split levels. It wasn’t a square or a rectangle. It was probably 2000 square feet or more. Most of the houses there are nice, and while I’m sure car stereos and barking dogs are a problem there, it’s just so not fair! What, was I not a big enough bitch (she was so like my mother was) to deserve to be in such a nice place for so long and without the money problems attached to it? Ok, so maybe it was a different Stacey, but I doubt it.

7th October 2008 – Jodi


Kass said...

I know you're going to be so famous one day that anything you ever scribbled will be worth scads of money so I'm printing out all your posts and emails and disabling blogspot with a virus so I have the only copies.

I've kept diaries and it's like keeping diarrhea - so disgusting.

Jim Murdoch said...

Oh, Kass! Disgusting. Mind you that reminds me of one of my most favourite words: logorrhoea.

Kass said...

...exactly the reason I no longer keep a diary. I just didn't know there was a word to describe it. Thank you.

Ani Smith said...

I like diaries though I've never kept a consistent one.

Please don't hate me or be offended but I do think you are a little vain. :)

It's OK though, I am a lot. Lots of people are a lot. I think it's evolutionary and therefore forgivable.

Art Durkee said...

For me the difference between a diary and a journal is that a diary is a record of daily, often mundane events; a journal is something you record things worth recording, which means probably not every day. I've kept a journal since 1980, but I've never kept a diary. I can't think anyone would possibly be interested in the boring events of my daily life. I've never thought so. I keep a journal to record things that I want to remember, or work out, or vent about, or work into something more substantial later. Nothing more than that.

Making a journal online is not much different. (Typing for me is faster than handwriting, although I still hand write a journal, especially when on the road.) Making it public is no big deal, because hardly anyone reads these things anyway. I mean, I think I probably have less than a dozen regular readers and commenters; out of possible millions. I've kept a periodic online journal for about 5 years now. I've kept a blog, which I don't regard as a journal, but as a gathering-place for finished pieces rather, a bit less than that.

It's funny. But I don't really have much interest in or use for diaries.

Jim Murdoch said...

I suppose it depends on how you define ‘vain’, Ani. To my mind a vain person thinks too much of themselves; I simple think too much about myself. Big difference.

As I get older, Art, I do occasionally regret not having kept a record of more things but only occasionally. I think a lot more than I write. I know I’ve defined a writer as someone whose natural response to events is to write about them and I guess that’s why I always feel like a bit of a fake because I don’t write nearly enough.

Elisabeth said...

Well Jim, I'm thoroughly flattered - my name in your blog entry on diaries, and my picture. Wow. It tickles my egocentricity no end.

It’s good to read your take on the humble diary. Now you might care to read some serious diary stuff in a wonderful article on the diary by the famous - at least to those who study autobiographical theory and yes there is such a thing – Phillippe le Jeune. ‘How do Diaries End’ in Biography 24.1 (Winter 2001)

It’s a great read, and deals with the fact that diaries end with death when the diarist does not (usually) get a chance to say goodbye in his diary but dies mid page as it were.

The truth is that diaries can be as much constructed as fiction, though not all are.

I couldn’t be bothered with a diary that simply records events. To me a diary does so much more. It works on an exploration of the internal world linked to external events and people associated with the diarist.

For anyone who’d like to read the article by Le Jeune I’ll send it to Jim via email. I don’t think I can put it up on line without breaching copyright.

Thanks, Jim, a post after my own heart and yes, I am a real person and delighted to rate as your friend.

Sorlil said...

I love reading famous folk's diaries. Last year I picked up, in a second-hand book shop, a book comprised of paragragh quotes from famous people's diaries, a couple to read for every day of the year! Plath's diaries are my favourite, of course. I like getting inside the heads of writers and politicians particularly.

Jim Murdoch said...

I think in my head there's a clear distinction between fact and fiction, Lis, at least as far as intent goes. Were I to write I diary my intent would be to record the facts as accurately as possible and as far as ‘facts’ go I would include subjective feelings, a record of how I felt at the time even taking into account that those feelings are likely to be modified over time.

I also get rewriting history. I understand what Murnane does. He’s not presenting it as a diary though. We’ve all taken events from our lives and grafted them into works of fiction but since they’re now out of context to my mind the events now become fiction because it’s fictional characters that are going through the motions that you went through.

I see no point in writing a diary that’s not faithful to the truth.

Thanks for the article. I will get to it. I’m a bit caught up in an analysis of the poetry of R S Thomas at the moment (harder than I expected) and I’m falling behind on other things. It’s on my desktop and I will get to it.

And, Sorlil, I’m not sure I’d go for a book of excerpts. I think diary entries would make more sense in context. I would be wary of reading the diary of a politician though who’s thinking about publication as he or she is writing the thing. Alan Bennett’s diary entries are always entertaining but they still feel like official statements.

Rachel Fenton said...

I laughed about Pepys - very true - but don't think I've read a diary by any other writer. I always associate diaries with noting birthdays and appointments and I know of one or two people who note down their daily events but I don't have the inclination for that - or the organisation. I have a diary - to tell me where to go or what to do on various dates when I make short notice arrangements - but I don't know where I've put it.

Jim Murdoch said...

I'm sure Pepys will have had more interesting things to say than that, Rachel, I was just lucky to stumble upon such a wonderfully banal entry. I think organisation is a key word here too, the feeling that I have to sit down at the end of a day and write something meaningful about it. Even where the events have been significant ones I'm not sure that writing there and then is the best time, you're too close to events to be objective which is probably the point but if I'm that effected I'm more likely to write a poem than anything else.

Dave King said...

I often, when reading your posts, feel we are almost like parallel lines, but never more so than reading this one.

Like you, I have never kept a diary. Indeed, never wanted to and never thought about doing so.

Like you I have never read one, either a private one or a published one - except the odd fictitious diary in a novel etc.

Like you, with increasing memory problems I tend to regret that I never kept one.

And like you I do regard y poems (some of them) as a sort of diary, though most of them were written long after the events referred to.

An interesting post that has set my mind back running on some well worn tracks.

Jim Murdoch said...

I had actually forgotten about novels written as diaries, Dave. I must have read one or two of those over the years but I can't think of one off the top of my head. Glad to see we're in sync on all the rest.

Ken Armstrong said...

Enjoyed this Jim. I'm not a diarist either, tried it for a little while but I found I was killing myself trying to keep it entertaining. :)

Two points, I have reread Kenneth Williams diaries a number of times and find it a fascinating read, I can't honestly say why.

Finally, I *implore* you to find some painless way to back up your blog posts. This is a valuable resource and blogs do go belly-up. Save the drafts or something, there's a lot of you in here, like it or lump it, and that's worth preserving.

I mean it. :)

Jim Murdoch said...

Okay, okay, Ken, the blog has been archived. You can be such a nag.

Conda V. Douglas said...

Jim--I agree that most diaries are...boring at best. Including mine, as I've only written a diary when I've had time...lots of time. Better than watching milk curdle, I suppose, but when my life is interesting I don't have time.

And there's been some fear that the famous of today will leave nothing for their biographers because it's all now electronic.

Jim Murdoch said...

Two good points, Conda. When we have a life being too busy living it to write about it and when we’ve the time to write there’s nothing happening. I’ve just finished a couple of posts about Alan Bennett who has just donated his entire archive of papers to the Bodleian Library. Boxes and boxes of the stuff. My archive would probably fill a shoe box, okay a fairly big shoe box, but a shoe box nevertheless.

Poet in Residence said...

When Casanova sat down, through sheer boredom, in Castle Dux (near Prague, CZ) to write his 3,000 page memoir he observed that he hadn't conducted himself during his life with a view to writing (in effect a diary) of his life. And so we are blessed.

I hadn't given much thought to diary writing, and have never kept diary, and can't understand why people do so. It strikes me that such people must go round all day with the subconscious or even conscious thought that they must do something 'interesting today' so that they can put it in their diary. Orwell's diaries, (there's a link to them in my A-Z Links) are pretty mundane, and speak mostly of his chickens' new laid eggs and his vegetable plot...or at least they did last time I looked. You wouldn't think there was a war on, by George!

Jim Murdoch said...

There’s a perfectly good reason for ordinary people keeping a record of the ordinary things they do, Poet in Residence, because how else will future generation knows what life was like for the common man. It’s like the recent TV play, Housewife, 49, by Victoria Wood based on the wartime diaries of Nella Last. As Victoria Wood says, "This is not the war of the newsreels - it's about tiny domestic difficulties, chilly church halls, lumpy custards. And Nella is fighting her own war, one that she hopes will end in liberation."

I forgot about this when I wrote this post. It’s a shame I did because it’s a good case for why what’s mundane to us could be precious to someone else.

Poet in Residence said...

I thought of that afterwards too!
But then I thought, well they write letters, or they used to. Letters I like. I like Dylan Thomas's, invariably on the cadge, "please send me a pound Vernon" (or whoever). But we don't write letters anymore. So I suppose diaries will now have a renaissance. In that case, all well and good. But I still won't read them. Or write them. Although I do seem to remember reading The Secret Diary of Adrian Somebody aged 14 and something sometime in the dimand distant.
All the best,

Jennifer said...

I still have some of my middle school diaries, which perhaps I should burn, but they are a reminder of the unformed (and idiotic) person that I was. There was one entry that I was going to post in the blog, but not for its insightful content. It's just funny.

I also used to read my mother's diaries, or maybe journals is a better word here. Sometimes I -- and, if memory serves she -- need to write to figure out what's going on in my head. It isn't a record of my day or the fabulous meals I've created or anything like that, it's a semi-organized brain dump. There is value in that for me, but mainly I just blog now. And it becomes a structured thing, something totally different.

Jim Murdoch said...

I understand totally, Jennifer, and that’s what a great many of my poems are, me working something out which is why, when I’ve found the answer the poem provides I’m done with them. I almost never sit and read through my own stuff except when I’m preparing a submission. They’ve done their job. Life’s too short to waste time going over our workings to see if we’ve done our sums right. There are plenty of other problems that need solving now.

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