From the Audience of One
to the Audience of Everyone
My journal is like a nest, a tangle of shiny trinkets and bits of string: words, sentence fragments, disconnected paragraphs, pages torn from magazines, photographs, even small objects glued into small holes I’ve carved in the pages. Every writer has her obsessions; one of mine is nest-building. I’m fascinated by the ways in which we create the physical and emotional place called home. It is built one stick, one glinting thing, a single thread at a time. Dorothy Allison calls her writer’s journal “a witness, a repository, and playground.” My journal has a similar range of purpose. It is a junk drawer, wailing wall, laboratory.
Like the messy closet firmly shut when company comes over, my journal is a private space. And yet, here’s the truth of the matter: if I weren’t a private journal-keeper, I wouldn’t be a public writer. Ideas and images form first on my journal’s pages, then migrate into the writing I show to the world. They must travel a great distance: from an audience of one to an audience of anyone. How do those words change as they make the journey? When we write for publication, we “should be as honest and explicit as we are with ourselves,” says John Updike, because our “words enter into another’s brain in silence and intimacy.” Updike’s counsel has hung with me, haunted me, even hounded me as I fasten my own words to the page. His suggestion is a bold one: make a transcript of one’s thoughts and display it for the world to see. Reading is an intimate act, he asserts, so we should be as explicit in public writing as we are in the private world of the mind.
Though I can see the logic of Updike’s assertion, I stumble over the word honest, the crux of his statement. What does it mean for writing to be honest? Updike might simply be instructing us to tell the whole and unvarnished truth. But does be honest mean tell the truth?According to the frayed 1969 Random House Unabridged that I keep by my desk, “truthful” is the seventh definition of honest; before it there are a half-dozen definitions and synonyms, including sincere, frank, genuine, and unadulterated. That last word resonates: unadulterated is the perfect word to describe journal-writing. The sentences in my journal are those laid down fresh, unencumbered, undamaged by the internal and external censors that buzz around our words as we polish them for public display.
Honesty is a subject I return to frequently in my journal. I wonder how I can be more honest, lament my lapses, and rage at the dishonesty of others. When I reread old journal entries, I often find myself casting around for a response to the question conjured by Updike’s dictum: How can writing be as honest as thinking? Like most journal-keepers, I sometimes find that my private scribbles tell a truth too whole to bear much rereading. The words in my journal prick the public bubble of identity I’ve constructed for myself: a well-adjusted person who is curious about the world and its people. My journal reveals a hypersensitive worrier, a hypochondriac, a whiner who repeats the same banal complaints over and over again. But at least that person says what is on her mind. For better or for worse, she’s the unvarnished me.
So unvarnished, in fact, she is sometimes unrecognizable. The goal of freewriting, of course, is to stay ahead of the internal critic who carps: Who are you to assert such a thing? What will the neighbors think? What will readers think? For me, the trick works; the words that pour onto my journal’s pages seem as separate from me as water from air. I didn’t become a regular journal-keeper, nor a writer, until I was taught the technique of freewriting. From the time I was eight years old until I turned twenty-eight, my journaling followed more or less the same pattern. I would keep a journal for a few weeks or months, then set it aside. When I returned to it, my words embarrassed me so much that I would bury them deep in the detritus of my closet, or shred them into silent confetti. Then, in a workshop I took on a whim, a teacher introduced me to the concept of automatic writing. I no longer felt that I had to take responsibility for whatever spilled onto the page. My not-quite-conscious mind seemed a person distinct from the self I knew. I must thank those champions of freewriting – Peter Elbow, Natalie Goldberg, Anne Lamott – for giving me the tool that let me write.
When rereading the jumbled, mumbled entries in my journal, I deeply appreciate the five or twenty-five drafts between journal and publication. When I write for public consumption, I begin a new piece by pulling a few sentences from my freewriting, weaving them into paragraphs, and then knitting paragraphs into a first draft. When a transition or elaboration stumps me, or I stop to wonder — what am I trying to say here? — I return to my journal, finding my way word by free-written word.
As a product of my subconscious, my journal cannot help but truth-tell. In my public writing, I endeavor to be truthful, even as I realize there is no such thing as a whole truth. Each of us can access only a sliver of it. Still, the question haunts me: How can writing be as honest as thinking? I turn to the most time-honored book of writing advice I know: Lu Chi’s Wen Fu: The Art of Writing. Seventeen hundred years ago, Lu Chi, a calligrapher, literary scholar, and writer, spent a decade hidden away on a mountaintop, studying Confucian, Taoist, and Buddhist classics. Later he composed a book of writing advice in verse. Wen Fu tells us: “Truth is the tree trunk; / style makes beautiful foliage.”
Lu Chi goes on to warn: “Where truth and virtue are threatened, / I must surrender / even my favorite jewels.” Or, as contemporary writers like to say, kill your darlings. Some lines from my journal become favorite jewels; I insert them into drafts of one essay after another, eventually deleting them, still hoping to someday find a place for them. Finally, I must concede that they already had a permanent home, in the journal where they first sprang from my subconscious. I don’t kill my darlings, I merely tuck them away in a dark corner of my sprawling nest.
My words’ convoluted journey from private journal and published work makes me intensely curious about the journals of well-known writers. The published journal might seem a lazy literary form, but it appeals to me as one of the most honest. Two long shelves in my office are devoted to published writers’ journals. I hold on to the hope that famous writers’ journals will tell me who they are. Released into the world with the author’s coy wink or sheepish grin, or long after she is dead, the published journal shows how we are when home alone, in our own skin, pen in hand. That’s what home is, or should be: the place where one’s actions can be as honest as one’s thoughts.
On the shelf below the once-private thoughts of Adrienne Rich, Hannah Hinchman, Henry David Thoreau, and Henry James, thirty-nine of my travel-weary, bent-spine tomes are lined up in chronological order. My journals represent a decade’s worth of thoughts. Though I consider my journals honest, the primary emotion I feel when rereading them is not naked exposure, but bewilderment.
I write in my journal to grab thoughts and anchor them in the world of dust motes and molecules. If I don’t write them down, they decompose, float away, sublimate – passing like iodine into purple vapor. These ideas shimmer with honesty; they seem frank, unadulterated, truthful. When I go back and read what I’ve scribbled down fast, I can identify some of the thoughts as my own only because they appear in my journal, in my handwriting. It’s a paradox: my most honest thoughts are those I don’t even recognize as my own.
If my most honest writing is that done with the least conscious thought, perhaps the best definition of honest, for the purposes of Updike’s edict on writing,is uncensored. We are most likely to render our true thoughts when we’re working too quickly to consider the ramifications of doing so. Joan Didion says of her journal, “The common denominator of all we see is always, transparently, shamelessly, the implacable ‘I.’ … [W]e are talking about something private, about bits of the mind’s string too short to use, an indiscriminate and erratic assemblage….” Like birds, we each create a unique nest, one that wouldn’t suit anyone else.
Unlike those of birds, our nests can be portable. I always carry a journal with me, whether I’m going away for a month or going to the corner store. When I’m traveling, I make a quasi-home between my journal’s covers. I’m a person who often loses things and yet I can remember misplacing my journal only three times in the decade that I’ve kept one. Each time, it felt like forgetting my own phone number, or getting off the bus and not knowing which way to turn for home.
Because I’m a traveler, away from home more often than not, my journal is often my only semblance of home. And so it becomes, quixotically, a repository for my lies. My journal is my confessional, the only one that knows for sure when I’ve told the truth and when I’ve lied. Here is one example, written while I was living in a small town in southern Mexico. I was so different from the people around me, I had to find ways to simplify my identity, which meant telling small lies.
September 16, 2001, 9:46 am • Living here in Mexico, I’m in a world that I tell all kinds of lies to: I am a journalist, I’m married, I’m from California, I’m from Boston, I don’t drink, the list could go on and on. Sometimes the lies are pointed out to me later and I realize they have slipped out automatically. Like the one in response to “What church do you belong to?” I try to come up with something as close to the truth as possible, to minimize the lying. For a while I settled on, “My family is Protestant,” but then I thought of people imagining me in the pink church across the street that drones out off-tone music and off-beat sermons as early as 7 a.m. and as late as 1 a.m., and it seemed better to try and figure a way not to answer at all.
I recorded the oversimplifications, small lapses and white lies in my journal, so that I could remember myself. This practice brings me back to John Updike’s advice: When we write for publication, we should be as honest and explicit as we are with ourselves. And then I look to Lu Chi for an answer to my nagging question: Can writing really be completely honest? Or can it only be uncensored? Across eighteen centuries, he gives me an unequivocal maybe:
The truth of the thing
lies inside us,
but no power on earth can force it.
Time after time,
I search my heart in this struggle.
Sometimes a door slowly opens;
sometimes the door
My journal is a tiny wedge in that door, keeping a splinter of light between latch and jamb, faintly illuminating the rooms of my mind, the nooks and notches of my nest. Even the beginning of this essay about journal-keeping came from my journal – though it took more eight years to find its way there.
January 8, 2000, 1:30 pm • NEST. Akin to Latin, NIDUS – nest. Sanskrit, NIDA – lair. Basic meaning: sitting place. What is good about a nest? It is circular, made of things from the land, a refuge and resting place, a place where things – good and bad, I would assert – are fostered, it is a place for flourishing. It is a place for all the things that are essential in life. It is a place for me. Nests are stolen, pilfered, squatted in, torn asunder by wind and rain and the very things that create their elements.
In this entry, my journal serves all its uses: a junk drawer for things I might use later, a laboratory for failed experiments, a wailing wall for my many complaints.
U and I: A True Story, Nicholson Baker, Random House, 1991
“On Keeping a Notebook,” Joan Didion, Slouching Toward Bethlehem, 1969
Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg, Shambala, 1996
Lu Chi’s Wen Fu: The Art of Writing, translated by Sam Hamill, Milkweed Editions, 2000
The Writer’s Notebook, edited by Howard Junker, HarperCollinsWest, 1995