Monday, March 16, 2015

The value of keeping a diary

Of late, I've been prompted to think about diaries for quite a number of reasons.  The most obvious prompt is my work with Virginia Woolf's 5 volumes of diaries.  There we find not only accounts of her rich and busy social life, but of her reaction to historical events.  Although politics had seldom come into her diaries, once Hitler began reshaping Germany's priorities and making his appalling radio speeches, she and Leonard listened intently, and the politics of Europe--along with her plan to challenge those politics by continuing to write--became a central topic of her diary.  

Her diaries are also invaluable to the literary scholar, for there we can see the seeds of each of her major works:  how they begin to take root, how they go on smoothly or become, like The Pargiters (which would, after a great deal of agonizing work, become The Years and Three Guineas) recalcitrant.  She writes with such awareness of the hopes she has for her evolving work, which often begins, as Jacob's Room did, with little more than a mood. As soon as “Mrs Dalloway” “branched into a book” she knew, more or less what it was to be about:  “I adumbrate here a study of insanity & suicide:  the world seen by the sane & the insane side by side—something like that” (Diary 2: 8 October, 1922; 207).  The following June, she would enlarge on this purpose:  “I want to give life & death, sanity & insanity; I want to criticise the social system, & show it at work, at its most intense” (Diary 2: June 19, 1923; 248).  Yet having a clear vision of her novel’s content didn’t preclude concerns about its form, its design.  In August, she was triumphant about one of her discoveries:  “how I dig out beautiful caves behind my characters; I think that gives exactly what I want; humanity, humour, depth.  The idea is that the caves shall connect, & each comes to daylight at the present moment (Diary 2: 29 August 1923; 262).  

But thinking only of their use to a literary scholar is a bit backwards, it seems to me.  What use did they serve her as she sat down, quite regularly, to write in books she often bound herself after a long day's work and a late afternoon tea?  Perhaps for an answer to this, we might go to her earliest diary, published as Passionate Apprentice:  The Early Journals.  I have only recently come to these because they weren't, honestly, of much use to the "literary scholar," except when L.S. gets toward the end of her research and realizes that before she sends her manuscript off to McGill-Queen's University Press she had better do her due diligence.  I read them while I'm waiting for doctor's appointments or when I'm sitting in the back yard minding the little water pump that we're using to keep the water from continuing to flood into the basement yet again.  

Woolf began her first diary in one of those little books designed for diaries--so much room per day encouraging you to fill it up or to be more economical with your words--when she was fifteen.  I don't think we know who gave her the book or why, but she had just recovered from the struggle with insanity that followed her mother's death when she was twelve, and perhaps someone wise thought that keeping a diary would give a structure to her day or a place for reflection.  Certainly she found a "form" for her daily record, which often began by recording a morning walk with her sister Vanessa or with her father on those mornings when Vanessa went to her art classes.  It is very easy to be critical of her doctors for what they didn't know or understand about mental illness in 1894, but the advice to get exercise--four hours a day--was sound, as it still is.  Then would be recorded the day's errands and activities, ending with what she's reading and a brief note of reaction to it, which frequently closed the day's record.  It is astounding how much she read at the age of 15, much of it heavy-duty nonfiction like Carlyle's French Revolution or Froude's 8-volume History of England, or "my beloved Macauley," also author of a multi-volumed history of England.  Many of these entries end with the phrase "Gave back X, got Y," as if her father is the keeper of a lending library, though in truth he was undoubtedly ensuring that she wasn't taxing her vulnerable brain.  Novels were kept for nighttime reading--the Brontes, Sir Walter Scott, George Eliot, as well as the now largely forgotten authors of "middlebrow fiction."  Woolf's step-sister, Stella, died that year shortly after being married and after a lengthy and puzzling illness.  Woolf's entries during Stella's illness and after her death continue, though they often become very brief. At the end of the year she concludes that "Life is a hard business--one needs a rhinirocerous [sic] skin -- & that one has not got" (132). But she also writes on January 1 of the following year "Here is a volume of fairly acute life (the first really lived year of my life) ended locked & put away" (134).  There are all kinds of reasons she might see this as her first really lived year, but I would suggest that keeping a diary and engaging in the self-consciousness that act required is one of them.

The person who suggested that she keep a diary or who gave her the little volume was as smart as Dr. Savage, who recommended exercise.  There is actually a robust literature about the benefits of keeping a diary.  As Tara Parker-Pope wrote in The New York Times on January 19, 2015, "Studies have shown that writing about oneself and personal experiences can improve mood disorders, help reduce symptoms among cancer patients, improve a person’s health after a heart attack, reduce doctor visits and even boost memory."  This research focuses on the way in which our diaries give us an occasion to reconceive ourselves.  For example, students who were struggling at Duke University were introduced to narratives of senior students who had felt as helpless as they did; then they were encouraged to write, and perhaps rewrite, the narrative of their own experience.  As Parker-Pope writes, "In the short term, the students who had undergone the story-changing intervention got better grades on a sample test. But the long-term results were the most impressive. Students who had been prompted to change their personal stories improved their grade-point averages and were less likely to drop out over the next year than the students who received no information."  But how do these occasions for expressive writing (of which diary writing is a subset) differ from the Facebook status updates where we share our latest find among the plethora of wise sayings that have proliferated all over our culture--on cards, pillows, coffee mugs and "happiness pennants" (available for $99) and so affirm something important about ourselves, our worth, our values?  (More about happiness pennants et al in a future post--complete with photographs.)

My wise friend Katherine says that when we sit down to purposefully write, particularly when it's with a pen in a physical journal, we slow ourselves down, our reflections become deeper, and we can access what Daniel Kahnemann calls our System 2 thinking, which goes beyond the easy, the comfortable, and the intuitive, which forces us to think of counter-examples and to do reality checks. It is very easy for us, partly because we are so busy and partly because of the way our brains are organized, to ignore evidence that doesn't support our biases, and so to avoid the uncomfortable untruth about ourselves.  Under the influence of early "feminists" like Virginia Woolf and Anais Nin (hence the quotation marks), I've kept a diary for years and years (many now mouldering in my damp basement).  During my divorce in 1986, my diary did yeoman's service--with a caveat.  Because I realized that Veronica could some day read them, ranting about my ex-husband was right out.  Instead, this became a place for puzzling out my experience and attempting to understand what had happened, how I felt, and to mold the person I wanted to become.

The other thing that has prompted me to think about diaries is the state of my own since last spring, when I effectively retired.  Somehow it seemed to devolve into a record of things done:  chapters finished, poems started, books read.  Or else it was a record of Sheba's medical treatment and of all the things I did to try to change her inclination to retreat and hide.  In the first instance, I think I was constructing the new narrative, creating the momentum that would allow me to honestly say "I retired to write (and see, I'm doing it)."  In the second case, after Sheba's death and the ocean of guilt that came with it because we could not figure out what was wrong with her, it was a reality check.  I had tried everything.  I had spent evenings reading Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet sitting on the stairs because that was the only place in the house where she felt safe and comfortable; only there would she climb into my lap.  Sometimes, I have concluded, a keeping a record is enough. 

I'm finding this is true of Virginia Woolf's 1897 diary.  People who are passionate about Woolf sometimes tend to focus on her putative sexual abuse by her step-brother or on  her struggles with mental health. Others tend to take too seriously Leonard Woolf's statement that she was  “the least political animal that has lived.”  In too many cases, that focus has failed to see that she was, above all, an historical and political thinker, one whose thought was profoundly grounded in the reading her father encouraged her to undertake in her teens.  But when you read these relatively brief daily records of her shopping and her reading, you not only find out a great deal about what young women wanted in the late nineteenth-century, but also what she read.  When she was given an allowance from her father to buy her own clothing, she was ecstatic:  "We should buy out of this all our clothes etc; think of the joy of making a pair of boots last a month longer and buying for ourselves books at a 2nd hand bookstall!" (Tuesday, 30 March, 1897--and no, that isn't an obligatory FB exclamation mark).  Books of historical reflection filled her days when she was 15, Carlyle followed by Macauley followed by Froude.  So that when she writes, in 1923 “I want to give life & death, sanity & insanity; I want to criticise the social system, & show it at work, at its most intense," she knows what she's talking about.  Sometimes keeping a record reveals more than the writer anticipates.

But my own experience with my diary this year has revealed something else.  I'm too old to be egotistical any longer, to enjoy egotism's sublime agonies and disappointments, to believe that I'm writing deathless prose about experiences no one else has ever had.  But I have found that my commitment to writing fairly regularly in my diary gives me two things.  First, I am keeping an historical record, inadvertently or not, and I try to use my System 2 time with my diary to understand the historical moment I'm living through.  Perhaps my struggles will help make sense of someone else's.  But second, my diary keeping implicitly reflects the fact that my modest life is important, that it is imbued with the kind of dignity that belongs to almost anyone, certainly those who try to think their way through their days.


  1. I'm a longtime diary/journal keeper as well, and have realized only recently that it is probably what has given me my writing voice; that the years of virtually daily writing, even about the small potatoes of life, constitute practice and are a big part of what makes the words come easy now and renders me a competent writer. Not great, not fabulous — these are not what I'm aiming for — but I can get the job done.

  2. Any student encouraged to take journal writing time would agree with you. As for your own notebooks, an Archive waits . . .