foster a sterile
that is a waste of
the writer's time?'
"Some time ago a disgruntled poetry critic delivered a broadside against journal-writing. What he had in his sights was the whole creative writing industry approach to poetry - the approach summed up in the popular self-help book The Artist's Way. I have a copy of this book and though I haven't got very far into it, I recall the advice to every prospective or practising artist to write three "morning pages" - just whatever comes, uncensored, into the mind and on to the paper first thing, preferably before breakfast. The pages are to be regarded as a kind of compost or even manure kept for a while in a box, but not reread, or lovingly treasured, and eventually thrown away.
I like the idea but - never got into the habit of writing morning pages. However, I have kept a kind of journal for the past 11 years. The broadside against journal-writing made me think about my practice: could journal-writing foster a sterile self-absorption; is it simply a waste of the writer's time, which would be better employed on "proper" literary genres with a public function? Some writers, of course, have done their best work in the form of journals: Anaïs Nin and André Gide come to mind, both perhaps rather self-absorbed characters. But a question arises with these polished productions: were they always, secretly or not, intended for publication, and does that make them in some sense not journals at all?
My journals are not intended for publication - in fact they contain highly sensitive material I would not want anyone else to read. But though they are private pages, they form the background to much of the more public writing I do. Poems very often start off life as a phrase or a few lines in my journal. Sometimes a paragraph of an essay or article begins, miraculously, to unfurl as I am travelling on the underground or walking in the park: I curse myself if the journal is not to hand. Dreams (the more copious and bizarre the better) are recorded in it.
My journal-writing habits - sticking everything into one notebook without any system other than chronology - reflect my general incapacity to get to grips with filing. This incapacity is apparently shared by Robin Cook, the former British Foreign Secretary, who said that after the IRA had blown up his office together with his filing cabinets he realised the futility of filing. I could never manage the impressively systematic approach of the heroine of Doris Lessing'sThe Golden Notebook, who keeps four colour-coded notebooks for different aspects of her life (Africa, politics, autobiography, daily life), though they are eventually integrated into the single all-encompassing golden notebook of the title.
Juggling different notebooks is too complicated - I would never have the right one to hand. I prefer the simplicity of my single, sturdily cardboard-bound but not precious A5 books, each containing about 170 pages. I get through one every two or three months.
Why do I still spend time in cafés and pubs (my preferred places for journal-writing) engaged in this anti-social practice of communing with pages of lined paper - unlined journals are too arty for me - instead of with people? The reason is certainly not primarily to intrigue my witnesses, though quite often in pubs I have had to deal with requests of the "Go on now, tell us what you're writing about - are you writing about us?" variety. The simple answer is that I enjoy it.
Sometimes, and this may sound a tragic admission, I feel more myself when I'm writing my journal than I do in practically any other situation. This summer in Cortona, I turned down an invitation to a gala dinner to spend the evening on my own in a congenial wine bar with my journal and a bottle of the excellent local Rosso di Montepulciano. I feel almost sheepish in admitting what a good time I had, letting my thoughts coalesce into words and sentences, watching the families of Cortona performing their eveningpasseggiata and taking sips of the rasping, rustic Tuscan red.
For both Gide and Lessing's heroine in The Golden Notebook the holy grail of journal-writing is personal integration, the bringing together of disparate and jarring facets of the personality into a kind of textual harmony. Maybe journal-writing only has appeal or is only necessary for those who start out disjointed.
Beyond personal integration lies interpersonal integration. If for most journal-keepers the journal is a safe place where anything can be said, without shame or guilt, then the idea of a shared journal might seem a bridge too far. Yet this is the notion that hovers tantalisingly throughout Sandor Marai's resonant short novel Embers. At the climax the old general, and the best friend he has not seen for 41 years, contemplate his dead wife's journal, in which she recorded everything (including possibly an affair with the friend) with the utmost honesty. Neither has the courage to read it, and it is thrown into the fire to become embers, and then ash.
'A kind of manure kept in a box'
by Harry Eyres (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Financial Times, November 13, 2004
seeds for thoughts: