Thursday, 17 April 2008

Dear Diary

I like this quotation from Isabel Allende in the current issue of Waterstone's Books Quarterly, where she discusses, on publication of a memoir about her family 'The Sum of Our Days', the problems of writing about your loved ones: 'What I don't write, I forget and then it is as if it never happened: by writing about my life I can live twice.'

This struck a chord with me and it may well do with you. So often, especially when it's not going well, we ask ourselves why we write. There are many answers to that question and they are not mutually exclusive. Therapy, the joy of wordpower, an addiction to hooking the reader with a damn good yarn, fame, money ....

Allende is drawing attention to one of these reasons: when you write, you write for others, certainly, but you write for yourself. You write for the pride you feel, weeks, months, years later when you look at the words you put down on paper - those words, that order - and you realise that no one, not even yourself, could have written that passage that way, the way you did on that particular occasion. You write for attention: look at me, I'm a clever girl! You write because you have a message or you have a grievance or a memory you want to take charge of.

You write because you 'fix' yourself on the page. 'Fix' can mean, in the American way, 'heal'. It can also mean 'preserve'. You recreate and define and make sense, through storytelling, of the messy business of experience, and you say, not just to the world, but to your future self - 'This is how it was. This is how it felt, how it struck me.'

As you know, of late, I have mentioned the fear of Alzheimer's. Pretty much all of my adult life, I've kept a diary. It unnerves my husband, and I don't blame him. It unnerves me. I often wonder what I should do about the ever-increasing piles of books full of my experiences and angsts and attitudes, because the me that's in those pages is rarely a me I particularly like or admire. This is because a diary is a cistern in which to deposit the thoughts and emotions you maybe feel it's necessary to keep from the world. If you can't be honest in a diary, where can you be? I'm talking of course of a diary you truly write for yourself, not one where you keep a weather eye open for an audience. Last night we watched a repeated programme about Kenneth Williams, who was enormously talented and articulate and whose diaries, now in the public arena, were brimful of the vitriol and bitterness that churned within him, of symptoms of physical malaise and the anxiety that created and of an ever-deepening utter hopelessness. Did he leave instructions that, post-mortem, these diaries should be published? What do you do with these daily records of self-castigation, repressed anger, self-pity, petty diurnal routines, references that nobody but yourself will ever 'get' - what do you do with the slow verbal accumulation of a life lived? I don't know - I truly don't. Much of what I've written I would never want anyone to read. Much of what I've written does not reflect who I am now. I remember when I first read Vera Brittain's 'Testament of Youth' how impressed I was that she would quote her own juvenilia, her poems, her diaries, in all their youthful self-importance - this was so honest. In truth, we'd all really like to edit our own lives, so that people can see us in the best light - and, as I've said, a true diary shouldn't edit as it goes: it should record who you are at each transient stage.

I'm also, it has to be said, proud of my diaries. Even when trivial, they mark an achievement - that every day I sit down and put into words how I feel and what has happened. All those words. When my creative writing is struggling, there is always my diary - I have always written something, even if it's only for myself, even though it's such a solipsistic activity. Also, I feel proud when I've managed to describe an event well - just as I would when I write a good scene in a novel. I'm proud, even when I cringe, when I look at something I wrote months or years ago and it is well expressed and it brings back to me an episode or a perception I've since forgotten. Which brings me back to Isabel Allende: writing preserves your life. Writing saves your life. So often these days, when I spend my time in what Jane Austen calls 'a kind of slow bustle', I quite simply forget. I forget what I went upstairs for. I forget if I took two paracetamol or just one. I forget what we did at the weekend, I forget - oh, so much. The diary is my safety net. I need it to reassure me about what and when and how. It gives me discipline and a purpose. And all those volumes may, one day, make such a big bonfire that they'll need carbon offsetting.

Or ...

Algernon: Do you really keep a diary? I'd give anything to look at it. May I?
Cecily: Oh no! You see, it is simply a very young girl's record of her own thoughts and impressions and consequently meant for publication. When it appears in volume form I hope you will order a copy.
Oscar Wilde: The Importance of Being Earnest


Muvva said...

I know just how you feel. I've been keeping a page-a-day A4 diary since 2000. They are full of the most tedious trash and commentary. Yet the little stack does represent an achievement of sorts - mainly in the self-discipline dept, I suspect.

I too have agonised about what to request is done with them should I fall under a bus tomorrow. As yet have come to no firm conclusion.

Lorna F said...

Hi, Muvva - I'm glad I'm not the only one who doesn't know what to do with the things!