Richard Nisley


A Lunatic’s Dream
History - World Released - Jan 26, 2014

So you want to be a writer. How to start? Keep a diary. Or a journal. But first read “A Brief History of Diaries: From Pepys to Blogs,” by Alexandra Johnson.

Alexandra Johnson teaches creative writing at Lesley University in Boston and knows all about keeping a journal and how the daily task of recording your thoughts can improve your writing dramatically.

“A diary has no user’s manual,” the author tells us in the opening pages but that is exactly what her book turns out to be--a user’s manual. Oh, it’s a succinct and compelling history of diaries as the title suggests, but in the telling Johnson provides us with a goldmine of information about how to unloose the writer within each of us.

The book contains a chockablock of memorable quotes: “Writing (a diary) is the ax that breaks the frozen sea within” (Frank Kafka). “It’s like an oil change for the brain. A mental and biochemical tune-up” (Dr. Neil Neimark). “A journal is the ideal place of refuge for the inner self because it constitutes a counter-world: a world to balance the other” (Joyce Carol Oates).

Diary or journal? Johnson answers: “A diary is a daily factual record, dated and chronological. A journal is kept more fitfully and for deeper reflection. One records, the other reflects.”

Says Johnson: “Whether keeping a hardbound journal of a digital Open Diary, every diarist still aspires to the one Virginia Woolf imagined. ‘What sort of diary would I like mine to be? Something loose knit . . . so elastic that it will embrace anything, solemn, slight or beautiful that comes to mind. I should like it to resemble some deep old desk, or capacious hold-all, in which one flings a mass of odds & ends . . . I should like to come back, after a year or two, and find that the collection had sorted itself.’”

Johnson tells us that Woolf used her diaries as writing exercises, and as source material for future projects. Her full diary, later published as seven volumes in 1977, yielded nine novels, a biography and six volumes of essays. “In this book I practice writing,” she admits. “I shall invent my next book here.” Woolf states further: “I write variations of every sentence; compromises; bad shots; possibilities; till my writing book is a lunatic’s dream. Then I trust to some inspiration on rereading; & pencil them in some sense.”

In some cases, diaries can generate more income than the author’s books. Katherine Mansfield’s husband, critic Middleton Murray, assembled Mansfield’s notebooks, ledgers, exercise books and published them as one journal in 1927. The first royalty check netted him in a year ten times what she had made in her short lifetime.

Marcus Aurelius’ 12-volume “Meditations,” is often credited as the first surviving diary. Written in Greek in AD 170 and 180 while he was on military campaign, it consists of one- or two-sentence epigrams or reflections. It establishes the motivation of every diary to follow: to record, to reflect, and, above all, to improve the self.

A prolific reader, Samuel Pepys moved diary keeping from confession to self-expression and then into the realm of literature. Pepys acted as both writer and editor of his diary. He recorded impressions and ideas and later shaped and polished them into crisp publishable prose.

“If Pepys is Everyman, then Boswell is Every Ambition,” reports Johnson. “In (James) Boswell’s brilliant, hedonistic diaries, he is wrestling with two angels: ambition and his place in recording history.” Boswell’s 1760-95 journals provided raw material for the books that won him fame: “Journal of a Tour of the Hebrides,” “Journal of a Tour to Corsica,” and “The Life of Samuel Johnson,” many of its scenes lifted directly from the journals.

The most famous diary of all is the diary of Anne Frank. Her dream was to become a writer. Hidden in the secret annex above her father’s business building in Amsterdam, she wrote and wrote and then revised about two-thirds of her diary before her capture by the Nazis. On 1 August 1944, the last sentence Anne Frank wrote in her diary was, “I keep trying to find a way to become what I’d like to be and what I could be . . . if there were no other people in the world.” Once published, the diary’s immortality was immediate: a single voice that stood for the six million silenced.

Another famous war diary was “Mary Chestnut’s Civil War” which was not published in its entirety until 1982. Says Johnson: “The diary’s originality lies in its perspective--Chestnut is an insider who writes with the perspective of an outsider. As a diarist she was in a unique position, recording Lincoln’s Washington and the Confederate South. . . .”

Since the invention of paper, diarists have, in Johnson’s words, “wanted to be seen, admired, forgiven, transformed.” And so it continues in our digital age of emails, text messages, tweets and the like, people forever reaching out into the universe with a voice they hope will be heard and somehow matter. And that’s the point. “No matter what their form or type,” says Johnson, “diaries are the living embodiment of E.M. Forster’s famous dare: only connect.”

If you are determined to be a writer Johnson’s message is simple: you must put in the time. You must write and write and write. Keeping a diary or journal can serve that purpose. “Talent is a plus,” says Malcolm Gladwell, author of “Outliers,” “but there is no substitute for practice . . . the closer psychologists look at the careers of the gifted, the smaller the role innate talent seems to play and the bigger the role preparation seems to play.”

Personal note: I used to read Ms Johnson's articles in the Home Forum section of the Christian Science Monitor. At the time (the late 1970s) she was one of several young free-lance writers being published by the Monitor. I thought enough of her articles that I saved several of them. What did she write about? No surprise--mostly about writers and writing. Here are a few headings: ON KEEPING A NOTEBOOK, A ROOM AND WORK OF ONE’S OWN, THE LARGER IN THE SMALL (about Chekhov and Tolstoy), THE SPACE OF WONDER, THE ROAD NOT TAKEN (about Joan Didion); SLENDER LIFE, AMPLE WANT (about Alice James, sister of novelist Henry James), ANOTHER CROSSROADS, THE OTHER SIDE OF SOLITUDE, etc.

Ms Johnson is the author of two other books: “The Hidden Writer” and “Leaving a Trace.”

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