Tuesday, April 29, 2008
OK. I promised to write about writing.
I was inspired to think about this by Lorianne, who was in turn inspired by her friend Mark. Mark referred to an excellent recent New Yorker article by Louis Menand called “Woke Up This Morning,” about why people keep and read diaries:
“Rationally considered, what is natural or healthy about writing down what happened every day in a book that no one else is supposed to read? Isn’t there something a little O.C.D. about this kind of behavior? Writing is onerous...writing feels like work because it is work -- and, day by day, life is pretty routine, repetitive, and, we should face it, boring. So why do a few keep diaries, when diary-keeping is, for many, too much?”
Menand distinguishes between diaries and journals, memoirs and blogs -- a distinction that I’m not sure is really warranted. I think the writing of any of those things comes from a common place. And what is that place?
Menand proposes three theories about why people keep diaries: The ego theory, which holds that you believe everything that happens to you is important, and therefore worthy of recording; the id theory, in which people use their diaries as storehouses of secret longing and admissions they would be pained to make publicly; and the superego theory, which holds that diarists are writing for imagined readers as “exercises in self-justification.”
In my own case, I have written habitually since the fifth grade, when I began keeping a journal. There are elements of all three theories in my writing: I do write for imagined future readers, even as I dread having them read all the id-related urges and disappointments of my life.
Initially, I didn’t record secret thoughts, though I had plenty of them as a middle schooler. Even as I grew older, I never recorded anything I thought would be disastrous if publicly revealed. (I'm not sure anything fits that category anymore!)
And though I imagined readers, I never expected anyone to truly read my journals. (In this case, blogging does diverge from journal-keeping.)
For me, keeping a journal was mostly an organizing tool. It helped me record the events of my life, give them some order and perspective, and reflect on them a bit. My journals aren’t really very deep. I don’t ruminate on the meaning of life or heavy philosophical issues. I mostly write about doing such-and-such, going to so-and-so place. Which, to me, is really what life is about.
I occasionally re-read my journals, but it’s only the relatively recent ones that interest me much. As the journals themselves age and I evolve, they lose relevance, and begin to seem like they belong to someone else. (And frankly, they’re sometimes not that entertaining...so they’re the really BORING journals of someone else.)
Also, many of my journals seem a little whiny. When I’m venting the sorts of things on paper that I might not bring up in conversation with others, I tend to complain. In fact, I think a need to complain often feeds the compulsion to write -- Menand’s id theory in action.
These days, I have abandoned the paper journals for the blog, though here I am obviously writing partly for the eyes of others. I like the blog, because it forces me to be brief and to self-edit (this long entry notwithstanding). It also feeds another urge, a purely creative one, perhaps more than the paper journals did.
As I’ve said before, I periodically entertain the thought of destroying the old paper journals. In fact, when I bought myself a shredder years ago, that’s what I intended to use it for.
But nary a journal page has been fed to the shredder -- at least, not yet.
(Photo: Upper East Side, March 2008)