On Keeping a Journal
“Here is the diary of a book, and it will be interesting to see how it works out.”
The book here is The Grapes of Wrath—the diarist, John Steinbeck.
“I have tried to keep diaries before,” Steinbeck wrote in 1938 as he began the novel, “but they didn’t work out because of the necessity to be honest.”
My lifelong habit of journaling—and my attempts to be honest while doing so—made “The Diary: Three Centuries of Private Lives” at the Morgan Library & Museum of special interest to me. While in New York City earlier this month, I had the good fortune of visiting the exhibit.
On display were more than 70 journals and diaries: Bob Dylan’s concert tour journal; Albert Einstein’s journal (of equations); John Ruskin’s diary of his chess-playing progress. And Steinbeck’s diary—oversized, almost ledger-like. It was “an attempt to map the actual working days and hours of a novel,” he wrote. “If a day is skipped, it will show glaringly on this record and there will be some reason given for the slip.” It was self-discipline via diary—honesty in the service of efficiency. “This must be a good book,” he wrote. “It simply must.”
Manuscript diary of Albert Einstein (1879–1955), 1922–23. Gift of The Heineman Foundation to The Dannie & Hettie Heineman Collection, 1981. © 1987–present. Princeton University Press and Hebrew University of Jerusalem. (All exhibit photography by Graham Haber, 2010. Images courtesy of The Morgan Library & Museum.)
Manuscript chess diary of John Ruskin (1819-1900), ca.1880’s. Bequest of Helen Gill Viljoen, 1974.
Here are some lines from Charlotte Brontë’s 1836 journal when she taught at Roe Head, an all-girls school: “I now, after a day’s weary wandering, return to this ark which for me floats alone on the face of this world’s desolate and boundless deluge. It is strange. I cannot get used to the on goings that surround me.”
Manuscript diary entry by Charlotte Brontë (1816-1855), in miniscule hand, 1836. Bequest of Helen Stafford Bonnell, 1969. Image courtesy of The Morgan Library & Museum.
While not a diary of a novel’s progress, Brontë seemed to be privately honing her literary voice. It’s easy to hear echoes of Brontë’s Jane Eyre here, her confessional “dear reader,” and the “strangeness” surrounding Rochester and Thornfield Hall.
And then there was Tennessee Williams’ blue-with-white-polka-dotted journal, featuring the lines: “A black day to begin a blue journal.” At the time, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof was a success on Broadway and A Streetcar Named Desire was about to debut in New York. Williams’ career was enviable, and yet his journal is a catalog of melancholy and self-doubt. He was painfully honest in its pages: “Nothing to say except I’m still hanging on,” he wrote. Upon reading that line, I was reminded of Williams’ Blanche DuBois in Streetcar who has “always depended on the kindness of strangers.” A tragic line in the play, I suddenly saw it as desirable—maybe even what Williams wanted. Or I wanted it for him after I read the lines in his journal.
For those of us who journal, it always comes back to “I.” As Joan Didion writes in her essay “On Keeping a Notebook”: “Remember what it was like to be me: that is always the point.”
Illustrated manuscript travel diary by British travelers Mary Ann and Septimus Palairet, 1843. Gift of Arnold Whitridge, 1962.
I started journaling when I was eight. My earliest entries were about overbooked afternoons and looking forward to Fridays when I could “watch television.” (Today, I do not have one.)
My first diary. By “Unfortunately” I meant “Fortunately.”
Ten years later, my friend Jen and I occasionally read aloud our journals’ first lines, which were at once mysterious and revealing, never giving away too much. We had no trouble with honesty in our journals. If anything, we were too honest, verging on overdramatic. Reading our first lines aloud, and hearing how absurd some of our experiences sounded, was the best way to get perspective.
Some of my first lines from that time: “I’ve been scrubbing my favorite dress for the past half-hour—my ‘Juliet dress’ was savagely defiled at Saturday’s Special Dinner.” (There had been a Caligula-themed dinner at the student co-op I lived in—an arranged food fight with 150 people. I still remember the stain on the sleeve. Mustard.)
And this: “I was going to write this morning—at 2:30 a.m., to be exact—but, in retrospect, I think I was too caught up in the whirlwind of consuming emotions that would have surely made for a confusing and emotionally trying entry.”
There it is—that struggle to be honest, the internal conversation played out on paper. Steinbeck professed to failing at diaries due to the “honesty” issue, but it could be that no matter what is written—even when a journaler sets out to be dishonest—an honesty is always there. It is unavoidable. The honesty is implied.
For me, past journal entries encode messages. While journaling, I may have left some (or even many) moments out—but what I did put down is always meaningful.
On some level, I always know I am writing for a future self, the “me” who might one day read the lines with some relief—relief that the time is now past, or even relief that I lived the entry’s elements just once, if only so that I don’t have to live them again later.
Journaling has never been about getting it all down just right. It’s about capturing a mentality at a moment, and either knowing it will pass, or seeing it through. Steinbeck did that when he wrote The Grapes of Wrath; his diary fueled his writing, kept him honest, made sure that his characters breathed. But when it comes to living honestly—to embracing daily sorrows and triumphs, to owning a day, no matter how mundane—writing a few lines in private pages can be the best way to do that. Sometimes, that is all we can ask of our journals, and all we can ask of ourselves.
“The Diary: Three Centuries of Private Lives” is on exhibit at The Morgan Library & Museum in New York City until May 22, 2011. Visit themorgan.org for more information.
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