Friday Writing Experiment No. 55: Dear Diaries


Back in December I started to keep a diary again. I’m using Day One, which is a very handy app. It lets me sync entries in the cloud straightaway across my computer, phone and iPad, so it’s easy to update while I’m on the hoof, at my desk, sitting on a train. I can even dictate something while I’m walking the dog. I can also add photos, a record of the temperature, and my geolocation, if I wish, and tag entries, and, e.g., organise specific gardening records as a separate group of entries, and it can even provide prompts if you desire them. I can also set a daily reminder; given it is 10 p.m. right now, this might explain why various entries of late involve Celebrity Big Brother.

(You can read a full review of Day One here.)

One thing that perhaps has halted diary-keeping at other times of my life has been the fact that I made it into too much of a duty: recording everything that I did became a chore. I was always playing catch-up. Now I just let myself add a few lines about whatever: a moment, a sequence of events, an image, a thought. If I forget, I can add something late at night as I’m going to bed – just a couple of lines are sufficient, and sometimes sufficient is all that is necessary, and even preferable.

Sometimes I hear people talk about ‘journaling’, which can seem a bit precious. I want to say that ‘journal’ is not a verb. The process can get a bit self-consciously introspective, particularly when we get lots of ‘thoughts’ and ‘feelings’. Which is fine if that rocks your boat, I guess. But I cringe at the idea of rereading the gutspillings in old journals from, e.g., the year I lived in Albuquerque as an undergraduate, or the era (nay, epoch) of my coming out (eek!). But when I am brave enough to reread, I do find myself surprised from time to time, and wistful about my former self (that person I still am).

In my current diary writing, I’m inspired by an entry from the diary of Audrey Bright (great name!), mother of writer and teacher Elaine Kingett:

Had hair done, Japanese surrendered.

I guess 1945 had plenty to record! And maybe that unconscious mix of the global and the introspective and the everyday is what makes the diary an exciting form. Writing on the fly.

A few further random thinkings.

* Blogging is a contemporary variation on keeping a diary. I guess what is avowedly different about blogging is its public dimension. The public persona we create. But some bloggers achieve great transparency in their blogs, even a confessional quality. I think of the frankness of perception in Bhanu Kapil’s blog, where she (among other things) has shared many of the forays into the writing of her new book Ban En Banlieue, alongside which her blog sits as a sister project.

* The entry that came up when I looked up Bhanu’s blog is, ironically, about losing one of her notebooks. Eek! Guess that is a disadvantage of paper and pen, as I once found out myself when I left one on a British Airways plane that flew us from Denver to London.

* I also think of the Rogue Notebooks (at least 33 of them?!) in which Bhanu created Ban along the way.

* I mostly use it for sharing links to stories I find interesting, but Twitter could be another variation on the form of keeping a diary, though I find that a lot of the content tends towards the, um, reactive rather than observational, and we often encounter a certain, um, unregulated and opining (even hysterical) quality of showing off to some people’s outpourings. Shut up already. (Though maybe some diaries really do amount to opining hysteria more than anything else?! And I guess this is all justifiable expression too. Just don’t be surprised when people unfollow you.) What can be more interesting to me are tweets that follow a more consistent pace, though off hand I’m struggling to come up with someone who’s tweets really feel like a diary – do suggest if you know of someone. I do like the compression of 140 characters, for sure.

* I’m thinking of Bobbie Louise Hawkins’s overheard dialogue exercises, in which we record snatches of overheard dialogue we capture unexpectedly in everyday life and bring them to our fiction workshop every week.

* Alan Bennett’s diaries are very entertaining and insightful. (But then Alan Bennett is very entertaining and insightful.)

* Virginia Woolf’s diaries are fantastic. They have this direct and energetic wit. Though I love the sentences in her novels, I find her diaries (and letters) much more interesting than most of her fiction. However much I try, Clarissa Dalloway, you are a bore. Orlando is more fun, but nothing beats the nuggets about T.S. Eliot coming to dinner in April 1919.

* I guess diaries can enjoy a gossipy quality that is a lot of fun.

* I like thinking about what we call these things we write in. Composition notebooks invite us to compose. Exercise books emphasise the fact that everything is just an exercise, an attempt, and we don’t need to goal ourselves on final-draft excellence – not least as that simply doesn’t exist. Notebooks collect notes, and notes can be as random as what we want. (But feel free to compose in an exercise book, should you prefer.) So: diaries as spaces for composition, exercises, notes.

* I’m thinking of Lynda Barry’s sensational book Syllabus, which describes the diary exercises she tasks her classes with. See the photo above. She adds on a facing page:

Intentionally keeping a daily diary is difficult and usually a drag to write and a drag to read. A more interesting diary of a very different sort will spontaneously show itself if we begin to put bits and pieces of everything that concerns us through the day in one place: the composition notebook.

I love Lynda’s Quick Diary Format, not least as I love its focus on sense events in the outside world, rather than interior musings, and I love lists: seven to ten things that you did; seven to ten things that you saw; something you heard said; a picture of something you saw. To help with this, on the page of a notebook she draws daily diary frames that prompt invite their filling in.


(More on Syllabus and St Lynda another time. This book requires a review. In particular, we need to look at her use of spirals.)

For this week’s writing experiment (or this year’s? this lifetime’s?): start a diary. Go for at least a month, though really it might be good to go for a longer span: a season (three months), a year, maybe longer?

(And okay, this is the end of January, rather than the start of the year. But January is the month of failed resolutions, so maybe February is maybe a better place to begin?)

(And time is an imaginary construct, right, isn’t it?!)

The important part of this exercise: choosing a form, then sticking with it for a block of time. It mustn’t be a drag. It must be as spontaneous and easy and instinctive as possible. Some suggestions:

* Day One: Start using it yourself.

* Buy yourself a composition notebook or an exercise book or decomposition book, and fill it. Maybe, though, give yourself a target: write on a page every day (you don’t even have to fill it), or create your own frames for your own Quick Diary Format.

* As a variation of that: buy yourself an appointment calendar or diary or five-year diary, and fill the inch or so it gives you every day.

* Write a haiku a day. Again, we find that concrete target: seventeen syllables, observations of nature and the seasons – or create your own focus and constraints, e.g., life in Santa Fe, as observed by my friend Mary Kite.

* Instagram a photo a day. (Without the exhibitionist hashtags. Sorry, am being too prescriptive. I just dislike showing off. Do what you want.)

* Maybe don’t do Twitter, unless you’re really good at it. Just saying, though rise to the challenge of the form, e.g., not showing off.

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