The first diary I ever had was a dark red hardcover with a narrow frame of gold embossing. It struck me as being exactly the right size, with one full page for each day, and not too ostentatious. That was tremendously important. I think it was a freebie that my father was given at work. We went through a period of rather good work gifts while I was in my late teens; Scandinavian paper firms sent him whole smoked salmon every Christmas and rather lovely china or glass ornaments. My adolescent stationery fetish was sometimes satisfied by those telephone note pads that ran through a rainbow of coloured pages (I adored them), and then the diaries started arriving. I was sixteen, and on the brink, I was quite sure, of momentous events. It seemed like a good idea to record them.
In fact what actually happened is that I would faithfully write down, every day, a comprehensive and devastatingly tedious account of exactly what I had done. Lessons, phone calls, meals, as if I were simply the secretary to my life. I could not have been duller if I had tried. There was never at attempt at description, nor any inclination towards analysis, there were no frills and no feelings. Saddest of all, I would write all this up in the half hour between five thirty, when I finished my homework, and six o’clock when dinner was served. I never for one moment assumed anything of note would occur in the evening. Astonishing though it is to think of now, I didn’t even record what I’d been reading; it never struck me, in the hopeful egotism of pre-adulthood, that it might be of any interest in later life.
I kept a diary in this manner for several years, but gave up when I went to university. And then there was one more year when a diary tempted me, and that was 1998, the year after I had just come down with viral pneumonia and been extremely ill. The intention was to chart my triumphant return to good health, but instead it was a daily wail of anguish in the form of another tedious and uninspiring list, this time of symptoms. Once again, I didn’t embroider, didn’t explore, and I gave it up in the early autumn out of exasperation and disappointment. It had not done what I had wanted it to do. But what had I wanted? It seems incredible when I think back over my life, so bound up in writing since childhood, that I would never attempt to move beyond factual testimony in a diary. But I never did. My entries were masterpieces of banality, and I have a suspicion that if I were to keep a journal today, I might do exactly the same thing all over again.
I’ve been reading Alexandra Johnson’s brilliant book on journal writing, Leaving A Trace, and this is one of the many writing prompts she suggests. Describe your first diary, she encourages, write down everything you can about it and why you kept it. Then, on the flip side of the page, evade that internal censor and move beyond the well-etched lines of narrative by saying everything that account leaves out. Think of the stories that emanated from the events you recall. Think of the new perceptions that today you bring to the past. Explore which beliefs are not quite true, which are inherited, which are assumed. This struck me as a very clever idea.
When I looked back over the notes I’d jotted down about those early diaries I was conscious of the vivid, sensual, detailed recall I always have of the past. I could bring to mind the exact sensation of sitting in my bedroom (which I will not describe to you for fear of surpassing limits of tedium again), of being sixteen and waiting for something, any old thing, to happen. I have always had a strong and powerful memory and I trusted to it, at sixteen, to dive off the springboard of each plain, lifeless word, and be submerged in all the detail I lacked the skill to convey. But there’s more to it than that. Memory deforms; however good I think my memory is, it is always a portrait of myself looking, colour-washed by the concerns of the present. And I like that; I like the way memory alters, codes, transforms; I like its regal choice of some events, and heartless assassination of other, I find myself captivated by the lure of nostalgia and profoundly disturbed by the emotions of recalled trauma. Memory is a complex process, poorly understood but rich in those swiftly passing glimpses of the real self, rearranging the décor of the past between the acts. It can be a prison guard, locking identity into miserable confinement, but it’s also an artist who, for the right price, can be enticed into trying out a new genre. The emptiness of those diaries was an openness to unpredictability. I didn’t want to suggest how the present would look in the future; I didn’t want to call it, that early on.
But there is also the issue of privacy to contend with. Johnson is very good on it, describing all the tricks she has heard people use to keep their diaries completely secret. Some writers hide them on their computers, locked away with secret passwords, some write in a foreign language. The one I liked best bought dull-looking textbooks and cut the heart out of them, hiding the diary inside riveting tomes like Probate Tax. The exquisite dullness of my journal entries was a way of maintaining perfect privacy. I didn’t want to betray a moment of my teenage emotions on the page. I wanted to remain private, even to myself. Looking back I can see even deeper emotions lurking behind those closed doors: the desire, always fierce with me, to present a tidy façade to the world, to maintain composure by not permitting too much disturbance on the inside. I didn’t want to experience anything I couldn’t admit to in public. I had an ideal of a kind of spiritual and emotional purity that could be mine, but one that could only be maintained, I see now, if I scrupulously avoided any indelicate probing into my state of mind. And so naturally, when I finally found a form of writing that suited me, it was completely bound up with the lives and experiences of others. Other people’s feelings always seemed so much clearer to me than my own, in any case, their life events so much more worthy of comment, so much more resplendent with meaning. It seemed infinitely easier to swallow up someone else’s pre-processed life and ruminate on it, taking it to the next level of analysis on high, clear ground.
Blogging has been a slow but steady process of attrition on my bank-vault mentality. Let’s face it, I tell you people far, far more than I should these days, and probably a lot more than you wish to know. But it is undeniably a fascinating process to me, and I suspect possibly a healthy one, to see whether my own experience can make it onto the page (or screen). Blogging is a bizarre combination of privacy with an audience and it has certainly taken me down writing routes I never expected to travel. And Alexandra Johnson’s book is a wonderful store of exercises and prompts that look extremely tempting. It is possible that some more may make it into the reading room, over time. (Thanks to Frequency of Silence for bringing Johnson to my attention.)