The Private Life of the Diary

My First Diary

When I was seven years old my mother sent me abroad, alone. I carried one small canvas bag with a camera and a diary-notebook. My instructions were very clear:

‘Take as many pictures as you can and write down everything you see. Switzerland is a very beautiful country and you’ll see lots of important things. Don’t waste it on rubbish. If you run out of pages, buy another notebook. Don’t skimp and keep your handwriting nice. We want to be able to read it!’

From the first, my diary was never private: it belonged to my mother, my aunt, my grandmother, my brothers and cousins.

It was never my friend. I could tell it nothing awkward, embarrassing, shameful or pathetic. I could not be homesick or lonely or afraid or bored. My diary forced me to be brave and heroic, to muster up a grown up self. Above all, my diary wanted me to be extraordinary.      

As the aeroplane lurched out of Gatwick, I pulled the new diary from my bag. Its purple satin cover was intimidating, I decided: too special and occasional. What could I possibly experience that would deserve such a special thing? How could I begin to write anything in it?

I would have to edit out anything that would ‘let me down’ as my mother would say.

‘Don’t let yourself down, Sally. Make an effort, for goodness sake!’

But surely a real diary doesn’t ask you, to make an effort? Surely a real diarist can let go of the picture-postcard version of things? My seven-year-old self wanted to scribble in my diary, to draw pictures of the funny looking people on the plane; to cry over it when I felt homesick and lonely, as I often did in the weeks ahead, to paste in all the chocolate wrappers from all the chocolate bars I was given by kind Swiss aunts and uncles; to draw rude pictures of people sounding too French for me to understand.

But, instead, over the course of the four weeks I spent in Switzerland, I tried to impress my diary. My diary was a boyfriend, my first boyfriend. I saved up lots of big words and big sights and I wrote them down. I wanted everything to sound like an Asterix adventure. Every day was filled with difficult and unfamiliar things, but I managed all of them: the Gauls, the Britons, the Romans and the Swiss. I took them all on.

I ate rabbit and duck and lots of smelly cheese. I spoke my rehearsed French phrases and wrote down new ones. I shook everyone’s hand. I made friends with a boy called Michel in the village fromagerie. I kissed him. I watched his parents chop cheese and sausages. I watched my hosts make raclettes and fondue and homemade pasta. I even tried reading Daisy Miller in French and I wrote that down (which was a lie because I read it in English).

When I went to the city of Berne I took lots of photographs of the bears but most of them were smudgy and misty. So I tried to draw the bears and then describe them but I couldn’t draw and my Berol pen kept running out. But I’d promised my mother I would write up every day and this day of all days had been A Very Important Day. I mustn’t let it slip away. Today had been Berne, the Swiss capital. Today had been The Berne Bears.

But what happened in between all this edifying experience? Where did the real experience go, the off-the-record moments when I was just a small, lost child in a Swiss village staying with a family I barely knew? Where was the lonely and scared seven-year-old girl? The girl who knew how to ask for the loo and for directions to the bus station but could never say that she was too tired to stay up another hour and listen to boring adults talk about ‘Madame Peterman’ and her house at the top of the hill.

The diary I brought home from Switzerland held none of the things I remember now: stuffing myself on chocolate under the bedcovers at night; the terrible anxiety that I might die from eating a shot rabbit; the shame of being sick over a croissant after a long car journey up mountains. And the crushing loneliness of being alone all the time with adults speaking French. There was nowhere to be myself, not even in my diary. Where was the diary I dreamed of, my best friend and confidante; the soft beautiful thing I slipped under my pillow at night?

*

My attempts at keeping a diary were inauthentic: a bad performance in being adult. I had missed the point: personal diaries don’t ask us to be good grown-ups. Our diary is the ideal boyfriend, girlfriend or best friend, someone who won’t abandon us, however bad our tantrums and misbehaviour. Even Greg Heffley, the touchy teenager of Jeff Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid, reluctantly admits to dumping his real feelings in his diary or ‘journal’ as he insists on calling it.

True diaries contain overspill; they batten down thoughts and feelings for which, in the everyday world, there is little time and space. Diaries can bare souls and anchor lives. Emotionally speaking, they pick up the straying and splintering pieces of ourselves, those moods, atmospheres and secrets that might otherwise ruin situations and relationships. We can say to a diary what we wouldn’t dare say to anyone else. Diarising is free therapy, a place where we can project all the mess and maelstrom of our unresolved, teenage identities.

Spending Your Personal Time

Diaries are supposed to help you consider how you spend your time. In Switzerland, I was spending all my time being afraid of my diary. My diary was always calling me into account. There was no real point to it.

 Historically speaking, diaries emerge from a system of account-keeping: the public world of work and production. The father of the diary, Samuel Pepys, was a good diarist because his professional life asked him to be a good accountant. As the navy’s leading administrator and keeper of its books, diary writing was but a step away from totting up the naval accounts.

We will never know exactly why Pepys began to keep a diary, but there must have been some sense of wanting to say something about current affairs, which during Pepys’s lifetime were tumultuous: the dramatic restoration of Charles II to start with, which is where Pepys begins his diary. But there must also have been an urge to reflect upon his own, often messy, personal life – those extra-marital affairs and rows in bed with his wife.

Whatever the case, on January 1st 1660 Samuel Pepys began writing in a brown calf-bound notebook. He framed the pages with red ink, ruling margins along the edges of the pages: seven inches down, five inches across.

As Pepys demonstrates so well, the modern diary emerges from a mind set of expenditure: a system of daily account-keeping in which time and the unit of the day are the main resource. By 1660, a day had became a unit of time worth noting but also worth spending well. What would I do in my day; what did I do in my day, was now the question.

Putting Yourself Out There (Facebooking, Blogging, Tweeting)

In the 21st century, the traditional diary or journal has an online version, the blog. Facebook, Twitter and the culture of blogging emerge from a celebrity culture whose central premise is that we are all terribly interesting. Certainly worth following. Twitter gets you followers, Facebook finds you friends. In the world of social networking we are all celebrities, although only some of us really are. Stephen Fry was one of the first British celebrities to draw attention to the Twitter phenomenon, with his now notorious Twitter or ‘tweet’ update while stuck in a lift: ‘Ok. This is now mad. I am stuck in a lift on the 26th floor of Centre Point. Hell’s teeth. We could be here for hours. Arse, poo, and widdle.’

Footloose and fancy-free, twittering is for those on the move, and as Stephen Fry demonstrates, it is a good way of coping with that most frustrating of contemporary experiences: not being able to move.

Tweeting is quick, airy movement. An instant reflex, a flick-of-the-wrist approach to communication, tweeting is a sort of premature mental ejaculation.

But I might be wrong about this. I’m new to tweeting. Perhaps a tweet is a more reflective form of thinking. A friend of mine tells me that people can spend hours creating a tweet. A tweet, then, is a form of haiku in which every syllable, every one of your 140 characters counts. A tweet is not just another bit of noise floating through the cyber-universe. It is a brief meditation on the universe. On Twitter you can say something philosophical about Jeremy Corbyn finding himself without a seat on Virgin Trains; the return of socialism, or the latest terror attack. You can comment on the state of the nation and the globe. What is more, people will listen. Their attention spans won’t run out. They might even recycle what you say.

Still, I find it hard not to think of Twitter as just another form of social gossip, a quick blurt. One moment you tweet about a celebrity break-up and the next you tweet about your own. Certainly, Twitter marks the end of bounded public and private worlds. The traditionally private world, the sphere of the household, the home – Samuel Pepys in a filthy mood, in bed with his wife Elizabeth (also, no doubt in a filthy mood, her husband having given her a black eye) – has no separate form of life from the Pepys strutting about around Whitehall eager to be spotted by the King. Private forms of communication have not only engulfed our public world, they produce it.

Diaries Today

Some of us still keep pocket diaries as a means of keeping ourselves tidily within time. But since the late nineties pocket diaries have gradually turned digital, to the now almost socially ubiquitous Smartphone. These days, from my iPhone or iPad, I can keep track of my future movements and obligations through slick digitalised calendar and diary functions. In 2016 the intimate world of paper has all but disappeared. Only a few of us cling to the old-fashioned notebook or journal in which to write down our thoughts. I do so mainly as a form of indulgent nostalgia for the child I once was, flitting about the world with a pretty notebook and Berol pen, a butterfly with paper. But why do I write on paper still? Perhaps to feel something more visceral, more real.

At the university where I teach, I see my students reverting, during exam time, to the comfort of coloured pens, ornate journals and notebooks. Paper is human, and something like skin; it is reminiscent of schooldays and childhood and earlier forms of learning. Writing inside their attractive A4-sized notepads my students take comfort from close contact with paper and pen, the structure of carefully ruled lines. They carry notebooks around like close companions and friends; theirs is a private world of words carefully placed in the right place at the right time. There is something magical in their thinking.

Dr Sally Bayley is a Teaching and Research Fellow at the Rothermere American Insititute, University of Oxford and a Lecturer in English at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford. She has written widely on visual responses to literature, including a jointly-authored study of Sylvia Plath’s relationship to the visual arts:  Eye Rhymes: Sylvia Plath’s Art of the Visual (OUP, 2007) and a study of Plath as a cultural icon, Representing Sylvia Plath (CUP, 2011).

Sally’s recent book, The Private Life of the Diary: from Pepys to Tweets, tells the story of the diary as a coming of age story. Beginning with teenage diarists, Sally moves through significant moments of lived experience, from the teenage years when diary writing often begins, to the years of family, professional life, old age and death. The book takes the diaries of Virginia Woolf, Samuel Pepys, Sylvia Plath and others as her starting point for a discussion of the importance of private forms of writing and self-reflection as a means of securing a personal and public identity. From Pepys to Tweets assess the loss of such an acutely private form of life-writing in an age of facebooking, blogging and tweeting. She tweets @SallyBayley1

Photo by Ben White (CC0 1.0)

If you would like to submit a guest post for our consideration, here are the submission guidelines.

 

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s