HOW I’D LIKE TO LOOK
Into that little book,
The one that has the lock and key.
And know the boy that you care for,
The boy who is in your diary.
NEIL SEDAKA sang it, way back in 1958, and indeed, my first diaries did come equipped with snoop protection (though in retrospect one wonders—is this just my dirty mind?—whether Neil’s innocent-sounding lyric wasn’t a veiled reference to his lust for a virginal girlfriend).
These days my lock and key is virtual, but the idea of privacy endures. I use a diary almost like a shrink, or a compass. It is for my own release and orientation. Setting down an experience is for me a way to remember, clarify, and/or survive it. In the grip of some overwhelming emotion, I am often able to write myself through it. Unvoiced, pain and fear gain power; they build.
Yet I resist writing daily entries, much as one’s heart sinks upon entering the therapist’s office, and for the same reasons: shame, denial, the dubious comfort of not knowing. I huddle into my inhibitions like a winter coat, as if to shield myself from cold and harm. The diary forces me to unbutton. It lays me bare to myself.
Journals, of course, serve a variety of purposes, as is evident from a current exhibit at the Morgan Library & Museum, “The Diary: Three Centuries of Private Lives” (www.themorgan.org; until May 22). It is a marvelous amalgam of the celebrated and the obscure, and since it encompasses only a single room, even a museum speed demon like me is willing to slow down and look carefully at every glass case (there is a useful printed “translation” available at the entrance for some of the less legible diaries—Charlotte Brontë’s, for example, is minuscule).
Famous diarists are there in quantity: Samuel Pepys, Henry David Thoreau, Anaïs Nin…. There are surprises, too: Adèle Hugo (of The Story of Adèle H. fame) recounting her obsessive love in code; Queen Victoria’s travel journal; a police officer’s account of 9/11. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s highly literary brood, parents and children, contributed to a single family diary (so much for privacy).
One of my favorites was the journal John Steinbeck kept in a large, thin ledger while working on The Grapes of Wrath. It was meant to monitor his progress and keep him going, and it is the poignancy of his writerly struggles that got to me. He complains of interruptions, labors to put in the necessary hours, and ultimately (with visible relief) finds the book taking hold of him.
I suppose it is a contradiction in terms that something as ostensibly secret as a journal should be on display at all. Many of the diarists in the exhibit, of course, were consciously writing for posterity. Even for those who weren’t, though, I think there is an intrinsic ambiguity in the act of nailing our interior musings to the page, thus creating a permanent record. Although one part of us wants to engage, untrammeled and anonymous, in a conversation with ourselves, there is another that yearns for our minds to be read by some benign eavesdropper.
I try very hard not to censor myself, or write for a mythical audience. And yet, the editor in my head is watchful: Am I expressing myself well? What would so-and-so think? Dare I say this or that?
Blogging is not so different. I’d better not say more.