What does reality mean to a diarist?

Tuesday, November 5, 2019 - 5:09pm

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Danyel Tharakan

“I wrote so I could say I was truly paying attention,” writer and poet Sarah Manguso explained. These verbs should be past tense, but since they’re all present tense, I’ll let you decide if you want to change them all. As long as they’re consistent in her 2015 book “Ongoingness: The End of a Diary.” “Experience in itself wasn’t enough. The diary was my defense against waking up at the end of my life and realizing I’d missed it.”

Like Manguso, I want to feel as if I’m paying careful attention to my life, and keeping a diary seems like a good way to do it. “There should be extra days, buffer days, between the real days,” Manguso wrote. I want this, too: a break from time, a little pocket of nothing in which to figure out the fullness of the days. Writing in my journal might be the closest I can get to a break. But diary-keeping serves other purposes, too, and I’m trying to figure out what those are. 

“Introspection is not as reliable as observation,” writes essayist Louis Menard in his article “Woke Up This Morning,” which appeared in The New Yorker in 2007. In the piece, Menard tried to puzzle out diaries — why we keep them, and why we like to read other people’s. Menard argued that diaries aren’t a particularly trustworthy record of the diarist’s inner life. Instead, he supposed that diary-keeping might reflect various psychological needs or imbalances, and are thus tainted by the purpose the journal serves for the writer.

Menard drew on a few Freudian ideas, including the ego theory (“It obliges you to believe that the stuff that happened to you is worth writing down because it happened to you”) and the id theory, which proposes diaries as a tool for recording desires and failures that cannot be publicly expressed. Next comes the superego theory: “When we describe the day’s events and our management of them, we have in mind a wise and benevolent reader who will someday see that we played, on the whole, and despite the best efforts of selfish and unworthy colleagues and relations, a creditable game with the hand we were dealt.”

I’ve kept a diary since I was seven or eight years old, and I think all of these theories might be true, to some extent. I write to figure out how I feel, and in doing so, I feel I’m justifying things — to myself, a future version of me who’ll read the diary, or to someone who might stumble on it years after my death. But how accurate is the rendering of myself that I’ll reread, 30 years down the line? I think it’s possible Menard is right that the picture is not very accurate at all. Sometimes, I’ll write something down in my diary about the way I’m feeling or an interaction with a friend, and know that I haven’t got it quite right.

According to Menard, diaries are inaccurate, possibly ego-driven (or id-driven, or superego-driven) records. What, then, is the point in keeping them? What’s the point of reading them? Even if a diary is shaped by unconscious desires, even if it’s a blatant attempt to create the sort of person you want to be, I think it still reflects something important about who you were at the moment of writing: insecure, sad, confused, thrilled. Rereading a diary might not help current-me remember what past-me was like, but it’ll remind me of who I wanted to be. Diary entries are always a reflection of something true, even if that truth isn’t always communicated obtusely.

I’m thinking of a song by Evan Dando called “Hard Drive”: “This is the bed I'm sleeping in / This is the shirt I'm buttoning / This is the pace I'm moving at / This is the tune I'm humming now / This is the road I'm walkin' down,” he sings, cataloguing his life the way one might in a diary. “Have you ever felt yourself in motion?” he continues.  “It reminds me of the way writing in a diary or rereading one can sometimes feel: a fall back to yourself, a reminder of the currents of change beneath everything.” 

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Some years I wrote in my diary every single day, but there have also been periods when weeks or months passed with only a few lines. I recently finished the diary I’d been using since my sophomore year of high school. The first entry is dated Monday, Feb. 9, 2015, 10:10 p.m.

“Okay day,” I wrote. “Got 97 on Art History test (Mannerism, High Renaissance) but math quiz was so hard!!! Get to finish it in the morning because the other class took it in a double and we only had a single. Alex still hasn’t asked me to junior prom. Trip to Gettysburg this week!” 

In an article about nostalgia, journalist Haley Nahman wrote about the way her memory shifts to fit changing stories about her life. 

“I compartmentalize it and then piece it back together in whatever arrangement suits my chosen narrative (I was happy. I was inspired. I was broken),” she wrote. 

I do this, too, but when I reread my diaries, it feels both comforting and unsettling to be presented with a rough approximation of how it was to be 17 (or 10, or 13, or 20). But the rush of memory and nostalgia that accompanies rereading my diaries always feel buffered by the things I didn’t yet know when I was writing. I didn’t know on February 9, 2015, that I’d go to junior prom with Will, not Alex, and that he’d kiss me on the forehead at the after-party, and we’d watch the Mr. Bean movie, and I’d want to go home. Or that I’d never be very good at math, but it wouldn’t really matter. How can I remember anything accurately, when every memory is tainted or softened by what came after?

There’s a concept in psychology called peak-end theory, which proposes that the way we remember something — a relationship, a road trip, a job — is based on the most intense emotional aspect of that thing and the way it ended, rather than an average of every emotional high and low. I’m especially interested in the idea that endings could unravel or revive a memory. A lovely vacation could end in a bitter argument, and the fight is what you’d remember. An awful day could close with an unexpected moment of joy, and all the pain would fall to the wayside. A fulfilling friendship might fall apart in a painful way, and the hurt is what would stand out. 

It seems unfair that the way something ends could ruin the rest of it,  but this is the double-edged sword of memory, and of endings. Heartbreak, grief, disappointment, anger: They don’t seem so awful if everything turned out ok in the end. Happiness is likewise changed by whatever happened next — a death, a breakup, an argument taken too far. Montages of picnics and parties and inside jokes can spoil so easily. This is partly why it feels important to me to write everything down, even the feelings I know are temporary. Otherwise, I run the risk of letting everything be defined by endings, which seems like a uniquely unsatisfying way to live. Even if the things I’m writing aren’t the truest truth — even if they are shaped by how I want to feel or think I should feel — the approximations I come up with are better than the alternative, which is my own malleable memory.

***

Speaking of endings: I’ve been thinking about them a lot lately. I’m a senior, and the knowledge that this is my last year in Ann Arbor seems to crop up at inconvenient times. It doesn’t seem so long ago that I was a freshman. College is funny that way: Graduation doesn’t seem far off, but neither does the time when leaving felt impossibly remote. 

The weirdest part of being a senior for me is that this is when college life feels the fullest and settled. My bedroom feels like a real room, not a temporary landing pad. The drawing of a hand that my friend Summer made; the Andy Warhol poster I bought in Chicago over fall break; the ticket stub from a concert I covered for The Daily; the cartoon I cut out from The New Yorker last week. (Roald Dahl sits under a tree, waiting for a book idea. A giant technicolor peach falls on his head.) 

And my friends: I’ve known them for long enough that we have a trove of stories to tell and retell, a whole world that we’ve created over the past three years. We say, remember the time we ducked out of a party to get burritos? Remember when I spilled red wine all over a boy’s white shirt at that frat party and he came stomping into the girl’s bathroom to find me? Remember when we thought we heard a burglar and ran outside and accidently locked ourselves out of the house? Remember the day at the river, that football game in the snow? The sunburn?

Remembering college is as satisfying right now as it’ll ever be, because nothing hurts to recall. It’s all still here. But in six months it’ll be over, and I’m trying to figure out how to not keep thinking about the end. I think part of the solution might have to do with writing things down — not just for future-me, who will want to crawl back into this life, but also for now-me. 

Documenting the way things are right now is a way to indulge in the present, to feel as if it’s ok to stay deep inside my life, even if the pain of leaving might change the way I remember this time. 

In a series of excerpts from the late journalist Mavis Gallant’s diaries, which were published in The New Yorker in 2012, one entry from 1959 stood out to me.

“Must reality become unreal?” she wrote. “Record, then, that we took the train and walked in the royal park at Marly, and lay in the uncut grass under a sky as warm as wool and blue as itself. The chestnut trees looked as though nothing could oblige them ever to shed their leaves; and when the wind bent the grass around the barren flat, submissively, the grass went all one color, silvery, like the underside of leaves, as if it might rain.”

I admire how swiftly Gallant moved from existential angst to earnest, keenly observant musings on the present. This, I think, is the work of all diarists — to recognize that the task of documentation is an impossible one, and to proceed with it anyway.