I love the careful refinement and precision of a good manuscript. But sometimes, when I’m not attending to submissions or screening essays for publication, I just want to lie back, relax, and read someone else’s diary.
“Why do we read a writer’s journal?” Susan Sontag asks in her 1962 essay, “The Artist as Exemplary Sufferer.” Is it, she continues, “because it illuminates his books? Often it does not.”
More likely, Sontag says, we read a writer’s journal “simply because of the rawness of the journal form, even when it is written with an eye to future publication. Here we read the writer in the first person; we encounter the ego behind the masks of ego in an author’s works. No degree of intimacy in a novel can supply this.”
In a recent review of Sontag’s published journals, Rachel Luban suggests that Sontag always expected the eventual publication of her own notebooks and wrote in anticipation of being read. Luban says, “Given [Sontag’s] ambitions, she must have hoped they might one day reach a wider audience. Reading them, we are always looking at Sontag looking at us looking at her.”
Sure, the published diaries of famous writers and thinkers tend to be nearly as mediated and filtered as the worked-over essays and polished manuscripts we receive as submissions at IR. I get that. After all, the thinker is always several degrees from her own thoughts, as language comes with mediation, and some might say there is no thinking without language, and so no original thoughts at all, really, and on and on. Even so, I draw palpable joy from suspending this critical lens and allowing myself to believe that I am getting unfiltered glimpses into the evening reveries of diarists like Kafka, Kierkegaard, Plath, or Thoreau. And maybe what excites my immature sensibilities most of all is the chance to witness, as confidant, the vulnerabilities of these artists.
So I prefer to just let myself believe that the text really is raw, as I match up, say, one of Emily Dickinson’s letters with a journal entry marked with the same date by Henry David Thoreau. I examine the coupling for cosmic patterns—some nationwide (or universal, depending on which writers I’ve paired) vibrations or celestial effects that were in play that day. I read them against each other and I read them, too, against my own diary entries (ignoring the misalignment of the calendar years); I observe how the milieu of a month or a season might color an entry’s prose. What is it about late October? What is it about the last few days of spring?
I also find published journals to be invaluable for their less filtered, less moderated advice and counsel. After all, don’t a lot of us reach for our private notebooks when we have come to some kind of epiphany? Don’t forget this lesson, we think, write it down. Fiction writer Charles Baxter has said that the rampant integration of epiphanies into contemporary American short fiction is responsible for cheapening the whole genre and spawning a glut of formulaic stories. Whether or not Baxter is right, there’s no risk of spoiling or cheapening your private diary with a written epiphany. And there’s no need to situate your epiphany skillfully within a narrative if you’re just recording it in a journal for self-edification. Journals offer a unique medium for brilliant writers to deliver their (relatively) unembellished insights, without expending any energy to fashion those insights into polished works or art.
If you’re looking to Sontag’s journals for an expanded understanding of her critical work, you might find, as Luban notes, “it’s not that satisfying to see the runty infancy of ideas that later become mature essays.” But I love Sontag’s journals specifically for these (relatively) unadorned epiphanies. When I read someone’s diary, I feel like I am letting them learn important lessons for me; I get the final thoughts and reflections without having to endure all the hardships and mistakes, the embarrassment and suffering, that illumed them. Maybe these lessons don’t have the same staying power as the ones that take entire essays (or novels) and prolonged empathy on the part of the reader to develop and unfold, but I love these gems anyway for their directness and inattention to refinement. Sontag’s own journals communicate an abundance of raw-ish wisdom and invaluable advice—especially for writers and artists.
Maria Popova of brainpickings.org, who always seems to be one step ahead of me (and the rest of the Internet) in unearthing literary treasures, has curated a small sampling of writerly advice from Sontag’s diaries. Here are just a few of my favorites. Sontag writes:
If only I could feel about sex as I do about writing! That I’m the vehicle, the medium, the instrument of some force beyond myself.
Greatest subject: self seeking to transcend itself (Middlemarch, War and Peace)
Looking for self-transcendence (or metamorphosis) — the cloud of unknowing that allows perfect expressiveness (a secular myth for this)
(undated loose sheets, 1965)
In ‘life,’ I don’t want to be reduced to my work. In ‘work,’ I don’t want to be reduced to my life.
My work is too austere
My life is a brutal anecdote
To be a great writer:
know everything about adjectives and punctuation (rhythm)
have moral intelligence — which creates true authority in a writer
If you do a search for the tag, “diaries,” on Popova’s website, you’ll find selected insights and creative counsel from the diaries of Henry David Thoreau, Anais Nin, Frida Kahlo, Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf, and others.
Wisdom and epiphanies aside, my interest in published diaries is inspired just as much by petty voyeurism, a longing for emotional intimacy with strangers, and, also, plain old craving for entertainment.