Writers are often told they should keep a journal. I imagine a writer’s journal to be something erudite and practical: the exposition of process, working through problems and strategies, accruing material and ideas. I’ve never written a journal like this. What I have done, however, is to sporadically keep a personal diary, ever since the age of seven, when my first entry read: ‘Today I ate a Curly Wurly.’
Diary writing is the strangest kind of writing. Who is it for? Posterity? Well, I’m certainly no Samuel Pepys. My diaries would be of no use as historical documents because I include very little in them about the society in which I live (apart from its chocolate bars). It’s true that during some of my teenage, self-obsessed years, I was writing with half an eye to future fame and glory. But I soon got over that.
So, if not for posterity, or the development of craft, what purpose does a diary serve? I’m not sure what made me keep writing. Perhaps, it was simply the compulsion to write something, when I didn’t know what else to write. At times my diaries have been flippant and joyful. At other times, they’ve been the repositories of unspoken, secret emotions. A valuable means of expression and catharsis whenever I’ve felt myself to be overwhelmed, or silenced, by life’s circumstances.
Given that they are very personal, I don’t want anyone to read them. Not even when I’m dead. Nor, surely, do I want to read them myself. Why else would they have remained stuffed in boxes in my loft? Why should I want to read them? The catharsis is surely achieved and exhausted at the moment of writing. Why not just burn the lot and keep burning them every couple of years?
To find the answer to this question, I took down my old diaries from the loft and carted them off with me to my Scottish retreat to re-read them, possibly one last time. I expected them to be cringe worthy. They were. But they were also fascinating and revealing in unexpected ways. People often ask, ‘What would you say to your younger self with the benefit of hindsight?’ Reading my diaries turned this question around to, ‘What would your younger self say to you?’
I found my younger self saying things like, ‘See here, you always wanted to do such and such, you’ve wanted to do it ever since you were very young – why, oh why, have you left it undone?’
Also: ‘That story you’ve been dining out on all these years: you do know it didn’t happen like that at all?’
Or: ‘See how you let yourself be pushed around here, are you going to carry on like that for ever?’
And: ‘That time you harp back to when you were really happy? You were miserable.’
And: ‘You do realise you’ve always loved writing stories? Don’t give up now.’
Our memories are a narrative written in the past tense, edited and refined for our own consumption, as much as anyone else’s. We put a spin on our memories to make us feel better about ourselves, to excuse our failings, to mollify our self-doubts. But in a diary you have a first person present narrator talking right back at you, telling you how it really was. Although this narrator, too, can be unreliable.
One of the most fascinating facets of human beings lies in the gap between perceived self and real self. A lot of fiction, my own novel included, explores characters for whom this gap is unusually wide. It can have comic or tragic consequences, or both. Either way, the reader gets to delight in their superior understanding of a character, in knowing that person better than the character knows him, or her, self.
I won’t be burning my diaries just yet. They are little missives to myself that I haven’t quite done with. But one day I most certainly will, apart from the Curly Wurly entry, which I believe should be preserved for posterity.