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Celebrated Writers on the Creative Benefits of Keeping a Diary

Reflections on the value of recording our inner lives from Woolf, Thoreau, Sontag, Emerson, Nin, Plath, and more.

“You want to write, you need to keep an honest, unpublishable journal that nobody reads, nobody but you,” Madeleine L’Engle counseled in her advice to aspiring writers. W.H. Auden once described his journal as “a discipline for [his] laziness and lack of observation.”

Journaling, I believe, is a practice that teaches us better than any other the elusive art of solitude — how to be present with our own selves, bear witness to our experience, and fully inhabit our inner lives. As a dedicated diarist myself, I’ve always had an irresistible fascination with the diaries of artists, writers, scientists, and other celebrated minds — those direct glimpses of their inner lives and creative struggles. But, surely, luminaries don’t put pen to paper for the sake of quenching posterity’s curiosity — at least as interesting as the contents of those notable diaries is the question of why their keepers keep them. Here are a few perspectives from some of history’s most prolific practitioners of this private art.

Anaïs Nin was perhaps the most dogged diarist in recorded history — she began keeping a diary at the age of eleven and maintained the habit until her death at the age of 74, producing sixteen volumes of published journals in which she reflected on such diverse, timeless, and timely subjects as love and life, embracing the unfamiliar, reproductive rights, the elusive nature of joy, the meaning of life, and why emotional excess is essential for creativity. In a 1946 lecture at Dartmouth, she spoke about the role of the diary as an invaluable sandbox not only for learning the craft of writing but also for crystallizing her own passions and priorities, from which all creative work springs:

It was while writing a Diary that I discovered how to capture the living moments.

Keeping a Diary all my life helped me to discover some basic elements essential to the vitality of writing.

When I speak of the relationship between my diary and writing I do not intend to generalize as to the value of keeping a diary, or to advise anyone to do so, but merely to extract from this habit certain discoveries which can be easily transposed to other kinds of writing.

Of these the most important is naturalness and spontaneity. These elements sprung, I observed, from my freedom of selection: in the Diary I only wrote of what interested me genuinely, what I felt most strongly at the moment, and I found this fervor, this enthusiasm produced a vividness which often withered in the formal work. Improvisation, free association, obedience to mood, impulse, bought forth countless images, portraits, descriptions, impressionistic sketches, symphonic experiments, from which I could dip at any time for material.

It was also her way of learning to translate the inner into the outer, the subjective into the universal:

This personal relationship to all things, which is condemned as subjective, limiting, I found to be the core of individuality, personality, and originality. The idea that subjectivity is an impasse is as false as the idea that objectivity leads to a larger form of life.

A deep personal relationship reaches far beyond the personal into the general. Again it is a matter of depths.

In her extensive meditation on the creative benefits of keeping a diary, found in the altogether absorbing A Writer’s Diary (public library), 37-year-old Virginia Woolf speaks to the value of journaling in granting us unfiltered access to the rough gems of our own minds, ordinarily dismissed by the self-censorship of “formal” writing:

The habit of writing thus for my own eye only is good practice. It loosens the ligaments. Never mind the misses and the stumbles.

[…]

I note however that this diary writing does not count as writing, since I have just re-read my year’s diary and am much struck by the rapid haphazard gallop at which it swings along, sometimes indeed jerking almost intolerably over the cobbles. Still if it were not written rather faster than the fastest type-writing, if I stopped and took thought, it would never be written at all; and the advantage of the method is that it sweeps up accidentally several stray matters which I should exclude if I hesitated, but which are the diamonds of the dustheap.

A diary, she observes at the age of forty-eight, also builds a bridge between our present selves and our future ones, which are notoriously cacophonous in their convictions. She writes with a wink:

In spite of some tremors I think I shall go on with this diary for the present. I sometimes think that I have worked through the layer of style which suited it — suited the comfortable bright hour, after tea; and the thing I’ve reached now is less pliable. Never mind; I fancy old Virginia, putting on her spectacles to read of March 1920 will decidedly wish me to continue. Greetings! my dear ghost; and take heed that I don’t think 50 a very great age. Several good books can be written still; and here’s the bricks for a fine one.

At the outset of The Journals of André Gide (public library), the 21-year-old future Nobel laureate ponders what would become a six-decade commitment:

Whenever I get ready to write really sincere notes in this notebook, I shall have to undertake such a disentangling in my cluttered brain that, to stir up all that dust, I am waiting for a series of vast empty hours, a long old, a convalescence, during which my constantly reawakened curiosities will be at rest; during which my sole care will be to rediscover myself.

A year later, Gide offers a meta-remark on the endeavor already underway:

A diary is useful during conscious, intentional, and painful spiritual evolutions. Then you want to know where you stand… An intimate diary is interesting especially when it records the awakening of ideas; or the awakening of the senses at puberty; or else when you feel yourself to be dying.

Henry David Thoreau was among history’s greatest and most lyrical diarists, as evidenced by The Journal of Henry David Thoreau, 1837–1861 (public library) — that endlessly revisitable compendium, full of Thoreau’s timeless meditations on everything from the true meaning of success to the greatest gift of growing old to the meaning of human life. In an entry from October of 1857, Thoreau considers the allure of the diary not for the writer but for the reader:

Is not the poet bound to write his own biography? Is there any other work for him but a good journal? We do not wish to know how his imaginary hero, but how he, the actual hero, lived from day to day.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, a close friend of Thoreau’s and a keen observer of the human experience, illuminated the question of diary-writing with a beautiful sidewise gleam, observing in The Journals of Ralph Waldo Emerson (public library):

The good writer seems to be writing about himself, but has his eye always on that thread of the Universe which runs through himself and all things.

In her eternally moving The Diary of a Young Girl (public library), Anne Frank at first questioned the very act that immortalized her and touched the lives of millions:

For someone like me, it is a very strange habit to write in a diary. Not only that I have never written before, but it strikes me that later neither I, nor anyone else, will care for the outpouring of a thirteen year old schoolgirl.

Oscar Wilde, a man of strong opinions and even stronger passions, exercised his characteristic wit in The Importance of Being Earnest (public library):

I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read in the train.

In a 1957 diary entry found in Reborn: Journals and Notebooks, 1947–1963 (public library) — the same volume that gave us Susan Sontag on marriage, life and death, the duties of being 24, and her 10 rules for raising a child — 24-year-old Sontag writes under the heading “On Keeping a Journal”:

Superficial to understand the journal as just a receptacle for one’s private, secret thoughts—like a confidante who is deaf, dumb, and illiterate. In the journal I do not just express myself more openly than I could do to any person; I create myself. The journal is a vehicle for my sense of selfhood. It represents me as emotionally and spiritually independent. Therefore (alas) it does not simply record my actual, daily life but rather — in many cases — offers an alternative to it.

There is often a contradiction between the meaning of our actions toward a person and what we say we feel toward that person in a journal. But this does not mean that what we do is shallow, and only what we confess to ourselves is deep. Confessions, I mean sincere confessions of course, can be more shallow than actions. I am thinking now of what I read today (when I went up to 122 B[oulevar]d S[ain]t-G[ermain] to check for her mail) in H’s [Sontag’s lover ] journal about me — that curt, unfair, uncharitable assessment of me which concludes by her saying that she really doesn’t like me but my passion for her is acceptable and opportune. God knows it hurts, and I feel indignant.

A few years later, Sontag revisits the subject in an essay about Albert Camus’s notebooks, found in her 1966 collection Against Interpretation: And Other Essays (public library):

Of course, a writer’s journal must not be judged by the standards of a diary. The notebooks of a writer have a very special function: in them he builds up, piece by piece, the identity of a writer to himself. Typically, writers’ notebooks are crammed with statements about the will: the will to write, the will to love, the will to renounce love, the will to go on living. The journal is where a writer is heroic to himself. In it he exists solely as a perceiving, suffering, struggling being.

In an entry from April of 1823, the influential French artist Eugène Delacroix writes at the age of twenty-five:

I am taking up my Journal again after a long break. I think it may be a way of calming this nervous excitement that has been worrying me for so long.

But by the following spring, he is anguished by the inability to sustain this fruitful habit despite its clear creative and spiritual benefits:

I have hurriedly re-read the whole of my Journal. I regret the gaps. I feel as though I were still master of the days I have recorded, even though they are past, whereas those not mentioned in the pages are as though they had never been.

How low have I fallen? Am I then so weak that those flimsy pages will be the only record of my life remaining to me? The future is all blackness. The past, where I have not recorded it, is the same.

And yet he sees in the diary a way of better inhabiting his own life, and sets out to do just that:

I grumble at having to perform this task, but why always be indignant at my weakness? Can I spend a single day without food or sleep? So much for my body. But my mind the evolution of my soul are to be destroyed because I do not want to owe what is left of them to the necessity of writing. Nothing is better than having some small task to perform every day.

Even one task fulfilled at regular intervals in a man’s life can bring order into his life as a whole; everything else hinges upon it. By keeping a record of my experiences I live my life twice over. The past returns to me. The future is always with me.

Delacroix proceeded to fill more than twenty notebooks with this daily task for the remainder of his life, preserved for posterity in The Journal of Eugène Delacroix (public library).

Sylvia Plath, like Nin, began keeping a diary at the age of eleven and penned nearly ten volumes, which were posthumously edited and published as The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath (public library) — that vibrant and bittersweet compendium that gave us Plath on life and death, wholeheartedness, and the reverie of nature. She saw her diary as a tool to “warm up” her formal writing, but perhaps the most ensnaring passage from her published journals is one of strange synchronicity as two literary legends of staggering genius and staggering tragedy meet across space and time through the pages of their diaries. In February of 1957, six years before her suicide, Plath captures the role of the diary as a lifeline for the writer with poignancy utterly harrowing in history’s hindsight:

Just now I pick up the blessed diary of Virginia Woolf which I bought with a battery of her novels saturday with Ted. And she works off her depression over rejections from Harper’s (no less! – – – and I hardly can believe that the Big Ones get rejected, too!) by cleaning out the kitchen. And cooks haddock & sausage. Bless her. I feel my life linked to her , somehow. I love her – – – from reading Mrs. Dalloway for Mr. Crockett – – – and I can still hear Elizabeth Drew’s voice sending a shiver down my back in the huge Smith class-room, reading from To The Lighthouse. But her suicide, I felt I was reduplicating in that black summer of 1953. Only I couldn’t drown. I suppose I’ll always be over-vulnerable, slightly paranoid. But I’m also so damn healthy & resilient. And apple-pie happy. Only I’ve got to write. I feel sick, this week, of having written nothing lately.

But perhaps the most important meta-point on the subject comes from Woolf herself, who considered the impact of reading a writer’s diaries on how we experience his or her formal work, an impact the magnitude of which she argues is ours to decide on:

How far, we must ask ourselves, is a book influenced by its writer’s life — how far is it safe to let the man interpret the writer? How far shall we resist or give way to the sympathies and antipathies that the man himself rouses in us — so sensitive are words, so receptive of the character of the author? These are questions that press upon us when we read lives and letters, and we must answer them for ourselves, for nothing can be more fatal than to be guided by the preferences of others in a matter so personal.

Indeed, if there is one thing I’ve learned about diaries, both by having read tens of thousands of pages of artists’ and writers’ journals and by having frequently revisited my own from the distance of time, is that nothing written in a diary is to be taken as the diarist’s personal dogma. A journal is an artificially permanent record of thought and inner life, which are invariably transient — something the most prolific diarist in modern literary history articulated herself in her elegant defense of the fluid self. We are creatures of remarkable moodiness and mental turbulence, and what we think we believe at any given moment — those capital-T Truths we arrive at about ourselves and the world — can be profoundly different from our beliefs a decade, a year, and sometimes even a day later.

This, perhaps, is the greatest gift of the diary — its capacity to stand as a living monument to our own fluidity, a reminder that our present selves are chronically unreliable predictors of our future values and that we change unrecognizably over the course of our lives.

BP

Anaïs Nin on Writing, the Future of the Novel, and How Keeping a Diary Enhances Creativity: Wisdom from a Rare 1947 Chapbook

“It is in the moments of emotional crisis that human beings reveal themselves most accurately.”

In December of 1946, Anaïs Nin was invited to give a lecture on writing at Dartmouth, which received an overwhelming response. The following summer, after receiving countless requests, Nin adapted the talk in chapbook titled On Writing, which she printed at her own Gremor Press — the small publishing house Nin founded in 1942 out of disillusionment with mainstream publishing, which led her to teach herself letterpress and self-publish a handful of elegant manually typeset books with gorgeous engravings by her husband.

On Writing, in which Nin considers the future of the novel and reflects on what keeping her famous diaries since the age of eleven taught her about writing, was published in a limited edition of 1,000 copies, 750 of which were for sale. Only a few are known to survive. I was fortunate enough to hunt down one of them — here is its gist, for our shared enrichment.

Nin, with insight at once incredibly timely and subtly heartbreaking in our age of mass-produced commercial fiction coexisting with bold independent experimentation with the form, begins by considering the evolving role of the modern novelist:

In the presence of a collective neurosis it is all the more essential for the novelist not to share with the neurotic this paralyzing fear of nature which has been the cause of so much sterility in life and in the writing of today.

[…]

While we refuse to organize the confusions within us we will never have an objective understanding of what is happening outside.

We will not be able to relate to it, to choose sides, to evaluate historically, and consequently we will be incapacitated for action.

Today a novelist’s preoccupation with inner psychological distortions does not stem from a morbid love of illness but from a knowledge that this is the theme of our new reality.

[…]

Like the modern physicist the novelist of today should face the fact that this new psychological reality can be explored and dealt with only under the conditions of tremendously high atmospheric pressures, temperatures and speed, as well as in terms of new time-space dimensions for which the old containers represented by the traditional forms and conventions of the novel are completely inadequate and inappropriate.

That is why James Joyce shattered the old form of the novel and let his writing erupt in a veritable flow of associations.

Most novels today are inadequate because they reflect not our experience, but people’s fear of experience. They portray all the evasions.

Nin reiterates her conviction that emotionality is essential to creativity:

In order to take action full maturity in experience is required. Novels which contribute to our emotional atrophy only deepen our blindness.

And nothing that we do not discover emotionally will have the power to alter our vision.

The constant evasion of emotional experience has created an immaturity which turns all experience into traumatic shocks from which the human being derives no strength or development, but neurosis.

Echoing Virginia Woolf’s faith in the creative benefits of keeping a diary, later famously articulated by Joan Didion as well, Nin reflects on her experience as a prolific diarist:

It was while writing a Diary that I discovered how to capture the living moments.

Keeping a Diary all my life helped me to discover some basic elements essential to the vitality of writing.

When I speak of the relationship between my diary and writing I do not intend to generalize as to the value of keeping a diary, or to advise anyone to do so, but merely to extract from this habit certain discoveries which can be easily transposed to other kinds of writing.

Of these the most important is naturalness and spontaneity. These elements sprung, I observed, from my freedom of selection: in the Diary I only wrote of what interested me genuinely, what I felt most strongly at the moment, and I found this fervor, this enthusiasm produced a vividness which often withered in the formal work. Improvisation, free association, obedience to mood, impulse, bought forth countless images, portraits, descriptions, impressionistic sketches, symphonic experiments, from which I could dip at any time for material.

The Diary dealing always with the immediate present, the warm, the near, being written at white heat, developed a love of the living moment, of the immediate emotional reaction to experience, which revealed the power of recreation to lie in the sensibilities rather than in memory or critical intellectual perception.

The Diary, creating a vast tapestry, a web, exposing constantly the relation between past and present, weaving meticulously the invisible interaction, noting the repetitions of themes, developed in the sense of the totality of personality, this tale without beginning or end which encloses all things, and relates all things, as a strong antidote to the unrelatedness, incoherence and disintegration of the modern man. I could follow the inevitable pattern and obtain a large, panoramic view of character.

The Diary also taught her that the ideal of “objective” writing is an oppressive standard that only drains literature, which is inherently subjective, of its vitality:

This personal relationship to all things, which is condemned as subjective, limiting, I found to be the core of individuality, personality, and originality. The idea that subjectivity is an impasse is as false as the idea that objectivity leads to a larger form of life.

A deep personal relationship reaches far beyond the personal into the general. Again it is a matter of depths.

But her greatest insight from the Diary has less to do with writing and more to do with human nature:

It is in the moments of emotional crisis that human beings reveal themselves most accurately. … The heightened moments … are the moments of revelation. It is the moment when the real self rises to the surface, shatters its false roles, erupts and assumes reality and identity. The fiery moments of passionate experience are the moments of wholeness and totality of the personality.

Touching on the concept of the “fourth culture” and the ever-timely idea that science and philosophy need each other, Nin observes:

The new dimension in character and reality requires a fusion of two extremes which have been handled separately, on the one side by poets, and on the other by the so called realists.

Another learning from her diary experience captures the same idea Ray Bradbury articulated in arguing that ideation should flow uninhibited from the intuitive mind, and the intellect-as-editor should only come later. Nin considers the discipline this requires:

To achieve perfection in writing while retaining naturalness it was important to write a great deal, to write fluently, as the pianist practices the piano, rather than to correct constantly one page until it withers. To write continuously, to try over and over again to capture a certain mood, a certain experience. Intensive correcting may lead to monotony, to working on dead matter, whereas continuing to write and to write until perfection is achieved through repetition is a way to elude this monotony, to avoid performing an autopsy. Sheer playing of scales, practice, repetition — then by the time one is ready to write a story or a novel a great deal of natural distillation and softing has been accomplished.

Indeed, Nin considers the inner censor that so often stands in the way of this flow to be the gravest peril of writing, one that the diary taught her to bypass:

There is another great danger for the writer, perhaps the greatest one of all: his consciousness of the multiple taboos society has imposed on literature, and his inner censor. … It is surprising how well one writes if one thinks no one will read [the writing].

This honesty, this absence of posturing, is a most fecund source of material. The writer’s task is to overthrow the taboos rather than accept them.

In elaborating on this, Nin adds to history’s most profound definitions of art:

Naked truth is unbearable to most, and art is our most effective means of overcoming human resistance to truth. The writer has the same role as the surgeon and his handling of anaesthesia is as important as his skill with the knife.

Human beings, in their resistance to truth, erect fortresses and some of these fortresses can only be demolished by the dynamic power of the symbol, which reaches the emotions directly.

Reflecting on the power of ancient stories and fairy tales, Nin returns to the critical role of sensuality in art, once again asserting that emotion and logic coexist — but only if the artist or writer is able to fully inhabit his or her own emotionality, thus understanding its underlying patterns:

In the human unconscious itself there is an indigenous structure and if we are able to detect and grasp it we have the plot, the form and style of the novel of the future.

In this apparently chaotic world of the unconscious there is an inevitability as logical, as coherent, as final as any to be found in classical drama.

In this new dimension of character the form is created by the meaning, it is born of the theme. It is created very much as the earth itself is created, by a series of inner convulsions and eruptions, dictated by inner geological tensions.

It is an organic development.

Concluding with an example of her own creative process — an anecdote about how a sudden memory of a sight at a concert she had heard in Paris years earlier inspired a key section in her novel Ladders to Fire — Nin speaks to the importance of unconscious processing in how creativity works and remarks:

How creative the unconscious can be if one allows it to work spontaneously.

For more wisdom on the written word, see this omnibus of 50+ famous authors’ advice on writing, including Elmore Leonard’s 10 rules of writing, Walter Benjamin’s thirteen doctrines, H. P. Lovecraft’s advice to aspiring writers, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s letter to his daughter, Zadie Smith’s 10 rules of writing, Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 keys to the power of the written word, David Ogilvy’s 10 no-bullshit tips, Henry Miller’s 11 commandments, Jack Kerouac’s 30 beliefs and techniques, John Steinbeck’s 6 pointers, and Susan Sontag’s synthesized learnings.

Complement with Nin’s timeless wisdom from her now-published diaries, including her reflections on the meaning of life, how inviting the unfamiliar helps us live more richly, Paris vs. New York, why emotional excess is essential to creativity, and how our objects define us.

BP

Virginia Woolf on the Creative Benefits of Keeping a Diary

“The habit of writing thus for my own eye only is good practice. It loosens the ligaments.”

Literary icon Virginia Woolf (January 25, 1882–March 28, 1941) was not only a masterful letter-writer and little-known children’s book author, but also a dedicated diarist on par with Susan Sontag and Anaïs Nin. Although she kept some sporadic early journals, Woolf didn’t begin serious journaling until 1915, when she was 33. Once she did, she continued doggedly until her last entry in 1941, four days before her death, leaving behind 26 volumes written in her own hand. More than a mere tool of self-exploration, however, Woolf approached the diary as a kind of R&D lab for her craft. As her husband observes in the introduction to her collected journals, A Writer’s Diary (public library), Woolf’s journaling was “a method of practicing or trying out the art of writing.”

In an entry from April 20th, 1919, Woolf makes a case for the creative benefits of keeping a diary — something Joan Didion echoed nearly a century and a half later in her timeless essay on keeping a notebook — and argues for it as an essential tool for honing one’s writing style:

I got out this diary and read, as one always does read one’s own writing, with a kind of guilty intensity. I confess that the rough and random style of it, often so ungrammatical, and crying for a word altered, afflicted me somewhat. I am trying to tell whichever self it is that reads this hereafter that I can write very much better; and take no time over this; and forbid her to let the eye of man behold it. And now I may add my little compliment to the effect that it has a slapdash and vigour and sometimes hits an unexpected bull’s eye. But what is more to the point is my belief that the habit of writing thus for my own eye only is good practice. It loosens the ligaments. Never mind the misses and the stumbles. Going at such a pace as I do I must make the most direct and instant shots at my object, and thus have to lay hands on words, choose them and shoot them with no more pause than is needed to put my pen in the ink. I believe that during the past year I can trace some increase of ease in my professional writing which I attribute to my casual half hours after tea. Moreover there looms ahead of me the shadow of some kind of form which a diary might attain to. I might in the course of time learn what it is that one can make of this loose, drifting material of life; finding another use for it than the use I put it to, so much more consciously and scrupulously, in fiction. What sort of diary should I like mine to be? Something loose knit and yet not slovenly, so elastic that it will embrace anything, solemn, slight or beautiful that comes into my mind. I should like it to resemble some deep old desk, or capacious hold-all, in which one flings a mass of odds and ends without looking them through. I should like to come back, after a year or two, and find that the collection had sorted itself and refined itself and coalesced, as such deposits so mysteriously do, into a mould, transparent enough to reflect the light of our life, and yet steady, tranquil compounds with the aloofness of a work of art. The main requisite, I think on re-reading my old volumes, is not to play the part of censor, but to write as the mood comes or of anything whatever; since I was curious to find how I went for things put in haphazard, and found the significance to lie where I never saw it at the time. But looseness quickly becomes slovenly. A little effort is needed to face a character or an incident which needs to be recorded. Nor can one let the pen write without guidance; for fear of becoming slack and untidy. . . .

It was also an autobiographical tool. In an entry from January 20th, 1919, a 37-year-old Woolf considers the utility of the diaries to her future self, noting with equal parts sharp self-awareness and near-comic self-consciousness her own young-person’s perception of 50 as an “elderly” age:

I note however that this diary writing does not count as writing, since I have just re-read my year’s diary and am much struck by the rapid haphazard gallop at which it swings along, sometimes indeed jerking almost intolerably over the cobbles. Still if it were not written rather faster than the fastest type-writing, if I stopped and took thought, it would never be written at all; and the advantage of the method is that it sweeps up accidentally several stray matters which I should exclude if I hesitated, but which are the diamonds of the dustheap. If Virginia Woolf at the age of 50, when she sits down to build her memoirs out of these books, is unable to make a phrase as it should be made, I can only condole with her and remind her of the existence of the fireplace, where she has my leave to burn these pages to so many black films with red eyes in them. But how I envy her the task I am preparing for her! There is none I should like better. Already my 37th birthday next Saturday is robbed of some of its terrors by the thought. Partly for the benefit of this elderly lady (no subterfuges will then be possible: 50 is elderly, though I anticipate her protest and agree that it is not old) partly to give the year a solid foundation I intend to spend the evenings of this week of captivity in making out an account of my friendships and their present condition, with some account of my friends’ characters; and to add an estimate of their work and a forecast of their future works. The lady of 50 will be able to say how near to the truth I come; but I have written enough for tonight (only 15 minutes, I see).

On March 9th, 1920, she returns to her future “elderly” self, this time with more hopefulness, presenting the diary as fodder for her future creative output — the building blocks of her combinatorial creativity:

In spite of some tremors I think I shall go on with this diary for the present. I sometimes think that I have worked through the layer of style which suited it — suited the comfortable bright hour, after tea; and the thing I’ve reached now is less pliable. Never mind; I fancy old Virginia, putting on her spectacles to read of March 1920 will decidedly wish me to continue. Greetings! my dear ghost; and take heed that I don’t think 50 a very great age. Several good books can be written still; and here’s the bricks for a fine one.

Portrait of Virginia Woolf by Roger Fry, 1917, via Wikimedia Commons

And yet Woolf’s relationship with the diary is at times ambivalent: On June 14th, 1925, she laments:

A disgraceful confession — this is Sunday morning and just after ten, and here I am sitting down to write diary and not fiction or reviews, without any excuse, except the state of my mind.

Like any dedicated diarist has experienced first-hand, Woolf observes the troublesome friction between the diary as a therapeutic tool for exorcising one’s demons and its uncomfortable counterarguments for one’s ego. On October 25th, 1920, she records her anguish:

(First day of winter time) Why is life so tragic; so like a little strip of pavement over an abyss. I look down; I feel giddy; I wonder how I am ever to walk to the end. But why do I feel this: Now that I say it I don’t feel it. The fire burns; we are going to hear the Beggar’s Opera. Only it lies about me; I can’t keep my eyes shut. It’s a feeling of impotence; of cutting no ice. Here I sit at Richmond, and like a lantern stood in the middle of a field my light goes up in darkness. Melancholy diminishes as I write. Why then don’t I write it down oftener? Well, one’s vanity forbids. I want to appear a success even to myself. Yet I don’t get to the bottom of it.

On December 29th, 1940, some eight years after her self-constructed brink of elderly age, she observes wistfully, aligning the desire to write in the diary with her writerly and existential vitality:

There are moments when the sail flaps. Then, being a great amateur of the art of life, determined to suck my orange, off, like a wasp if the blossom I’m on fades, as it did yesterday — I ride across the downs to the cliffs. A roll of barbed wire is hooped on the edge. I rubbed my mind brisk along the Newhaven road. Shabby old maids buying groceries, in that desert road with the villas; in the wet. And Newhaven gashed. But tire the body and the mind sleeps. All desire to write diary here has flagged. What is the right antidote? I must sniff round. I think Mme. de Sevigne. Writing to be a daily pleasure. I detest the hardness of old age — I feel it. I rasp. I’m tart.

Exactly three months later, Woolf filled her pockets with stones, walked into the river near her home in Sussex, and drowned herself.

In the introduction to A Writer’s Diary, from which all of these excerpts come, Woolf’s husband adds an apt caveat:

The diary is too personal to be published as a whole during the lifetime of many people referred to in it. It is, I think, nearly always a mistake to publish extracts from diaries or letters, particularly if the omissions have to be made in order to protect the feelings or reputations of the living. The omissions almost always distort or conceal the true character of the diarist or letter-writer and produce spiritually what an Academy picture does materially, smoothing out the wrinkles, warts, frowns, and asperities. At the best and even unexpurgated, diaries give a distorted or one-sided portrait of the writer, because, as Virginia Woolf herself remarks somewhere in these diaries, one gets into the habit of recording one particular kind of mood — irritation or misery, say — and of not writing one’s diary when one is feeling the opposite. The portrait is therefore from the start unbalanced, and, if someone then deliberately removes another characteristic, it may well become a mere caricature.

BP

Lynda Barry’s Illustrated Field Guide to Keeping a Visual Diary and Cultivating a Capacity for Creative Observation

How to master the infinitely rewarding art of “being present and seeing what’s there.”

“It gives me such a sense of peace to draw; more than prayer, walks, anything,” Sylvia Plath wrote in her diary when she first began working on her little-known drawings. “The great benefit of drawing … is that when you look at something, you see it for the first time,” the great Milton Glaser observed in sharing his wisdom on life. “And you can spend your life without ever seeing anything.”

Hardly anyone has explored this delicate relationship between drawing and looking, drawing and experiencing, drawing and thinking with more rigor, wit, and insight than Lynda Barry, one of the greatest visual artists of our time. In 2011, Barry joined the faculty at the University of Wisconsin to teach a class titled “The Unthinkable Mind” — a wonderfully unusual interdisciplinary course exploring the biological function of the arts and the psychological mechanisms of the creative impulse by blending cognitive science, visual art, and writing. Barry’s magnificently illustrated syllabus notes and class assignments, many of which she had released on her Tumblr throughout each semester, are now collected in Syllabus: Notes from an Accidental Professor (public library | IndieBound) — a slim but infinitely invigorating compendium of illustrated exercises, instructions, and meditations on everything from how to keep a diary (because, as we know, the creative benefits of doing so are vast) to memorizing things effectively to navigating the psychological phases of the creative process to why art exists in the first place.

Echoing Joan Didion’s unforgettable reflections on keeping a notebook, Barry traces her own journey and what is to be gained by those endeavoring to master this simple, powerful practice:

I began keeping a notebook in a serious way when I met my teacher Marilyn Frasca in 1975 at the Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington.

She showed me ways of using these simple things — our hands, a pen, and some paper — as both a navigation and expedition device, one that could reliably carry me into my past, deeper into my present, or farther into a place I have come to call “the image world” — a place we all know, even if we don’t notice this knowing until someone reminds us of its ever-present existence.

I wasn’t quite 20 years old when I started my first notebook. I had no idea that nearly 40 years later, I would not only still be using it as the most reliable route to the thing I’ve come to call my work, but I’d also be showing others how to use it too, as a place to practice a physical activity — in this case writing and drawing by hand — with a certain state of mind.

This practice can result in … a wonderful side effect: a visual or written image we can call “a work of art”; although a work of art is not what I’m after when I’m practicing this activity.

What am I after? I’m after what Marilyn Frasca called “being present and seeing what’s there.”

While Barry’s exercises are decidedly and refreshingly practical, they don’t shy away from the philosophical — she explores subjects like the eternal question of what makes good art and how drawing can change our already elastic perception of time. Along the way, she illuminates these questions by assigning readings as diverse as Emily Dickinson’s poetry and Iain McGilchrist’s The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World.

All in all, Barry’s Syllabus makes not only tangible but also practically attainable the deep intuition that some of history’s greatest minds have articulated — the idea that keeping a notebook or a diary, whether visual or otherwise, is one of the most consciousness-expanding ways of bearing witness to our experience and our journey through this world.

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