As readers, we come to diaries seeking answers to the human condition. Who am I? How am I to live? How am I to manage with these burdens, these gifts? We come—with humble intentions perhaps, but with the fervency of voyeurs—eavesdropping on the lives of others. Diaries attract for they allow us, with heartbreaking accuracy, to see inside another naked soul—warts and passions, all—and, in so doing, learn something of ourselves. In reading someone else’s life, we ask: Do you have the answer? Can I use it?
Wisdom. Companionship. Wit. Passion. Human folly. These are the treasures of the diary and our response to them is often immediate and visceral. Nathaniel Hawthorne observes in his journal that, “ . . . All men feel themselves akin, and on terms of intimacy, with those whom they know, or might have known, in books.” So we feel we know William Blake, as he confesses, “Grown old in Love from Seven till Seven times Seven, I oft have wish’d for Hell for ease from Heaven.” Or Robert Frost, as he observes, “Seeking out your own advantage is something to rise to.” Or Dawn Powell, as she casts a cold eye on New York society, “I am still so amazed at the brazenness of people who only remember you when you’ve gone into your fourth printing.”
There is delicious surprise and comfort in discovering that others, even the famous, especially the famous, find life just as difficult and unwieldy as the rest of us do. All the money and talent and fame imaginable have not bought one living soul a ticket out of their worries. There are always love and sex to fret over, and children and family; not to mention the aging body; the flagging spirit; the work never done; the failures and successes; and always, always, there are the bills. For daily drama, diaries have it in spades. And in this era of self-reflection, the diary—the ultimate book of Self—may compel more than ever. So we come, as Edgar Allen Poe once put it, with “heart laid bare,” and, for many of us, we come early.
The diary, mass-produced as a toy, we’ve all seen. From childhood memories, it is a red or white-bound book, with gilt-edged pages and a gold-embossed title: “My First Diary.” It has a clasp lock, a gold key. The toy makers have made the symbols overt: the rich binding and gold connote that recorded life is precious; the lock suggests that what is precious is best kept secret. And what is the secret, if not of life’s essence?
Robert Frost says in his journal, “Culture is to know things at first hand (at the source).” Such is the diarist’s intent. To understand his life, he watches it with the fascination of a meteorologist studying satellite images for signs of weather. No detail is too small or large. Meals eaten, money earned, slights suffered, crops ruined, babies born, marriages ended and begun, conversations, letters, lists, moods, are all duly recorded. And in how many attics across the land is there a dusty, forgotten book that was Aunt Edna’s or Uncle Joe’s loopy-penned confession?
But it is to the diaries of known writers that we turn. What can they teach us? First, we can say (having read hundreds of journals from writers past and present) that the writers here are obsessed with pretty much the same things as everyone else. The difference is that the talented writer brings gifts of discovery, quickening the ordinary, seeing what others overlook.
For many writers, the journal is a laboratory in which theories, anecdotes, lines of dialogue, notes on craft are tested, then later, in the fiction, poetry and plays, refined. The diary is the writer’s vision in raw, and the details he records and how he records them reveal, often with startling candor, his character and heart.
Leo Tolstoy observes in his journal, “Art is a microscope which the artist fixes on the secrets of his soul, and shows to people these secrets which are common to all.”
To write of secrets, one must know; so the diarist prays for inspiration and laments his limitations: “All aggression is directed toward discovering new perceptions,” Jim Harrison writes, “and consequently against yourself when you fail to come up with anything new.”
Failure and success; despair and grief—common themes in the journals. On one particularly bleak day, Tolstoy notes, “I’m doing nothing and thinking about the landlady. Do I have the talent to compare with our modern Russian writers? Decidedly not.” Society, always keeping score, judges the writer—while the writer, witness to the world around him and inside him, judges both. Thus with wrenching acuity, John Cheever confesses, “I dream that a lady, looking at my face, says, ‘I see you’ve been in the competition, but I can’t tell by your face whether or not you’ve won.’ ”
At moments the author’s self-torment turns to envy; rivalry and petty emotions take hold. Jean Cocteau, finding himself slighted in Gide’s published diaries, complains, “Will the monstrous stupidity of [his] Journal never be discovered?” Sylvia Plath is sickened when other poets receive a prize, “Jealous one I am, green-eyed, spite-seething.” Cheever admits to getting the heaves every time he reads a review of a book by Saul Bellow.
But where there’s ugliness in human nature, with it lies the sublime. Henry James’s personal incantations, jotted in a notebook, speak to the artistic soul: “To live in the world of creation—to get into it and stay in it—to frequent it and haunt it—to think intensely and fruitfully—to woo combinations and inspirations into being by a depth and continuity of attention—this is the only thing.”
Whether one succeeds or fails in his lifetime, it is axiomatic that a writer cannot help himself: he must write. Franz Kafka admits that writing for him is a form of prayer. “I won’t give up the diary again. I must hold on here, it is the only place I can.” The diary serves as a repository of burden, a safe haven, an ever-constant friend. It is what thirteen-year-old Anne Frank turns to, as her world ends, as she is locked in an attic from the Jew-hunting Nazis, feeling herself “different” from the family hiding with her: “Yes, there is no doubt that paper is patient and as I don’t intend to show this cardboard-covered notebook bearing the proud name of ‘diary’ to anyone, unless I find a real friend, boy or girl, probably nobody cares. And now I come to the root of the matter, the reason for my starting a diary; it is that I have no such real friend.”
In his journal Andre Gide observes, “Whoever starts out toward the unknown must consent to venture alone.” But not all writers are unhappy for their solitude. Jean Cocteau: “To write is an entertainment I put on for myself.” Donald Hall: “The pleasure of writing is that the mind does not wander, any more than it does in the orgasm—and writing takes longer than orgasm.”
Yet for all the pleasure a writing life brings, the daily rigor and isolation take a toll. It should not be surprising, but somehow it is. Virginia Woolf, the titan diarist of modern times, speaks for many when she summarizes, with remarkable detachment and understatement, the existential struggle that plagues and, ultimately, subsumes her life: “I think the effort to live in two spheres: the novel, and life, is a strain.”
It is just such strain that the diary soothes. As it proceeds from solitude toward communion, the book of self offers readers a timeless conversation between souls. Certain figures, like muses, appear and reappear—Ralph Waldo Emerson, Leo Tolstoy, Andre Gide, Henry James, Virginia Woolf—their words resonating in the pages of diarists who succeed them. It is the diary’s power, its art, to create a community where none exists. F. Scott Fitzgerald, pondering his habits, writes, “When anyone announces to you how little they drink you can be sure it’s a regime they just started.” Humorous, audacious, and true enough, yet consider John Cheever’s response, years later, as he wrestles his demons, “I sit on the terrace reading about the torments of Fitzgerald. I am, he was, one of those men who read the grievous accounts of hard drinking, self-destructive authors, holding a glass of whiskey in our hands, the tears pouring down our cheeks.”
It is usually assumed that literary artists who keep journals intend for them to be read. Posterity leans over the shoulder of the famous novelist; she writes with a sense of her reader, just as the undiscovered poet, dreaming of recognition, addresses the page as though it were an audience. “To record,” F. Scott Fitzgerald remarks, “one must be unwary.” But for some, the idea of being seen is appalling. In her adolescent diary, Beatrix Potter obsesses over her privacy, writing in a complex, coded alphabet of her own invention. Warns she, “No one will ever read this,” and, indeed, years pass before cryptographers unlock the secrets of her journal. Franz Kafka leaves instructions for his friend and literary executor Max Brod to burn the diaries; instead, Brod edits and publishes them, believing the worth of the diaries outweighs the writer’s wishes.
We read for the confession, the revelation, the dramatic scene. And if emotions are what enflame the diary, relationships are the kindling. Where there is sex in the life, in the diary it abounds, be it tender, brutal or comic—what E. M. Forster wryly refers to as “toppings and bottomings.” In his journal, Delmore Schwartz observes, “In petting there is no Mason Dixon line.” William Matthews advises, “The purpose of sex is to get it over with as slowly as possible.” That goes for the diary, too. One thinks of Anaïs Nin, whose succession of lovers, including her father, seems a prolonged auto-erotic act. Anton Chekhov, whose affairs were intermittent, observes: “Women deprived of the company of men pine, men deprived of the company of women become stupid.” And Edward Hoagland, with a veteran’s appreciation, recalls, “If two people are in love, they can sleep on the blade of a knife.”
The diary tracks sex as it tracks everything else, and when passions lead to domesticity, the writer records that too. “Marriage,” Stephen Spender writes, “is an agreement or conspiracy between two people to treat each other as having each the right to be loved absolutely.” Certainly one of the most extensively documented literary marriages is that of the Tolstoys, Leo and Sophia, who kept separate, conflicting diaries throughout their long, stormy union. Sophia writes, “Today he shouted at the top of his lungs that his dearest wish was to leave his family. . . . I long to take my life, my thoughts are so confused. . . . Everyone envies our happiness, and this makes me wonder what makes us happy and what that happiness means.” Years later, Leo will write the famous first words of Anna Karenina: “All happy families are like one another; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
Wary as any prospective spouse, some writers pull up shy. Kafka lists the arguments for and against his marriage: He fears the burden; he wants a wife like his sisters, before whom he always shines. He ends up a bachelor. Sylvia Plath agonizes: Will marriage and childbirth sap her creativity or enhance it? She steels herself for the test and presses on.
The diarist by definition is a chronicler of her time. She considers herself an independent thinker, and conventional values, in the guise of formal education, organized religion, or party politics, are viewed skeptically. “What does education often do?” Henry David Thoreau asks. “It makes a straight-cut ditch of a free, meandering brook.” Lord Byron emphatically states, “I have simplified my politics into an utter detestation of all existing governments . . . riches are power, and poverty is slavery . . . and one sort of establishment is no better, nor worse, for a people than another.” Men’s voices, these, speaking from prerogatives, while women’s leadership and independence are hard won. Susan Griffin turns the issue of power on its head when she wisely counsels, “It is perhaps a choice each of us makes over and over, even many times throughout one day, whether to use knowledge as power or intimacy.”
The best writers are prescient and guide the way for the rest of us. Gerald Early pricks the bubble of political correctness when he writes: “I am personally sick of being a ‘minority,’ sick of seeing meaningless statistics lumping me with Asians, Native Americans, Hispanics, and other folk on the idiotic basis of not being white (why not lump us together on the basis of not being birds or reptiles?). . . . I cannot even recall God naming me man. If He or She did, I have forgotten because it happened so long ago.”
In times of difficulty, the diary provides a certain constancy. The record of one’s life is a testament of survival. “Writing a journal,” observes George Sand, “means that facing your ocean you are afraid to swim across it, so you attempt to drink it drop by drop.” Perhaps by drinking life slowly, one is better able to withstand. On the day Mary Shelley’s infant dies, she keeps to the habit of her journal, recording not only the death but the title of the book she’s reading. Later, she writes, “Stay at home and think of my little dead baby. This is foolish, I suppose; yet whenever I am left alone to my own thoughts, and do not read to divert them, they always come back to the same point—that I was a mother, and am so no longer.”
Eventually, infirmities or age close in, bringing shades of denial and acceptance. Observes H. L. Mencken, “The seat of my office chair, in use for twenty-five years, is wearing out, my office rug is wearing out, and I am wearing out. As the Chinese say, ‘it is later than you think.’ ” May Sarton regards fate with an unsentimental eye: “So let me turn away and toward old age, the Fourth Season as it has been called. How many times lately someone my age or older has said, ’If they told us what it would be like we would have opted out.’ ”
For those who have lived their lives moment by moment on the page, posterity looms and questions remain. How will we be remembered? And what, if anything, will we encounter after death? Our most profound sense is of our own mortality, the breaths and heartbeats that underlie our words and give them truth. We are headed somewhere definite, we have only so much time, and the record of our sayings and doings define us and, after we are gone, stand in our place. So we record the date, make a note, turn the page, and look ahead. Or, sometimes the view is double: forward and back. As Andre Gide notes: “A man’s life is his image. At the hour of death we shall be reflected in the past, and, leaning over the mirror of our acts, our souls will recognize what we are.”