Overweening Generalist

Friday, September 9, 2016

On Compulsive Diarists, of Which I Seem To Be One

As of yesterday, I've been "keeping" a journal for 27 years now. I've probably missed writing something for a given day maybe 20 times, probably less. It is compulsive, and obviously a habit.

I've filled cheap spiral-bound lined notebooks - the cheapest I can find at a stationery store or supermarket - both sides of the page, with lots of lists of things in the top margin of the page, little bits of arithmetic.

I'll fill one up over 11 to 16 months, find a swatch of cheap masking tape and write the beginning and ending dates on it, then plaster the tape onto the cover of the notebook, then stash it away in a closet with the others.

Sounds kinda sick? Maybe. Sounds like something Prozac might help? Maybe. After a couple of years of doing it, I went on a kick of reading all of Gore Vidal: his historical novels, his quasi-surrealist "outrageous" novels (like Myra Breckinridge, but there are others), but - and Gore would've hated to see this - I think he was a better essayist than novelist. Even though I often vehemently disagree with Vidal - especially on the value of certain writers over others - I'm always impressed with his quite great ability as an essayist.

                            Gore Vidal, who half-jokingly asserted that diarists were dangerous.
                            When he was in his early twenties he lived with Anais Nin.

And one day I was reading an essay when the topic of diarists came up. Vidal thought - perhaps this was part arch-humor - that diarists were suspect. He linked assassins (like Arthur Bremer, for example) to their diaries. People who wrote only for themselves were suspect. It hurt, a little. But I kept on.

What the hell do I write? Well, the first few years I'd write a lot, every day. Because my life seemed exciting, and I wanted to remember it. Many years later I sat down and read the things I wrote in my early twenties...and it seems like I'm reading someone else's life. Frankly, I sound like a precocious 14 year old girl. "I fixed my bike!" Exclamation points. I'd like to think I'd been putting off re-packing the ball bearings, but I probably just fixed a flat and...was glad I was able to ride again. (!)

Now, I'll often note the mundane. I'll cover four days on one page. Whether I did yoga or not, stuff I ate, people I exchanged emails with. A particular interaction with a guitar student from the day. Oh-so quotidian, and I know you'd be bored to read it.

A reader may note I used the term "diarists" in the title of this blogspew, but when I talk to my friends, I say "journal." Because I've read many famous published diaries (Anais Nin, Samuel Pepys, Anne Frank, the usual suspects) and they seem like "literature" to me. We know Nin thought there would be readers of her diaries. Having an audience in mind greatly changes the content and tone, to put it mildly. Certainly there are entries among my logorrhea that seem fit to be read by others, but when I think about it, I'm one of those compulsive jotters who's really okay with them not being read after my death. What the hell? Page through them for a day or two, have a laff, learn something new and lurid about beastly-dead Michael, then fer crissakes: burn the things for warmth. Or light.

Or just to buy space in a closet.

Okay, some of you actually liked finding great-grandma-ma's diary from the late 19th century. I get it. Do I see myself as great grandma-ma? No. But perhaps I should...

Another reason I don't call myself a "diarist" is that I used to think it gendered: women keep diaries; men write in journals. I don't believe that anymore, but I'm okay with being stuck in my ways. Also: there's a sense in which the bulk of my dull recordings of my days seems almost more like a "log" and don't even deserve the same term as what Anne Frank did.

To return to Gore Vidal's riff - which he repeated a few times - I think he has a point. When Jodi Arias was arrested she wrote a memoir (apparently) in prison, "in case I become famous." Ted Kaczynski, rather famously, had a manifesto. Norwegian mass killer Anders Breivik, who killed 77 and left over 300 injured, gifted us with a 1500 page Facebook document in which he railed against immigrants, multiculturalism, how Western culture is dead, how he felt close to his "Viking" heritage, etc. He also dropped some of his charm onto YouTube, which I haven't seen. Breivik plagiarized from Kaczynski too. The unkindest cut.

Jared Lee Loughner, who shot Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and others, was found a paranoid schizophrenic concerned with the English language, alternative currencies, and a fear of mind control. He bequeathed something for us all on YouTube before heading down to the rally to shoot. (Understanding and representation of Loughner in my neural circuits are adjacent to Robert De Niro's character in Taxi Driver, Travis Bickle and secret service guys, and in a private moment, "Are you talkin' to me? And no wonder: Screenwriter Paul Schrader had Arthur Bremer in mind.)

The Virginia Tech killer, Seung-Hui Choi, sent an 1800 page statement to NBC, with a cache of personal videos and photos. He was inspired by Columbine. LAPD cop Chris Dorner, who was fired from the Ramparts division, left an 11 page manifesto about why he had to kill (it was a "necessary evil"), and he was pissed about the Rodney King incident and how he was treated by fellow cops. So he lost it. I remember watching that manhunt live on TV in Los Angeles. The cops looked about as ready to take Dorner alive as they were ready to take the SLA alive, once they were sure Patty Hearst wasn't in that safe-house in Los Angeles.

I could go on. And on and on. And you may say, "Yea, but you're talking about manifestoes and YouTube videos and Facebook rants." And I say, yea: I think social media has made a lot of people into diarists of a sort.

But really: the Vidal riff is too arch by half. Most of us do it for therapy or simply to ward off "real life" when it becomes a bit too intense. When I read a greatly abridged version of Pepys's diary a few years ago, I was struck by how often he went to the theatre and saw Shakespeare. He notes which play, and I think, "Gee, he saw Taming of the Shrew just a few months ago." But I'm like that with film noir. Read my...errr...journal and note how often I re-watched Double Indemnity or Out of the Past or The Killers or even Armored Car Robbery (saw this again two nights ago: lots of 1950 location shots near places in LA I used to live, and Charles McGraw may be the most hard-boiled actor in all of noir)...

The writer Sarah Manguso published a 93 page book about her 20+ years of compulsive diarizing, and I found this interview with Julie Beck interesting. I think Manguso's sickness (rare autoimmune disease that she wrote a book about) and middle class upbringing must have something to do with writing 800,000 words and counting. I have never counted words, not really caring. Manguso resonates with me about when she started: things in her life seemed momentous, and so much had happened to her, to her own mind. And she wanted to remember it. It is a way of dealing with mortality and memory, no doubt. She thinks keeping a diary will serve as a prevention against "living thoughtlessly." I can see that. But I'm too close to it all to be know to what extent it worked. It does provide solace amid anxiety. The word "graphomania" comes up.

For Manguso, pregnancy and its hormonal cataclysm changed her view of her compulsive diarizing: ordinary "reality" became as important as those "momentous" events, which usually, in hindsight were not so momentous. My favorite line from the interview:

Every exchange that I had with another person, everything I observed, every little throwaway moment I had on the subway observing this and that, the denseness of the experience just seemed unmanageable without writing it down.

For me, this is redolent of a Borges piece, or maybe something from Oliver Sacks.

Here's a huge difference between Manguso and me: I tend to want to "manage" my excitement over ideas I've read in books. Rarely have little impersonal moments with strangers made it into my log/journal/diary, unless they were exceptionally funny or wonderfully weird. I have witnessed verbal tiffs between friends and acquaintances and wrote what I could remember when I got home, in case anyone asks later. What did we do last Christmas? Hold on, I'll go look it up.

In the Beck interview Manguso comments on her diary book, Ongoingness: The End of a Diary, but also her other books. She says narrative, whether in reading or writing, doesn't come easy to her, hence her style. Then she adds, "and I don't need to read or re-read an entire book or re-watch an entire movie." But I love to re-read my favorite books. With each re-reading I'm able to see more and go deeper into that world. Same with films. But: I am not enamored with narrative either; I return to my books and films for mood, style, effects, form. Last night I saw Truffaut's Jules and Jim for maybe the eighth time. And still, it's only as the film nears the climax, that I'm reminded of the ending, which I remember being shocked by the first time. It's quite a climax...so why do I seem to only remember it hazily? I think because I watch it for the friendship of Jules and Jim, the depiction of countryside in France and Germany 1900-1930, French manners, the simmering mental illness of Catherine, the way they negotiate the menage, the accepted insanity of WWI and Jules and Jim being terrified they might kill each other, the interspersed file footage, the cuts and freeze frames and sheer beauty of Jeanne Moreau. The voice-over. Last night I noted that the first five minutes seem "new" to me (they're not, of course: my brain is blitzed by the romantic mood of the opening), and that the denouement seems to barely register for me.

I guess some relatively compartmentalized area of my self sees the climax, remembers the shock from my first viewing, sort of shrugs it off as "Of course you had to end a film like this that way for it to have the emotionally logical effect of such a plot, its syntax, the chaotic madness of the femme etc..." Then I quickly go back to being bathed in the incredible pathos of the film. (In truth I love Truffaut's 400 Blows even more.)

What actually happens to the characters at the end of Jules and Jim seems trivial to my emotional needs, apparently. I once worked with a librarian who could give a detailed chronological synopsis of what happens in a work of fiction, and I thought her simply marvelous for this display, so different was her mind from mine.

This apprehension of how individual nervous systems abstract signals from our environment and concentrate them: this otherness of other peoples' minds is what makes me love them. Because, somehow, perhaps my diarizing helped me in this appreciation, via personal feedback?

Finally, I put forth the idea that "social media" has made many of us diarizers. This may be part of why I don't "do" social media. I've yet to Tweet. I was on Facebook for one day. I've heard of "Snapchat" but I don't really know what it is, nor do I care.

However, I started blogging in order to see what I think about ideas, and maybe entertain certain strange minds that resonate with mine. If blogging of the OG sort can be considered social media, so be it: I do social media. But no doubt that rare handful of posts that are mostly about "me" must qualify as social media. And this post seems the most self-indulgent one I've done. I'll try to wait a long time before I write in such a personal way again. Some aspect of my nervous system seems to be pushing itself to the fore and saying "This wasn't an OG post!"

Oh, well.

Some Sources Read Just Before Writing This
"Poor Historians: Some Notes on the Medical Memoir," by Suzanne Koven
"The Pleasure of Keeping - and Re-reading - Diaries," by Elisa Segrave
"Personal Manifestos: Never A Good Sign"
Jia Tolentino's insightful review of Manguso's book about her diary

                                         ont bob campbell faire oeuvre graphique pour 
votre blog en demandant ici!


Eric Wagner said...

Terrific piece. Have you seen Truffaut's "Mississippi Mermaid"? I loved that film.

One of the Chris Dorner incidents took place near my home, another one of them took place near my job.

I have never gotten into journalling. I write far less now than I did in my twenties. I just reread the section of Stephen King's "On Writing" where he talks about how teaching can drain one's energies, making writing difficult. I could definitely relate.

Manic The Doodler said...

Like you I have piles of notebooks in my closet. I've been keeping journals & sketchbooks for some years now. Lately I've become obsessed with Field Notes notebooks & have started collecting & carrying them around to jot things down when I'm at work or out & about... I also collect & use different types/brands of pencils, erasers & sharpeners so I'm all set for the coming apocalypse as far as writing implements are concerned...

My entries comprise a lot of bitching & complaining about how shitty my life is(seems) or different events that have happened or might happen or maybe something I'm nervous about. I also go through periods of poetry, especially haiku & ideas for comics or even books I'll probably never write. Writing down my dreams is also something I do when I can remember them.

I used to have a blog where I wrote things but now I just post the occasional comic or drawing. Twitter is something I use mainly to post links to sites, videos or articles that I like & want to share with followers; I'm not on Facebook, don't like it. As an introvert I'm not that social to begin with so social media has never really been much of a thing for me. I can also relate to having journal entries that could have come from a 14 year old girl--kind of embarrassing. Who knows what will become of all these things when I'm gone--If I don't have a big bon fire before hand!

Anyway enjoyed this entry as it was quite relatable to me!

michael said...

@Eric- I like Truffaut's "Mississippi Mermaid" a lot. Neo-noir, conscious of the tradition of young couple on the run from the law films, which really gets going with Nicholas Ray's first film, "They Live By Night," which Robert Altman re-made as "Thieves Like Us." A year after Ray's film, one of the great noirs from the classic cycle came out: "Gun Crazy," dir: Joseph H. Lewis, which is probably me favorite of all the fugitive couples films.

I hear ya about draining of energies and writing. There are very many things that I invest emotional energies in, and that's probably another reason why my journal is filled with this:

-Woke around noon, yoga, rode stationary bike for 40 mins listening to podcast on CRISPR. Walked down to the post office. Played with dogs. Four students. Big salad for dinner...

Then I list the books and articles/subjects I read in, that I smoked weed and sipped two beers and played guitar for 2 hrs before going to bed at 3:15 AM.

Most of my journal is like this. I also bitch about money worries and not enough work.

Today I get to write: skin cancer biopsy results came in: nothing dangerous!

There are three things that have worked for me when I got home from work and felt like doing nothing, but was later able to work up enthusiastic juices of emotional energy:

1.) make myself do 20 mins of meditation, focusing on breathing and tuning into tight muscles

2.) do a basic yoga routine that's focused around what's now called "core muscles"

3.) if it's still light out, walk around the neighborhood for 20 mins.

These body/movement based things seem to allow me to drop the baggage of the day and do "creative" work. YMMV.

michael said...

@ Manic: I'm so glad to know there's someone out there who really resonated with this!

Thanks for the choice comment!

Yea, I have gone through periods of lots of doodling in my margins, top of the page, writing the dates in French of German, drawing characters, Necker cubes, odd filigree. When I've been reading a lot of Finnegans Wake my language use is obviously infected by that style. Another feature that gets in: I will often wonder about how something works, so I'll do self-experimentation, with a basic "aim" of a one week of month period of experimenting and writing down daily notes on my experiments. So many experiments!

EX: recently I tried to figure out how much water I need/should be drinking every day. So I spent a couple of hours researching different claims, and noting them. Also: why was I supposed to be drinking far more water every day? And did only water count? The Mayo Clinic said no: count other beverages, etc. A few sites had places to plug in your body weight, whether you exercise, and if you live in a warm climate. It turned out I should drink 121 ounces of water/fluid per day.

The first day I made myself miserable by trying to reach that figure. I got to 118. The rest of the week were something like 77,91, 84, 79, 88, and 94. Every day I had at least one glass of water that I felt I didn't "need" - I wasn't thirsty, but what the hell. I realized I can't drink the amount the Mayo Clinic thinks I need, and what does this mean?

Then, the last day of my experiment, my favorite website, BoingBoing, had a debunking video about hydration and an expert who said we have an elegant gauge within, which says "drink when you're thirsty." Everything else is bullshit propaganda from the bottled water PR people, etc. That made sense.

Hey Manic the D? Thanks!

Cleveland Okie (Tom Jackson) said...

I've only gotten around to two Gore Vidal novels so far, but I thought they both were very good: JULIAN, his novel about the last pagan Roman Emperor (which I thought was very well researched -- by the time I read it I knew quite a bit about the later Roman Empire) and THE GOLDEN AGE, which treats on FDR and World War II in much of the same way as the revisionist historians that Robert Anton Wilson admired.

I once went to an Austin, Texas party hosted by Bruce Sterling, the science fiction writer, and there was a letter to the editor attached to his refrigerator from his wife, debunking the claim that everyone needs to drink enormous quantities of water every day. It's funny what you remember ....

Anonymous said...

Wow! This spew on diaries certainly took a turn towards the dark. Makes me wonder what Alan Moore has planned for the 1000 page document HE intends to drop on the world. Fortunately, I think the 'recluse' doesn't have any slaughters in mind...

All joking aside, you have written yet another stimulating spew for all of us to enjoy. I have to go back and reread the last one, and check out those articles on gender. I could stand to go back and read the entire archives. A lot to digest here.

On the subject of diaries: I recently started one of my own. I've tried to pick up this habit for years, and never settled into it. The most success I've had involved dream journaling, which we might discuss another time. No, my current diary started as an exercise in improving my atrocious penmanship. 25 minutes of stream-of-consciousness handwriting a day has turned into - more or less - a catalog of my complaints and grievances.

I've thought about starting a blog for more noteworthy thoughts and feelings, since I've enjoyed social media so much these past few months. You may not like Facebook, but I love it. It has a lot of shortcomings, yeah, but I love that after reading a book, I can simply type the author's name and "friend" them within minutes. Opened a lot of interesting correspondences that way. I guess you do the same through different lanes.

Different lanes for different brains, right?

michael said...

I would hope Bruce Sterling was a household name among my readers, but maybe not.

Gore liked Julian a lot. So do I.

The appreciation of Chas. Beard, Wm. Appleman Williams and IIRC Gore wrote something favorable about Barnes at one point: he and RAW had this in common. Neither bought the official story about Pearl Harbor, the goddamned HERETICS!

Like what you like (like Facebook), enjoy what you enjoy, and don't take crap from anybody.

IF you start a blog, note how your style changes when you know you're writing for some sort of audience.

I very often email academics whose work I'm interested in, and I stopped being surprised how many write very thoughtful answers back. I got an email from Robert Sapolsky yesterday.

Dream journaling is a great idea, but what's underrated is the sleep loss: if you just had a particuarly weird one in the middle of your sleep cycle, but are determined to get the details down, you have a light on, and you're activating your waking brain. Maybe you take 10-15 mins, then try to resume a good snooze. It's really an effort. The dreaming is easy. The recording is hard, which is why more people don't do it. Burroughs apparently got a ton of ideas for his books from his dreams.

Different lanes for different brains? aye! I appreciate your thoughts and merci for commenting in the foist place.

Anonymous said...

Spent one summer writing down my dreams each night, and had a lot of dreams about writing down my dreams, and more dreams about me writing about writing down my dreams, and so on. Always wondered if recording my dreams in Chinese ideograms would double help me learn the characters twice as fast. Then again, getting the ideograms right would take so long that I'd never sleep at all...

michael said...

Your comment appeared in my email last night, but when I went to the OG it wasn't there. Only just now did i realize that for some reason the Algocracy determined it was "spam." Sorry about that.

Yea: to paraphrase Chuang Tzu: how do we know we're not dreaming now?

Kudos for trying to learn Chinese!

I've had dreams where a book appeared and the writing was "important" to me, but when I woke I didn't know why it was important. There was an emotional charge in hypnopompic mind, but the frontal cortex was saying, "What book?"

Anonymous said...

I mentioned Chinese as an example. Pulled it out of my hat. That said, I know some ideograms from my study of Japanese, which borrows from the Chinese alphabet. If you can read in one language, you can read in the other.

mrken said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
mrken said...

WOW! There is a lot on here. I once had a teacher in a writing class tell me not to write in my journal for her class. And for me to just do the work instead. It worked. Was a bit of a challenge but not so much. I thought a lot more and was more aware of the thoughts. It was a nice journey. I've kept a journal since 1973. Began while reading HARRIET THE SPY, by Louise Fitzhugh. Don't like diarizing. Don't much care for Gore Vidal either. Have tons of books and pens. Blank and filled my books are in boxes in my attic which is heavy with that burden. They may rot when I die for all I care. Thought to be published as is when I leave, but really, all this ego stuff, as I get older, I grow tired. It would have been alright to have made my life writing but so too...well, maybe it is all just as well. They are all "journalists" now the people on the net. It's multimedia journal now. It's all right. Found myself looking for wisdom on fb, but found it wasted my time. I do a bit of blogging, some Twitter, and Tumblr. But for the most part, I am pen and paper. And no one will ever know. I see people on the street, and they are all talking out loud, telling the cosmos their own life, talking their narrative, almost as if to give their existence validity.