April 4, 2017

Writers as Diarists and the Diamonds of the Dustheap

Do you keep a diary or journal? Many writers do.

People seem to use the terms "diary" and journal" interchangeably, but I have always thought of them as different forms. I think of a diary as something done daily and more likely to record events of the day. I myself started writing one when I was in high school and I did try to write every day for awhile. Over the years (I have 12 bound blank-book volumes) it has become more periodic - weekly or even monthly summaries of what has happened in my life and thoughts about those events.

The Brain Pickings blog posted recently about famous writers on keeping a diary and it got me thinking about this practice which I have done for almost fifty years.

Sylvia Plath started writing in a diary at age eleven. Her ten volumes were posthumously edited and published as The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath and she saw her diary as a tool to “warm up” her formal writing.

“You want to write, you need to keep an honest, unpublishable journal that nobody reads, nobody but you,” Madeleine L’Engle counseled in her advice to aspiring writers.

W.H. Auden once described his journal as “a discipline for [his] laziness and lack of observation.”

Virginia Woolf says in A Writer’s Diary that the value of journaling is in granting us unfiltered access to the rough gems of our own minds, ordinarily dismissed by the self-censorship of “formal” writing. Although she thinks that "The habit of writing thus for my own eye only is good practice. It loosens the ligaments. Never mind the misses and the stumbles." I appreciate that she also notes that "this diary writing does not count as writing, since I have just re-read my year’s diary and am much struck by the rapid haphazard gallop at which it swings along, sometimes indeed jerking almost intolerably over the cobbles."

I think that some writers take their diary too seriously. The want it to sound polished, as if it will be read by their biographers one day. Reading my journals from high school, I was definitely writing with the idea of a future reader - a wife, my children? I included explanations for things that I didn't need explanations of (though those may come in handy in old age!).

The journals written after I had children became much more personal. they would probably read to others as being written in a a kind of code in parts. No explanations.

Should it be written quickly and without the self-censorship of overthinking? Woolf would probably not like my slower journaling. She says that "if it were not written rather faster than the fastest type-writing, if I stopped and took thought, it would never be written at all; and the advantage of the method is that it sweeps up accidentally several stray matters which I should exclude if I hesitated, but which are the diamonds of the dustheap."

I do scribble the thoughts quickly (and my handwriting suffers). I don't revise. I never use material from my journals for poems or other more formal writing.

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