The Morgan Library and Museum in New York opened an exhibit on Friday called “The Diary: Three Centuries of Private Lives.” On display visitors have the privilege of studying the pages of journals and diaries that belonged to authors like John Steinbeck and Nathaniel Hawthorne. It sounds fascinating. But it got me to thinking:
Why do we write things down? Why do we chronicle our lives? And when we do, are we true to who we really are?
I have been a journalist from the very tender age of ten. My first diary had Spottie Dottie (a Hello Kitty character) on the front. It was also kept under lock and key. There was something about being able to decide for myself which secrets to share with everyone and which ones to keep to myself. When I put them down on paper, they feel more real.
In her essay “On Keeping a Notebook,” Joan Didion writes: “The impulse to write things down is a peculiarly compulsive one, inexplicable to those who do not share it, useful only accidentally, only secondarily, in the way that any compulsion tries to justify itself…So the point of my keeping a notebook has never been, nor is it now, to have an accurate factual record of what I have been doing or thinking.” We don’t write things down for other people, and we don’t write things down in an effort to preserve our past experiences. We write things down so that we can remember them the way we think they ought to be. If Didion is correct (and I believe she is), these writings are never intentionally useful to anyone but the person who writes them. This is only logical since our lives are most useful to our own selves.
I suppose the stakes are different for famous people who are in danger of having their private thoughts put on display in some library years after their demise. Understandably, they would feel compelled to censor themselves to promote the image they worked so diligently (or maybe not so much) to create. But it has been my experience as a normal person with a normal life and normal thoughts that censoring yourself in your writing is best left undone. Otherwise you revisit the writings later, and you have no knowledge whatsoever of the person you find there. That person is an enigma, a fictional creation that provides no bearing on where you’ve come from or what you’ve been through.
My writings to myself are much more frank and straightforward than they have ever been before. There are no self-imposed limitations or restrictions on what I am allowed to say to myself, and there are no omissions in the interest of future readers. If you seek to know me through my writing, you will know the truest, most honest version of me. If I can’t recognize myself in my own experiences years from now, what was the purpose of writing them down at all?