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Mood-scape mapping

A diarist on diaries

Illustration by Fran Pulido of two books that look like open books next to a microphone.

Sifting through the stations on the car radio, I pricked up my ears when I heard Will Self declaring ‘I personally have never kept a diary. I believe such practices are inimical to the writing of fiction.’ The programme was Just a Minute, and Self was immediately challenged (for his pontifical tone I think rather than any specific infringement of the rules), so someone else took over the topic of ‘Dear Diary’.

A shame. A habitual diarist, I wanted to hear why Self thought ‘such practices’ inimical to writing novels. As I drove home, I certainly acknowledged doubts as to the sense of devoting thousands of hours to writing down the unexceptional events of my unimportant life over a span of six decades. It wasn’t that I expected any of it to be published, either in my own lifetime or posthumously.

I started on January 1, 1969, and at the last count (guesstimate) I had passed five million words. How many novels, plays, poems or articles would that equate to? Given that I only published my first novel in my fifties, perhaps Self had a point. Had I just been frittering away my creative capital?

But maybe that’s a dubious concept. As Maya Angelou encouragingly says, ‘You can’t use up creativity. The more you use, the more you have.’ Even if it’s low in the artistic pecking order, diary writing is definitely a creative activity — and may actually contribute to higher forms of literary endeavour. Here’s Virginia Woolf, writing in her own diary on Friday 17 October, 1924:

It strikes me that in this book I practise writing; do my scales; yes & work at certain effects. I dare say I practised Jacob here,—& Mrs D. & shall invent my next book here; for here I write merely in the spirit—great fun it is too, & old V. of 1940 will see something in it too. She will be a woman who can see, Old V.: everything—more than I can I think. But I’m tired now.

This is appended (in brackets) to a lengthy account of the day, and seems to exemplify diary writing at its best: ideas caught in the moment, hurried down on the page before they are lost. And how much is packed into this hasty after-thought. The freedom to ‘write merely in the spirit’ has liberated the novelist’s urge to experiment in her fiction and has clearly contributed to the creative process. But there is more. The remarks about ‘old V’ are particularly poignant, given that the year in which Woolf has chosen to imagine her older self reading her diary, 1940, is the year before she took her own life, thus ending all diary-writing forever. But she touches on the heart of the matter: who is the diarist writing for?

Who did the most famous diarist of all write for? Posterity, would seem the easy answer. Samuel Pepys was an eye-witness to great events, the recorder of court gossip, an expert guide to the development of the Royal Navy, and a social observer who left us a vibrant portrait of Restoration society. His diary is an invaluable resource for historians, and is generally recognised as a literary classic into the bargain.

But the evidence is that Pepys had no idea that he was producing anything of the sort. He filled his pages with worries about work, anxiety about how his superiors saw him, complaints about servants, notes on the plays he saw, the parties he went to, and accounts of his opportunistic philandering throughout his marriage. He had, it seems, no ambitions for his masterpiece, and, to quote his modern editors, after his death the diary ‘passed into a limbo from which it did not emerge until its publication in abbreviated form in 1825.’

What’s more, Pepys wrote in a coded shorthand designed to foil the snoopings of the casual reader. The diary was for his eyes only. And he sets the benchmark for the rest of us: we write for ourselves, and privacy is essential. As soon as there is another reader, the enterprise changes. Some diaries are of course written for publication — and as someone currently enjoying Radio 4’s Book of the Week with Alan Bennett reading from his latest volume, Keeping On Keeping On, who am I to complain? But that awareness of an audience must, I can’t help feeling, slightly compromise the central tenet of diary writing: total honesty. With publication in mind, self-censorship will necessarily creep in, if only in deference to the libel laws, while the emerging self-portrait will surely be slightly less ‘warts and all’ than it otherwise might have been.

But that’s not quite it. People can say some brutally harsh things in print — about themselves and others. Karl Ove Knausgård’s global bestseller, My Struggle, is famous for its unremitting nature, and it is a gripping read as a consequence. But to say, as some have, that reading it is ‘like opening someone else’s diary’ is not strictly accurate. What it lacks – like any other memoir or autobiography, however unsparingly accurate – is the diary’s unique perspective on the present, recorded in the heat of the moment without the benefit of any sort of hindsight.

A brief sample will illustrate what I mean. Knausgård comments on the teenage years in which he tried to form a rock group:

We were utterly hopeless, completely out of our depths, there was not a snowball’s chance in hell of anything coming of this, we wouldn’t even be good enough to perform at a school party, but although this was the reality we never experienced it as such. On the contrary, this was what gave our lives meaning.

That is the retrospective view — old K’s view, if you like. The diary Knausgård acknowledges he kept in his teens would read very differently: preserving the young K’s reaction to the band’s development, coasting on the thermals of elation, recording the plummettings of despair and frustration, before lurching upwards once more in the (vain) hope of ultimate triumph.

It is this mapping of life’s constantly shifting mood-scape that makes the diary such a special genre. But I still don’t think that’s ultimately what drives the diarist’s obsession. For the most driven, there is undoubtedly a confessional core to the undertaking which makes ‘these practices’ virtually an addiction. Take perhaps my favourite diarist, James Boswell. He would have ensured enduring fame simply by producing his The Life of Samuel Johnson, and that great work certainly drew on his journals. But Boswell was a diarist before he met Johnson, and although the great man is the star turn, Boswell wrote just as copiously about his life in Edinburgh without the great lexicographer. He is always at the centre of his diary keeping.

What he produced was a wonderful portrait of the average sensual man. Boswell was a far more serious drinker – and philanderer – than Pepys, and recognised his failings. Recognised, and recorded them. Time after time we find him owning up to habitual excess — and its inevitable aftermath:

Edinburgh, 1777
Friday 4 July. Very wet. Asked Lord Advocate to sup, he me to dine. Took this opening. Drank too much. Lord Mountstuart, etc., supped with us. Drunk. Slept town. Felt Miss Mongomerie.

Wednesday 3 September. Dined by engagement with Commissioner Cochrane. Drank too much. Wandered a little. Lapsed. George Preston supped. Punch.  

Thursday 4 September. Ill with headache. Lay till eleven.

But even worse than his hangovers are the spasms of guilt at his betrayal of his wife. Here is his account of her discovery of the truth, written in Edinburgh in 1775:

Monday 4 December. …When I came home, I found that my wife had been reading this journal, and, though I had used Greek letters, had understood my visits to ______. She spoke to me of it with so much reason and spirit that, as I candidly owned my folly, so I was impressed with proper feelings; and, without more argument than that it was disagreeable to so excellent a spouse, resolved firmly to keep clear.

As can be seen from the dates of the above entries, Boswell didn’t stay clear of either other women or his diary. There is something wonderfully heroic in his painstaking recording of folly, moral back-sliding, humiliation and desperation. Dr Johnson mocked him unmercifully, but quite clearly loved him for all his faults, as surely must we — if only for his honesty in confessing them.

And how do I assess my own career as a diarist? In darker moments I see the whole enterprise as a great sprawling Sellafield of containment for the toxic memories of loss, rejection, humiliation, defeat and shame accrued over what must now be most of a lifetime. There they lean, the ring-binders, slumped along their shelves, the dates faded, their pages filled with a past that seems more distant and less to do with me as each year passes. I’ve given up bothering to print them out now, and sometimes wonder if the diary as a form is condemned, like the letter, to fade into an oblivion imposed by the digital revolution.

I suspect not. People, whether they aspire to the modest immortality of literature or not, will continue to feel an urge to confide their innermost experiences, heartbreaks and failings to someone — if only to themselves. And in return, they will perhaps gain something falling between atonement and a salving amnesia. I, for one, seem to be in for the long haul.

Simon Rae’s first detective novel, Bodyline, has just been published by Nine Elms Books.

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