Friday, November 7, 2008

Diary Liability

I've kept diaries for twenty years. At some stage I tried to call them journals and coveted Bruce Chatwin's manly buckram covered, grid paper journals, complete with the elastic strap. However when I actually saw them in a book shop in Dunedin, sold as the 'real thing' by some enterprising publisher, I found them too small, too gridded and altogether too wanky. Am I gonna garner that man's roaming storytelling genius by buying the same journal as he wrote in? No.

This post is really about self censorship, the problematic exercise of diary keeping and its modern day equivalent - blog casting. Many of us who blog may never have been so secretive and precious as to keep a diary. The whole thing is an antithesis, instantaneous publication versus the furtive habits of the angst ridden, purging diarist - but then again many of us are animals of the same species. There is fire in our bellies. We have something to say. We wanna write it down.

'Our truest response to the irrationality of the world is to paint or
sing or write, for only in such response do we find truth.'
~Madeline L'Engle, writer

Shark wrote once that it is in poor taste to slag off one's ex on one's blog. I don't think I've stooped to that yet but I'm about to now.
The first one (there are a few) I won't stoop to slagging because I still like him, yummy, difficult piscine creature that he is. In a moment of masochistic self immolation I said to him, "Well you really want to know what I write down? Go for it! Take three." I gave him three diaries and sent him away. He returned a few days later, kind of twitchy and pale, saying, "I want more." So I gave him another three.

He returned with them, wanted more and so it went on. Then for the next six months I fed him various lines, defending the motivation behind my innermost, nastiest little outpourings. And some of these moments were sordid. Poor guy, he was flabbergasted.I was writing myself out, trying to wrangle out the bullshit from the maneuvers I'd made that were totally beyond my own understanding. Why did I do these things? I didn't really know until I'd worked it out in print. Then I knew and then I evolved. Unfortunately those who read them were on the page where I hadn't, and did not understand that I was no longer the same person.

I don't actually regret that one, even though I got chastised by a bestie, "Why the fuck did you do that? You NEVER, EVER give your diaries to a boyfriend. You are asking for trouble, you self flagellating great genius bitch." Or something along those lines.

The next one was not my doing. In the throes of engagement and the lushy, gorgeous moments that gave him license to be totally exploratory in his loved one's life, I returned home from work, to find my fiance sitting in a circle of my journals on the bedroom floor and breathing strangely.
"It was under your bed," he wailed. "In a suitcase. How could I not possibly read every single one?" He splayed his fat sausage fingers over my written words. "How can I even like who you are, when you've written all this ..."
This was a big problem for him. A girlfriend, no - a fiance - who actually thinks and writes all her feelings and mistakes down on paper. After several hours of protracted arguments during which time he decided he no longer wanted to marry me, I decided the diaries were an unnecessary ball and chain I was dragging.

So I burnt them. Fifteen years worth. That night, with a bottle of lighter fuel and copious tears, I set fire to locks of my babys' hair, favourite recipies, memoirs of the elders and teenage angst. It was an act of bloodymindedness taken to that extreme, purely because I knew I could not keep this man and my diaries in the same house. I made the choice.

In retrospect it was not a good one really. Days later I went to visit him and there were charred paper remains in his fireplace. It took me a little while to cotton on. I got a strange chill when he read me his handwritten list of people (men of course) I should have known.

He'd salvaged my books out of the fire, while I was busy in tears, taken them home and read the rest. He even made a few names up, just to fuck with my head. I found the rest of the burnt charred offerings, took them out to the rubbish truck as it chugged to a stop outside his house and threw them in. By then I was so completely over the drama that years worth of diaries created, I was glad to see them go.
I saved one. It is wrapped in silk and has the status of a religious relic; Notes That Survived the Fire.
Aussie said to me recently, after a few hours of walking in the wild sandhills, "I am so pissed off at you for burning those diaries." And I said. "So am I."

It took me a long time after that to learn to write without feeling someone was looking over my shoulder. I didn't feel like I could tell the truth anymore. Everything I wrote (if I wrote at all) was in abstract or codified within an inch of its life.

And that's where blogging comes in. This is different, not quite so angsty and if you want to purge or bitch or whinge, you have to be a little bit careful and consciously so. Strange. It is open to the Ether so we are all the more careful of what we produce. Rather than an inward process, it moves outwards of our minds and is written to be read by others.

But it must still ring true and resonate a certain chord within the soul or else it just doesn't work. It must come from the heart and not be some kind of trite and pretty observation. And thats where all writing threads back to the diary, to cannibalise and poach its labyrinthine reaches. But how do we tell those opportunistic and nasty little print stalkers to stay out of our suitcases and not judge us harshly or get horribly jealous over our sensuous and dastardly outpourings?
Oh...okay. Make better choices. Yeah okay. I'm evolving hopefully...


  1. Knowing her as you do, you can probably imagine how many years of diaries/journals my beloved has created. Well, I have been allowed to peruse a few of them but only to view the many sketches and certainly not to read even a single word of them! I don't think I would have had the courage to do so in any case.
    Another thought provoking and eminently readable post - brilliant!

  2. She made a good choice in you Ramsnake!

  3. trespass: a fence seems an obvious denoter of space. it allows some people to plead ignorance of the more potently person boundaries, and transgress beyond into the teritory of otherness, your unutterably personal, without any qualms. regardless of the excuses for such ignorance, people who are willing to cut through your private barbed wire are not to be messed with - or married!
    a painful lesson, but you made the right decission. anger is protective as well as destructive.
    love you!

  4. the writings of y/our diaries are footprints we can revisit, to understand why we have walked this way and that, and to plot where yet we might wander to, when the sand beneath our feet's still wet...

  5. Well my take on this is that your diaries saved you from making a very big mistake. Why would you want to be married to someone who didn't accept EVERYTHING about you, whether he liked it or not. Not a good way to start a marriage methinks. I could read your bitchy stuff and still like you, cos we all secretly have that shit in us.

    But I resonate with what I call the 'cringe factor'. Reading stuff that an angst ridden 21 year old wrote and saying to myself, "Shit Michelle, get over it!' I guess I did.

    I am entrusted with a very important task for one of my friends. If she dies before me, I have to get ALL her diaries and burn them. I hope I remember where they are hidden and get there before anyone else does. I am not sure I am going to be able to explain what I am doing in her house stealing books, but maybe the truth will do.....

  6. I think it is so sad they have to be burnt. They should be here for prosperity. Artist and writers journals are so important ... I would never, ever seek lighter fuel again for handwritten books, even on a promise, after that experience.
    And the cringe factor! You are so right. The diary stuff you read years later is definitely cringe factor, but at least when you read it as the writer, you know you've gotten over it. That's the beauty of it all ...