A diary collage made out of a guidebook from The Whitney
A diary collage made out of a guidebook from The Whitney
If you ask yourself, ‘What’s the best thing that happened today?’ it actually forces a certain kind of cheerful retrospection that pulls up from the recent past things to write about that you wouldn’t otherwise think about. If you ask yourself, ‘What happened today?’ it’s very likely that you’re going to remember the worst thing, because you’ve had to deal with it–you’ve had to rush somewhere or somebody said something mean to you–that’s what you’re going to remember. But if you ask what the best thing is, it’s going to be some particular slant of light, or some wonderful expression somebody had, or some particularly delicious salad. I mean, you never know…
Sometimes the Best Thing is not even something I did, but something I watched or listened to:
Sometimes the Best Thing is a stretch:
And sometimes I can’t even come up with it:
When I’m writing in my diary I like to draw one of my memento mori comic characters and let them say the awful words floating in my brain.
I do this with many bad thoughts, especially my Bad Editor voice. (“This is terrible,” “you suck,” etc.)
It’s a silly little trick to get the thoughts out of my head and no longer feel any responsibility for them.
The New York Times ran an obituary today for Anthony Acevedo, who was a 20-year-old American medic when he was captured during the Battle of the Bulge. He was sent to a Nazi labor camp, and when the Red Cross sent him a care package with a diary and a fountain pen, he started keeping a diary of his time. (The diaries were produced by the YMCA in Geneva — inside reads: “A WARTIME LOG FOR BRITISH PRISONERS.”) The obituary notes that “risked his life by keeping his diary” but he felt “he had an obligation to maintain it.” “He hid the diary in his pants or under hay in the barracks.”
The Times ran this single page, but The United States Holocaust Museum has the whole diary digitized and available online. In addition to the grim details of Acevedo’s experience, there are several drawings:
Even some drawings from pinups in the back:
It’s amazing how just clicking through the digitized images, you get a feel for this diary as a book, an artifact. The Times notes, “The book, with its yellowing pages, became a sort of plaything at home, with crayon scribblings by his children on the last page.” Those scribblings don’t seem to be included in the museum’s scan, unfortunately, but they reminded me of how Charles Darwin’s children doodled on the original manuscript for On the Origin of Species, and how the Hawthorne children scribbled in Sophia and Nathaniel’s marriage diary:
I should note, there are several other diaries in the Holocaust Museum’s archives. I’ve saved a search for digitized diaries in English here.
Searching for “Wartime log,” I found another (illustrated) wartime log by Wally Layne drawn in the same style of YMCA book. (I wonder how many soldiers were inspired to keep a diary just by receiving those packages from the Red Cross?) And, of course, now I’m thinking of this WWII poster, from 1942:
Yesterday I wrote about how I keep my diaries. This morning, because commenters asked what they look like, I posted some of my diary pages on Instagram. Then a commenter asked, “But what is the point of this?”
Here’s what I wrote back, verbatim:
I keep a diary for many reasons, but the main one is: It helps me pay attention to my life. By sitting down and writing about my life, I pay attention to it, I honor it, and when I’ve written about it long enough, I have a record of my days, and I can then go back and pay attention to what I pay attention to, discover my own patterns, and know myself better. It helps me fall in love with my life.
So, primarily, keeping a diary is about paying attention to my life and then paying attention to what I pay attention to.
There are some other reasons I keep a diary.
I have a terrible memory for things that happen to me. I can remember books and quotes and movies and art and all of these inanimate things that I love, but I simply cannot seem to keep track of my own days. My experience of time is very slippery.
This quality got exacerbated when I had children. Infants destroy your memory through sleep deprivation, but toddlers and preschoolers play tricks on your sense of time and progress when you’re around them all day, because 1) having young children can be extremely monotonous, and 2) you’re seeing them morph in real time, so the change is gradual, and you don’t necessarily take notice of the leaps and bounds that can happen in even a week. (For an alternative perspective, see Sarah Manguso’s Ongoingness: The End of a Diary.)
Diaries are evidence of our days. When I read a diary from even just a few months ago, I am regularly shocked by how much has and hasn’t changed in our house. It helps me take notice of just how far we’ve come. It also reminds me that life is seasonal, and we are inevitably doomed to repeat ourselves, a la Groundhog Day, so we must proceed without hope and without despair.
Finally, I find that my diary is a good place to have bad ideas. I tell my diary everything I shouldn’t tell anybody else, especially everyone on social media. We are in a shitty time in which you can’t really go out on any intellectual limbs publicly, or people — even your so-called friends! — will throw rocks at you or try to saw off the branch. Harsh, but true.
So you have to have a private space to have your own thoughts. A diary does that.
I wonder how many people forget that George Orwell’s 1984 literally begins when the character Winston Smith buys a paper diary and starts writing in it. I’ve heard that part of the goal of an autocratic regime is to get you to disbelieve your own perceptions. Again, here is where your diary comes in handy. You keep track of what’s happening, write your own history book, consult it when you feel like you’re going crazy.
I’ve kept a notebook for 20 years, but the triumph of my year has been, for the first time, keeping not just a logbook, but a daily diary. (This is what it looks like.) I keep looking at the stack and thinking, “Okay, but where’s the book?”
Almost every writer will tell you how important it is to keep a daily diary or notebook, but very few emphasize how important it is, if you want to publish, to have a system for going back through those personal notebooks and diaries and turning them into public writing.
One of the things I like about Ryan Holiday’s notecard system, the one he learned from his mentor, Robert Greene, is its emphasis, not just on taking notes, but on going back and revisiting your notes: after you take notes in a book, you let the book sit for a week, and then you go back through the book and transfer your notes to notecards, and then you go back through your notecards and find themes, and then you go back through the themes and assemble a book, etc. There’s a kind of constant creative revisiting that goes on, one that leads to new ideas, and new writing. (Re-vision is re-seeing.)
This year, randomly, without planning it, I’ve become familiar with the notebooks of 3 different writers: Leonardo da Vinci, thanks to Walter Isaacson’s bio, Henry David Thoreau, thanks to Laura Walls’ terrific bio and NYRB’s beautiful reader edition, and David Sedaris, thanks to his newly published diaries. All three have much to teach.
It could be argued that Leonardo’s notebooks were his life’s masterpiece. Over and over again, Isaacson points out that Leonardo jotted down discoveries and hunches that other scientists wouldn’t confirm for hundreds of years. Unfortunately for the wider world, Leonardo’s notebook was all about exploration, and he didn’t put much, if any, effort into actually sharing his findings. If he had, he’d probably have changed the history of science.
It could be argued for Thoreau, too, that his true masterpiece was his journal, which he used, like Leonardo, to explore his world, his philosophy, and his amateur science. Unlike Leonardo, however, his journals were self-consciously journals, daily records of his life and thought tied to dates, and Thoreau mined his journals for books and lectures, then used his public lectures as a way of working up material for articles and books.
Though Sedaris might seem like the outlier here, he works in a Thoreau-like way (even though he despises the verb “journaling” and finds it “creepy”). I find him the most instructive and worth stealing from in the batch, if only because his process has been thoroughly documented, not just by others, but by himself. His essay, “Day In, Day Out,” from Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls, summarizes his method as “You jot things down during the day, then tomorrow morning you flesh them out.” That sounds simple, but he actually has a robust system for generating material. Here are the steps:
1) He carries around a little reporter’s notebook and is constantly jotting down funny things he notices and overhears. “Everybody’s got an eye for something,” he says. “The only difference is that I carry around a notebook in my front pocket. I write everything down, and it helps me recall.”
2) The next morning, he takes a look at his notes to refresh his memory, and then types out his diary on the computer. (In the old “embarrassing” days, he’d write on placemats, then in hardcover sketchbooks, in which he’d collage and draw, and then a typewriter, etc.)
3) He prints out his entries and binds them with special covers. In the recent “Visual Compendium” of his diaries, he notes: “I generally bind four volumes a year, so if at age 59, I have 153, by the time I’m my father’s age—should I live to be 93—I’ll have 289. If I die much earlier, at 75, say, I’ll still have 217, which isn’t bad.”
Maybe most importantly, he keeps a separate diary index, which numbers hundreds of pages by itself, in which he “lists only items that might come in handy someday.” A few entries:
Volume 87, 5/15: Lisa puts a used Kotex through the wash, and her husband mistakes it for a shoulder pad.
Volume 128, 1/23: Told by saleswoman that the coat I’m trying on is waterproof “if it only rains a little.”
“Over a given three-month period,” he writes, “there may be fifty bits worth noting, and six that, with a little work, I might consider reading out.” (It is not clear to me at what frequency he re-reads his diaries to keep this index. If I had to bet, I’d say he updates the index when he has a new book bound.)
4) He will then read selections from his diaries out-loud, live to his audiences. (This is actually how he got his start — he was reading from his diary in Chicago when he met Ira Glass, who gave him his break-out radio gig with “Santaland Diaries.”) He has a pencil and a marginalia system for recording audience reactions: Laughs get a check mark, silence gets a skull.
5) He’ll go back and rework the stories based on what he’s learned from reading live.
So far, I have stolen the first two steps. As for the third, I have no index for the notebooks (unless you count my logbook), and no way, really, of knowing what’s in them, a condition worsened by my terrible memory, and the fact that one of the reasons I like keeping a diary, as Henry Jones, Sr., said, is because I don’t have to remember what’s in it. I plan on starting an index in the coming weeks, and updating it for each new notebook.
As for steps 4 and 5, the live reading and revision, that’s what this blog is for. It’s the place where I take private thoughts and turn them public, see what the reaction is, if any, and then weave what I’ve learned back into the work.
“Writers are the custodians of memory, and that’s what you must become if you want to leave some kind of record of your life…”
2018, if we make it there, will be my 10th year of keeping a daily logbook. What’s a logbook? In the old days, a logbook was a place for sailors to keep track of how far they’d traveled. Mine is just a simple list of the things that happen each day, a sort of reverse appointment book. Every morning I sit down and list what I did, who I saw, what I read/watched/listened to, etc., the previous day. (Because I know everyone will ask, here’s the kind of notebook I use.)
The logbook started, like many creative endeavors, out of sheer laziness. My memory is terrible, so I wanted a record of my days, but I didn’t want to go to the trouble of keeping a “real” diary. The logbook was a way for me to keep a diary without really thinking… or feeling. (Now, I keep a pretty intense notebook and diary, but I still keep my logbook, too.)
What the logbooks have turned into is an index of my life. I consult them to reminisce about important events, like the days my kids were born, but I often consult them for really mundane stuff, like looking up the last time I replaced the air filter on the furnace.
For better or worse, I can tell you what happened to me on every day of the past decade.
I thought about my logbooks this morning when I read about how a Russian chemist’s diaries are being used as evidence of Russian doping in the Olympics. The New York Times article starts like this:
The chemist has kept a diary most of his life. His daily habit is to record where he went, whom he talked to and what he ate. At the top of each entry, he scrawls his blood pressure.
In the diaries, mundane details of his life, like going out to buy a cold medicine and complaining about the Olympic cafeteria food, are juxtaposed against juicier details, like mixing drug cocktails and transporting athlete urine. Here’s a picture of the diary, flagged by attorneys, I’m assuming:
If you want to keep your thoughts secret but archived… do it on paper! The chemist told The Times that he kept the diary on paper “mindfully… not on the computer.” (A crazy detail is that he wrote the diary with a black and gold Watermen pen given to him by his friend, Russia’s former antidoping chief who “died suddenly” after his announcement he was writing a book.)
Whether involved in a scandal or not, diaries are evidence of our days.
September 1, 2017
[Casa Santo Domingo, Antigua Guatemala.] It is a wonderful strange experience to drive into a place at dark, in the pouring rain, to try to piece together what the place is, but then see it in the full light of the morning…
September 2, 2017
A woman and her son watching the maccaws. Women carrying baskets on their heads. Men driving pickup trucks with the beds full of flowers. Boys carrying bouquets. Schoolgirls standing on the street corner and giggling and eating ice cream…
September 3, 2017
My horoscope told me “Visite la iglesia” so that’s just what I did: wandered the ruins at the San Francisco Inglesia, and threw in a prayer for good measure. Then I went for an avocado ice cream at La Tienda de Doña Gavi (The Store of Mrs. Gavi) and strolled around as the afternoon storm clouds filled the valley…
I bought this handsome NYRB edition of Thoreau’s journal a few months ago when I saw that John Stilgoe had written the preface. (I took it as a BUY NOW sign: I’d read his book Outside Lies Magic earlier this year liked it quite a bit.)
It’s a highly edited and condensed version of the complete 47 volumes of Thoreau’s output, but I still wasn’t sure how to read the thing. I couldn’t imagine actually reading it front to back. Then I noticed that the left-hand page headers refer to the approximate date, but the right-hand page headers refer to what age Thoreau was when he wrote the entry. This seemed like a fun game: Let me see what Thoreau was writing when he was exactly my age.
Then I thought it’d be fun to just follow along with his life day-by-day and year-by-year, almost like turning The Journal into one of those 5 year diaries that you see in stationery stores. I’d stick post-it notes on the current date of each year of the journal, then check the tabs each day to see if there’s an entry.
This turns out to be a terrific way to read Thoreau, because he was so obsessed with observing nature and the changing seasons. You see, for example, how Thoreau repeats himself, noting the fallen leaves in October. (“How beautifully they go to their graves!”)
Yesterday, I read the entry for October 20, 1857, exactly 160 years ago, in which Thoreau writes beautifully about meeting a barefoot old man carrying a dead robin & his shoes full of apples:
I got such a kick out of reading this way I wondered what other books I had lying around the house that I could turn into a daily devotional. How about my Big Book of Peanuts?
I mean, of course a collection of daily newspaper strips, originally written to be consumed on one particular day, makes for good daily reading. (Think of all the “Page-A-Day” Peanuts calendars.) But there’s another reason they’re so great to read day-by-day: Peanuts function as a sort of coded diary for Schulz. This is explained by Bruce Eric Kaplan in the introduction to his collection, This Is A Bad Time:
[T]hese drawings are really my journals. I use them to explore whatever I find interesting, confusing, or upsetting on any given day. But here’s the beauty part—these private thoughts are filtered through the prism of moody children and blasé pets, disillusioned middle-aged men and weary matrons, among others. And so I get to work through whatever I am thinking about in a coded way. No one but me will ever know what the real seed of each image and caption was. So I can be free as I want to say whatever I want, and no one can catch me. It’s great….Every morning… I sit down and think about why I am disgruntled or why I am not as disgruntled as I was yesterday and out come these little drawings…
This connection between daily comic strips and diaries is made more explicit in the work of someone like James Kochalka in his sketchbook diaries, American Elf. I have all 14 years on my iPad now, so it wouldn’t be hard to read them in the same way I do the Peanuts collection. Strangely, I find that having a digital collection of the strips makes me want to reorganize the entries in non-chronological ways, like, reading every strip that includes leaves or clouds.
I have an ebook of Andy Warhol’s diary, and I like to search it whenever I’m in a spot that I know he had some connection to. (When I was in Milan, I typed in “Milan,” and landed on his entry for Monday, September 17, 1979, which contains the question, “Why would anybody want to go to Milan?”)
Anyways, I’m wandering towards a point: To read collected works is to also grapple with the question of how (or when!) to read collected works.
This, by the way, is the end of the Peanuts strip published on Oct. 20, 1962, 56 years ago:
Sound like someone you know?