Diarists comprise a special breed. One must have a unique fascination with herself, with life, memory, the passage of time and her own handwriting to be a disciplined diarist. On some level, the diary habit gets established like any other, through consistent repetition until not doing it feels wrong. Like flossing. But one must have the desire to achieve such repetition in the first place. Most people don’t. Especially these days.
A few years ago I saw a William Haefeli cartoon in the The New Yorker, in which a mother and her adolescent daughter were sitting next to each other in an attic. The mother held an open diary in her hand and covered a smile with the other as she read its pages. The daughter’s mouth was slightly open, speaking the cartoon’s caption: “What was the point of writing a blog that nobody else could read?”
The answer’s in the question, of course. If someone else could read it, we wouldn’t have written it. At least not in the same way, unfettered by our efforts to please (entertain, disturb) others. The internet has burdened many of us with the compulsion to constantly share ourselves with a remarkably large audience. Social media in particular has totally changed how we relate to our own experience. The people, activities, images, information, and thoughts that fill out a given day are all subject to exploitation, to mass dissemination. Has the internet turned us all into narcissists with an incessant, shameless need for attention and validation, or were we always like this and just lacked the platform?
Facebook, Instagram, etc. appeal to what is perhaps our deepest, most persistent urge as a species: the urge to connect with other humans, to feel seen by them, even loved by them. But social media sites only meet this need on a superficial level and sometimes even increase our disconnection because so much of what people share there isn’t authentic. The self-imposed distance between ourselves and others (and our Selves) widens more and more because, to quote Eric Hoffer, “you can never get enough of what you don’t really want.”
What we really want is to be accepted wholly for who we are. To feel like there’s nothing wrong with us, nothing we have to hide. We want to be honest and unafraid and recognized as exceptional, because we are exceptional. We want to say how we feel, while we’re feeling it — and not to prove a point or brandish some bluster because we’re bored at a deep down soul level, but because we thrive most when our outsides resonate with our insides.
Revolutionary family therapist Virginia Satir said in her book Peoplemaking that whatever is happening in a family can — and should — be talked about in a family. But so rarely is that the case. Most of us grow up learning on an implicit, nervous system level that secrets are essential for survival.
A diary can call bullshit. Its blank pages embody the urge for authenticity at the core of all of us. We might be resigned to a life of hiding from other people, but we refuse to hide from ourselves, to squander what we know deep down is our most sacred relationship. Even if it’s only happening on an unconscious level, this is the conviction that drives a dedicated diarist to write. She is in love with her own experience and knows that no one else ever has or ever will see how she sees or feel exactly how she feels.
The sacredness of my grandmother’s diaries in particular is doubly profound. Not only are they the documents of a person’s real life and how she saw things and felt things. Not only are they proof that she deeply cared about life and all its details. But they were also the epiphenomenon of her passion for writing — perhaps her greatest passion, second only to authentic human interaction. Even when she stopped writing about herself, Grammy still filled many spiral notebooks with her handwriting, copying passages from books. I can only deduce that she felt most comfortable with a pen in her hand. Whether the words it formed were her own or someone else’s, that hand was going to write.
My father seems to have inherited some version of this compulsion. When I think of him, I tend to picture him with pen in hand doing one of three things: underlining and bracketing important sentences in a medical journal; keeping score (meticulous columns) in a game of cards or Scrabble; or writing in his diary. He hasn’t missed a day in the latter since 1986, making him even more prolific than his mother. She’d only written daily about her life for less than a decade, and even then she’d missed some days.
When Dad picked up the diary habit, he was unaware that his mother had ever kept one herself. He wouldn’t learn about that until after her death. When I recently asked him why he’d started keeping a diary, he shrugged. No particular reason. But when I pointed out that 1986 was the year he and Mom separated, he tilted his head. I could almost hear the distant bells of recognition ringing inside it.
That year had been, I think, the worst of his life. But also perhaps the best because, though leaving me and my sister killed him, he was also leaving a toxic marriage, and entering into a relationship with the woman who would become my step-mom. The woman he loved. I imagine all the opposites happening at once had a frazzling effect on my father’s nervous system and he needed some way to slow it all down, make sense of it, remind himself of what was really happening. And maybe that’s why he bought that first notebook and wrote that first entry.
Whatever his original reasons were, he’s never looked back.
My father’s diary is a well-known entity to anyone who knows him well. Phrases like “that’s going in the diary” and “it’s in the diary” (should he need to prove the validity of a given memory) sound comfortingly familiar to his nearest and dearest. On vacations with family and close friends, Dad writes in small bursts throughout the day, leaving his diary out on end tables and countertops without a care for prying eyes. I’ve never been tempted to pick it up myself. And if I were, I’d see little more than The Facts: names, places, activities. He calls it “reporting the news.” I would not see descriptions of light through trees, the overheard singing of a neighbor, nor the smell of sweet summer blossoms. Few emotions would be conveyed, few thoughts recorded. And yet my dad’s diaries are nonetheless tangible proof that he loves his life and wants to remember it.
He wants others to remember it, too.A few months ago, over pizza and wine, Dad said that he’d like for me to inherit his diaries when he dies, because he knows that I will do something with them. He likes the idea of other people reading about his life — especially his adventures. I myself have kept a diary or journal for twenty-three years (with a hiatus here and there) and would also like my words to persist long after my body does.
But many life writers cringe at the thought of their words being read one day. For all I know, Grammy was one of them. But my hunch is that she’s in the same camp as I am, as Dad is. I doubt she would have kept all those notebooks all those years if she didn’t think they’d outlive her — if she didn’t want someone, somewhere and sometime, to know who she really was. Or at least to know how she really felt on a given day, in a given moment. We mustn’t confuse the two.