It's Journal Month

I made that up, I guess, but why not? I love reading journals, diaries, and notebooks, especially of writers I admire. Virginia Woolf, from A Writer's Diary: Being Extracts From The Diary of Virginia Woolf, edited by Leonard Woolf:


May 31, 2011

I made that up, I guess, but why not? I love reading journals, diaries, and notebooks, especially of writers I admire. Virginia Woolf, from A Writer's Diary: Being Extracts From The Diary of Virginia Woolf, edited by Leonard Woolf:

What sort of diary should I like mine to be? Something looseknit 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.

That deep old desk is a wonderful thing and very different from most blogs today. Last week I re-read the Note-Book of Anton Chekhov (also edited by Leonard Woolf and translated by S.S. Koteliansky), which contains story and play ideas, aphorisms, quotes of things overheard, and observations:

When I become rich, I shall have a harem in which I shall keep fat naked women, with their buttocks painted green.

Caressing her lover: “My vulture.”

Every day after dinner the husband threatens his wife that he will become a monk, and the wife cries.

You won’t become a saint through other people’s sins.

Z: “As you are going to town, post my letter in the letter-box.”
N: (alarmed) “Where? I don’t know where the letter-box is.”

(Note to translators of Russian: Chekhov evidently kept many more journals that still, in this new millennium, need translating into English. Please.)

I include writers’ journal entries in my course packets to show students how and what type of images are being captured. Somerset Maugham:

The chik-chak. It is a small brown lizard which gives the sound from which it gains its name. You can hardly believe that so loud a noise can come from so small a throat. You hear it at night, a curiously human sound that breaks upon the silence suddenly, and there is something derisive about it. You might think it was chuckling with amusement at the white men who come and go and leave all things as they were.

We were sitting in a wine shop in Capri when Norman came in and told us that T. was abut to shoot himself. We were startled. Norman said that when T. told him what he was going to do he could think of no reason to dissuade him. “Are you going to do anything about it?” I asked. “No.” He ordered a bottle of wine and sat down to await the sound of the shot. [This microfiction is profitably paired with Hemingway’s “The Killers.”]

And Henry James, of course, who writes in his notebook in 1900, “Alice related a day or two ago another little anecdote, of New England, of ‘Weymouth’ origin, in which there might be some small very good thing.” He sketches a story about a woman forced to confront a burglar when her husband won’t do it. In a notebook of 1911 he writes, “Just to seize the tip of the tail of the idea that I noted a longish time [ago], given me by Alice, a reminiscence of something, I think, that had happened at Weymouth, Mass., in her childhood….” It’s instructive and thrilling to watch him pick back up that “small very good thing” after 11 years and work it in greater detail.

A few days ago I found and liked Annie Ernaux’s Things Seen, one in the French Voices series from University Of Nebraska Press (2010). Her brief chronicles of things seen and heard around Paris—terrorism, homelessness, affection, domesticity—in the 1990s has been called “fleeting [and] ghostly”:

Sales. All entrances to the Trois-Fontaines parking lot are blocked by lines of cars. People want to be the first to throw themselves at the clothes, dishes, like plunderers in a conquered city. The aisles are inundated by a flood of people, entire families with children in strollers, groups of girls. In the stores, frenzy. A tremendous lust to acquire fills the air.
The shopping center has become the most familiar place in this end of the century, like the church in times past. Chez Caroll, Froggy, Lacoste: people are seeking something to help them live, relief from time and death. [Trans. Jonathan Kaplansky]

I suspect most people who write, have written, or would like to write have kept journals or notebooks, even if the entries aren’t all in one place. For years I wrote in little notebooks and big notebooks and on scraps of paper that were everywhere and which Mrs. Churm called The Insanity Notes. I own three or four generations of tape recorders with their different-sized audio tapes on which I once muttered darkly, and of course all sorts of digital text and sound files on several different computers. It wasn’t until my wife got me The Insanity Notebook, as she calls it—a leather pocket journal with replaceable blank pads—that I finally started putting things in one place. The pads have piled up over the last few years, and though I’ve tried to keep them safe and in order, I didn’t use to date them, so when our cats played field hockey in them recently I felt a little ill and decided they deserved more care.

For the month of June I’m going to try to post, each business day, one entry from somewhere in those notebooks. Most entries I don’t remember writing; some I have no idea who or what is being described; some I wouldn’t agree with now. To put them up here is both pressure (what if I can’t find 22 decent ones in all those thousands of words?) and liberation (they don’t have to be shaped or extended like my usual blog posts).

In any case, if you don’t care for my stuff, jump back 350 years and follow Samuel Pepys’ diary, day by day, in this very fine online version with annotations, or read The Blog of Henry David Thoreau, which continuously posts entries from his voluminous journals, or leave your own entries in the comments. I'm a big reader of these things.


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