This morning I was flipping through my copy of the Bicycle Sentences Journal that illustrator Betsy Streeter sent me and I was quite taken with this final paragraph by Grant Petersen. (I’m a big fan of his blog and Just Ride.)
He touches on why I keep a diary, why I keep it on paper, and the magic of keeping a logbook. The mundane details can bring back sublime memories, and what you think is boring now may be interesting in the future: “What seems bland when you write it down… will seem epic in thirty years.”
I have a new studio routine where when I’m unsure of what to write about, I revisit my notebooks each year on today’s date. (I have notebooks going back 20 years, daily logbooks going back 15, but I’ve kept a daily diary for 5 years now. That’s where a lot of gems are buried.)
Flipping through these notebooks will usually yield something worth writing about. (This morning, it was William Burroughs on language.)
Reading my diary this way, which I first learned from reading Thoreau’s diary, also shows me the cycles and patterns of my life.
(For example: Cocteau Twins and the beginning of spring are somehow intertwined in my life. What does that mean? And what does the fact that their lyrics are barely understandable mean when matched with the Burroughs? Spring is a season of rebirth… When babies are new, they babble and make noise without language… do they sound like spring to me for this reason? You can see how these thoughts, none of which I had when I woke up this morning, come forth from just reading myself.)
Another way to think about it: Keeping a diary is being a good research assistant to your future self.
This is the advice that art critic Jerry Saltz has tweeted over the years:
Be a good assistant to yourself. Prepare and gather, make notations and sketches in your head or phone. When you work, all that mapping, architecture, research & preparation will be your past self giving a gift to the future self that you are now. That is the sacred.
I’ve never had an assistant. I am my own best assistant. My assistant-self is my past self loving my future self who’ll need this previous research when I reach for something in my work. My assistant-self has gotten ideas for whole articles, essays from minutes of research online.
Artists: The beautiful thing about giving yourself a little break & not working – those are the times when new ideas flood in from the cosmos & set your “assistant self” in motion, the self that will be there for your “future-self.” Curiosity and obsession always fill the vacuum.
Artists: Be your own best assistant. Do your research. Get your tools and materials in order. These will be the ancestors, spirit guides and self-replicating imagination of your work. This will allow art to reproduce itself in you. You’ll thank yourself during & afterwards.
I have my many moments of self-loathing at my own lack of progress, but one thing I have done right, at least in the past half decade or so: I have been a good assistant to my future self.
Joan Didion said of re-reading notebooks, “I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be.” This is especially true if they have bothered to preserve themselves so we can visit them later.
Yes, a diary is a good spaceship for time travel: for meditating on the present, flinging ourselves into the future, and visiting ourselves in the past.