As a child, I regularly resolved each new year that this year I would keep one, but every year my enthusiasm for the diary had more or less petered out by the end of January. Partly it was because I was too busy living my life — New Year in Australia is the beginning of the long summer holidays, which meant for me, many happy hours at the beach and no thoughts of writing. But also, I thought to do it properly, I had to write in it every day, so once I missed a day, a backlog immediately started to mount up. (Yes, the dark side of perfectionism was in evidence even then.)
The other thing was, I was never quite sure who I was writing it for. Was it for myself? And if so, why bother writing it all down? I had a memory for that, didn't I? (Remember, I was a child.) Or was I aiming to write something that would be of interest to future generations, like Samuel Pepys, or Anne Frank?Yes, the Anne Frank of my small country town, sitting in the box room, reflecting on my everyday world in a way that might be of interest to historians of the future. I knew quite a bit about dogs. What else?
It was a fairly daunting prospect — what did I have to say? How did I know what might be interesting? What sort of detail should I include?
A friend of mine's grandfather kept a diary every day of his life for years. He never shared it, and for years the family speculated on what he noted in it so diligently every night at the kitchen table.
After his death they read it; it contained a detailed description of everything he ate— this kind of thing, for instance. "Breakfast, porridge, scorched through Ada's inattention. Dinner, mutton chops a little tough, beans, mashed potatoes, roly poly pudding and custard." Riveting stuff. Well, the roly poly pudding might be — it's yummy. Here's a pic on the left.
The only variation was Sunday, which included a tally of the numbers of people who attended the service, and bizarrely, the number of women wearing hats. I say bizarrely, because my own grandfather used to tell us how many hats there were in church as well. It's either a generational thing — a Grandfatherly Habit — or else a standard way of whiling away a boring service.
Anyway, the diary was a huge disappointment to his grandchildren, who were hoping for something a bit more juicy than the Sunday roast. And hats.
So I wondered whether my diary should be something incredibly personal and meaningful to me. I remember when I was about thirteen starting a journal that was chock-full of teenage angst — heartfelt and dramatic outpourings of all sorts. After about three weeks it was such an embarrassing and incriminating document —what if someone read it? I'd simply die of agony!—that I had no alternative but to burn it. Destroy the evidence.
I don't really know why I persisted so long as a serial failed diarist. But I felt I ought to be able to do it. Other friends kept diaries from one end of the year to the next, so why couldn't I?
(I wish someone back then had suggested to me I write stories instead, but no-one ever did, and the idea — as far as I can remember— never occurred to me. Stories came from books or were told by old people about when they were young. I dreamed them up all the time, but they were just for me, and I never wrote them down. Or if I did, I've forgotten. Because we moved a lot, most of my things were thrown out — only Teddy and a few beloved books survived all the moves. Nothing so flimsy as a story on paper.)
Then in 2007, I listened to Eric Maisel speak at the NINC (Novelists Inc) conference, and he suggested it was A Very Good Thing for a writer to keep a writing diary, so they could look back on their process and reflect on it. That way you could a) understand your process better and b) improve it.
In this journal, I reflect on my writing — though rarely, I have to say, when it's going well. In fact there are some bits where I'm reminded of those teenage outpourings of angst. And often it's not about the writing but about various aspects of my life. But I'm talking to me, working things out, and not thinking of any audience other than myself. And the extraordinary thing to me is, is I've kept this journal, more or less continuously since March, 2007.
Has it helped me in the process of writing? I have to say it has. There are times when I'm in a dark place with the current book and I'm totally convinced it's never going to work, that I'll have to give the advance back and what was I ever doing, thinking I could make this idea work? Or even be a writer.
So I read back over some old entries, and I find parts where I've felt much the same for every book I've written since I started keeping the journal. Ok, so this is part of my process. And I read over how I felt then, and what I did then, and I come away reassured that I can make this book work, that if I keep working and thinking, the solution will come to me. And though so many of the entries verge on teenage angst revisited, they end up reassuring me. In fact, I love my journals. But they're nothing I would ever share. Ever!
And that thought got me thinking about the various diaries and letters that have been burned over the years — Byron's memoirs, burned after his death, and in opposition of his will, by his friend and publisher, John Murray, who presumably thought the public would be so scandalized by the memoirs that it would irretrievably damage Byron's reputation — and John Murray's sales.
On the left is a painting of Byron in Albanian costume; on the right is a photo of John Murray's descendant, also called John Murray, standing in front of the fireplace where the memoirs were burned, over which hangs a portrait of Byron.
What the world lost that day.
And the letters of Jane Austen that her sister Cassandra burned and censored, and those her great-niece also destroyed. I'm ambivalent about those decisions — the reader and historian in me is appalled at the wanton destruction of those priceless letters. The person who keeps a very personal journal (see admission of embarrassing and incriminating outpourings of angst, above) heartily sympathizes with the protection of a person's privacy.
As a writer, I love reading old diaries and journals and collections of letters. In fact when I started writing this, I was going to write about some I've used in the research for my books, but I'm looking down the barrel of a deadline and don't have the time to look up the references I want to quote from, so I'll save that topic for another day.
So, what about you — do you keep a journal or diary? If so, for how long? And do you Count Hats, List Vegetables or something more interesting? And if not, are you a failed serial diarist like I was, or have you never been interested? What do you think of the burning of Byron's memoirs and Jane Austen's letters? Would it make a difference to you what the person's wishes were? Do you like reading other people's journals? Have you ever sneaked a peek at someone's diary? What happened?