Posts Tagged ‘Diaries’

journals-of-dorothy-wordsworthDorothy was the sister of William Wordsworth, also friend to Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Though a diarist, and poet in her own right, she never sought publication and it was only in 1897, some forty years or so after her death, her earliest hand-written journals were taken up and printed by the historian William Knight.

They concern just two months of the year 1798, spent at Alfoxden, when Dorothy was 27. We also have 1800 to 1803 at Dove Cottage, Grasmere, though of the latter, only 1802 is complete. The Helen Darbishire version takes another look at the handwritten originals for the Dove Cottage years. For Alfoxden, the William Knight version is the only academic source now, Knight having ‘mislaid’ the original. She kept other journals – accounts of travel in Scotland and Europe, but these are not included here.

What’s striking is the diaries are either neutral in their bearing or wholly positive of the persons mentioned in them. We must therefore assume Dorothy was, to a degree, self-censoring, and this is fair enough, especially since it’s known she wrote with the expectation that at least her brother would be reading them – and no one is that magnanimous if a journal is guaranteed its privacy. In short, there is nothing here for the muck-raker, not even in that much psychoanalysed pre-wedding scene of June 1802.

But let’s go back to 1798. This was a significant year, marking the collaboration of William Wordsworth and Coleridge, and the publication of their “Lyrical Ballads”, a book that kicked off the English Romantic movement. The preface, written by Wordsworth, can be read as a manifesto of the movement’s aims and, for anyone who wants to know what English Romanticism is, or was, this is still the best place to start.

Then we have the early years in Grasmere, this period marking several revisions of the Lyrical Ballads. But Dorothy’s presence at the birth of English Romanticism is more significant than that, though in ways not always easy to get at. For a start, it seems rather a small slice of a life, just fragments of three and a bit years. So what is it about Dorothy’s jottings that’s kept them in print all this time? Is it simply that she was the sibling of a famous poet, is it prurient interest in the nature of their relationship, or do we glimpse something special in Dorothy herself?

Though I admire the Lake Poets, I find them difficult. Dorothy on the other hand is immediately accessible, her journals capturing with great brevity the most colourful pictures of her life and of the natural world. She was, in a sense, the mind-camera for William and Coleridge, who used her diary as a reference, the result being you will find echoes of Dorothy’s words, and the scenes she captured, in their work. She was also, in a sense, the embodiment of everything the Romantic movement was trying to get at – something profound in its simplicity, in plainness of language, and purity of feeling.

I plead ignorance of Alfoxden, but I do know the area around Grasmere, a village now so overlaid with an impenetrable veneer of chocolate-box tourism and dotted with the weekend residences of city-gazillionaires, it’s impossible to imagine any sort of authentic life being lived there at all. If we want to know what that place contributed to the Romantic movement, two centuries ago, we turn to the Lake poets, but if we want to flip through the stunningly vivid mind-pictures of life in the Lakes back then, and rub shoulders with its characters, then we read Dorothy’s journals. And in them we discover all is not lost, that if we can get away from the honey-pots, and beyond the fell gates, it’s still possible to see and feel the world as she did.

Much of the charm of these journals lies in their capture of nature; of the land and the weather and the creatures great and small, also a sense of the people in the landscape, moving upon it more intimately than we do now, and mostly, of course, on foot. The lack of petty tittle-tattle, though marked, does not diminish their interest. There is also great pleasure to be had from comparing Dorothy’s seasons in that brief window of her life with our own, and the feeling, still, of a Romantic connection with times past, as if no time has passed at all.

Given the immense age of the universe, a single life is no more than a match in the dark, a brief enough time in which to blink and respond to what we see before the light flickers and dies. But some matches are brighter than others, and some minds quicker at seeing what needs to be seen and responding with genuine heart and feeling. It’s also valuable, during the brief flaring of one’s own light if we can be shown what others have noted as worthy, because it gives us a head start in the growing of our own souls. Of course, not everyone possesses such a talent as makes it worth our while, but to my mind at least, Dorothy Wordsworth did. And I think that’s why we’re still reading her journals today.

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The dangers of and the reasons for keeping a private diary.

There’s a touching scene at the end of the Bridget Jones movie where Darcy and Bridget have finally declared their love for each other but, just when you think you’re within reach of this long-awaited happy ending,  Darcy chances across Bridget’s diary in which he reads unflattering comments about himself. Horrified, poor Bridget tries to explain that diaries are “full of crap”, and fortunately for her Darcy is wise enough to understand that. He does the gentlemanly thing and buys her a new diary. Cue happy ending. Ahhh!

But why does Bridget risk it? Why does she feel the need to commit potentially damaging material to such a notoriously insecure confessional as a paper diary? Does she have a self-destructive streak? Does she enjoy the constant danger that her diary may fall into the wrong hands, or is there something else going on here? Why do people ignore the risk of embarrassment, and keep personal diaries?

I’ve kept a private diary since 1974. I was fourteen and I can only say my excuse at the time was there’s a lot going on at that age. Your emotions are being pulled in all directions and your head feels like the inside of a pressure cooker. Throw in a mix or two of unrequited love and a school environment that’s incomprehensible no matter how hard you try to appear normal in it, and sooner or later you’ll end up looking in the mirror and feeling like there’s an alien staring back at you.

Until you write it down.

Writing it down is like opening a safety-valve.

You’re still aware of the mad mix of life, but keeping a diary is a vital means of subduing the occasional demons who are bent on eating us. It is as if by the simple writing of their names, they are rendered less substantial. Diaries are also where you can explore the incomprehensible by writing down what you think about it – without the inhibitions you might normally feel if you thought someone was going to be reading your words later on and tut-tutting at your stupidity or your depravity. You put it all down, you write around it from all sides, and even if you never actually get to the bottom of things, the diary has a way of at least clarifying what it is you think about a subject because certain words resonate – they feel right, or they jar awkwardly, and then you know they are wrong, you know you are being stupid.

We explore ourselves in diaries. They are a meditation. They are cathartic. Diaries do not solve our problems, but they do grant us a means of rising above them. If you’re being really clinical and condescending about things you could say diaries are a useful coping mechanism.

When I look back on my first diaries however, I wonder where all the emotion went. The prose is not quite as purple as I remember my thoughts being at the time. My entries were merely suggestive of the emotional turmoil of my life, while being descriptive more of mundane events. None of those names, either heinous or precious to my memory, are mentioned. All is carefully rendered deniable. It is as if I were writing with someone looking over my shoulder. I dared not say what I really thought, or felt. I was devious,… and wise, because paper dairies are not the secure things they ought to be. They are bombs waiting to go off in other people’s faces. And they’ll get you into trouble as well of course because not all peekers at other people’s diaries are as wise and magnanimous as Bridget Jones’ beau.

So,… how can a diary be cathartic if you’re not saying what you feel? It’s a good point: for them to be really useful, you need to be able to express yourself freely, without fear of censure. You need to be able to say the stuff you’d never confide to anyone.

In my later teens and twenties, I became more open in what I wrote.  Those diaries were subsequently compromised by individuals who read the crap, saw only the crap, and were hurt by it. I was hurt too, by the break of trust – that someone I trusted, could ever read my diary. But that’s life. You live it, and you learn.

Paper diaries are not safe, unless you lock them in a strong box whenever they’re not actually in your hand. If you keep them under your pillow, you might as well be sharing your most intimate secrets with the whole world. This is a shame, because the confessional nature of the diary allows us a measure of control over our emotions. We write down what we feel: I hate him/her. And then we think: how childish, that’s not true at all, I’m just upset because such and such has happened – I really, really love him/her. However, we don’t always put the good stuff in the diary, because it’s the good stuff we’re looking to get at and carry away with us, so all we leave behind are the dark traces: I hate! I hate! I hate! But even if we do put the good stuff in, the fact that we ever thought or felt the bad stuff is sufficient of itself to hang us.

He/she comes along and sneaks a peek at your diary. The darkness shocks them. It morphs into a  spike with a poisoned tip, and springs from the pages to pierce your thought stealer between the eyes. Rest assured, they will never see you in the same light again. Of course it’s not your fault. We all think dark things, silly things, things we don’t really mean. Diaries catch them and keep them safe, that’s all – better in the diary than carrying them around with us all the time! But that’s no comfort when your girlfriend/wife/significant other is heading up the road and your relationship is in tatters on account of something indiscreet, or shall we say “emotionally exploratory”,  that you wrote in the supposedly sacrosanct confessional of a private diary.

Got kids around? Rest assured they’ll make it their life’s ambition to get a peek at your diary if they know you keep one. Is that something you’d be happy with?

At the risk of repeating myself, that paper diary’s going to hang you. Get rid of it! Burn it. Shred it now! Never ever keep a paper diary! We are not politicians, we do not write for posterity, nor the future calculated embarrassment of our peers. We’re different. We write only for ourselves.

What about a coded diary then?

Already been there. Samuel Pepys, the seventeenth century diarist wrote in an obscure form of shorthand, which kept his words pretty safe from casual scrutiny. Such codes are easier to master than you might think, and I developed my own, which I still use occasionally in my notebooks. However, while it’s possible to eventually write flowingly in an obscure, self invented code, I found it was far more difficult to casually flick back through entries and read them, and reading them is an important part of the process.

No,… coded diaries are fun, but a laborious thing to peruse and if a coded diary’s discovered, it doesn’t matter what your code is obscuring it’s all going to be interpreted as dark – otherwise why cover it with a code? Also you should be careful of taking a coded diary abroad, say on holiday, in these terribly paranoid times, as it might get you into trouble at the airport if the security people get hold of it! And you could really do without the embarrassment, or the rubber gloves – right?

So what do you do?

Well, if you’re reading this on my blog, the solution is already at hand. Computers! Computers are ubiquitous and cheap these days. Old ones get thrown away when they’re still useful, or they can be purchased off eBay for very little money at all, and sooner or later they’ll be giving them away free with bags of potatoes at the supermarket. So, write your diary on a computer, but keep it on a memory stick because computers sometimes go wrong and lose everything. Most important of all though is that you get some freeware encryption software off the internet, and secure your diary under a password. Welcome, dear scribbler to the cyber age. Samuel Pepys, would have loved it!

There are, of course, a lot of diary programs you can download, some of them for free, and I’ve experimented with a few, but I find I end up fiddling too much with the software instead of simply writing stuff down. Personally  I prefer a simple Rich Text Format file – along with the encryption software – the simpler to use the better (I like the free Encrypt Files by Pow Tools)

If you’re particularly paranoid and afraid of cyber-snoopers and those dastardly key click capture devices, then don’t write your diary on a computer that’s connected to the internet – though if you’re at this level of paranoia you’re either a conspiracy theorist, or you’ve got something on your computer you really shouldn’t have!

Now  you’ve finally got a diary that’s safe from everyone except perhaps a  state salaried cryptanalyst, so you can write down anything you want, no matter how icky or potentially embarrassing. At last! A private diary you can really trust.

But how do you use it?

Well, that’s up to you of course, and it doesn’t matter, so long as you do use it. I’m a compulsive writer, and perhaps my scribbling habits are different to others, but I’ll describe how I’ve come to use my cyber-diary and where it fits in to the greater scheme of all things literary.

The way I see it the modern scribbler has three levels for self-expression nowadays: We have the private diary, and what we put in here is basically not for human consumption, on account of its occasionally poisonous, unguarded or explosive nature. Then we have the blog, which is a sort of publicly available diary, carefully sanitised and smiley-safe. And then we have the work itself.

The work is the ultimate expression of the cyber scribbler’s imagination. It possesses no personal details. It is informed by the person that you are, but anyone reading it can have no clear idea of the state of your mind, nor the whereabouts of your front door. The work is what you basically do,  what you turn into an e-book, and put up on Lulu or Feedbooks or Smashwords or any of those other means of self publication. The work is the fruit of your labour as a cyber scribbler.

Now we go down a level to the blog:

All right, the blog contains a little crap from time to time, especially if you write it when you’ve been drinking, or within 24 hours of an emotionally upsetting incident. Trust me – never do either of these things! Although sanitised, the blog is a more personal expression of the mind behind the work. It’s a sort of journal – it captures events, or thoughts,… things that catch your eye and which put you in mind of a certain other thing that you feel compelled to share with your mystery reader, but for all of that it is still impersonal. There is no way by reading it your reader can unlock your state of mind, nor again the whereabouts of your front door.

Down another level now, and back to the personal diary.

The diary is the melting pot of your daily experience. It is the confessional, the personal account, the dirty washing, the crucible of your pain, grief and anxiety. It is the repository of the stuff that will hang you, the stuff that will get you into trouble with the girlfriend, neighbour, colleague, boss, policeman, wife and so on. Here you can name names, call names, swear and rant and drip all the poison you like. Here you can tear your hair out in private and you can cry tears of bitterness. When all else fails and the words won’t come, you will always be able to turn to the diary and write something – even if it’s only that the words would not come today.

Can’t make sense of the story you’re working on?… Maybe you can say something on the blog instead, some wry observation, something that caught your eye that day and made you think. Can’t even blog? Wonder what the hell you’re doing even keeping that blog in the first place? My, aren’t we low today? Don’t despair! Settle down somewhere quiet, brew yourself some coffee or crack open the whiskey bottle,… and dig out the diary.

The diary is your best friend.

It’s always there. You can fill it with crap, and it won’t mind. In return, it will point out your stupidity, and you’ll take it better coming from your diary, than from someone else.

My cyber diary goes back to 2002. It’s interesting to read back now over those years, and also to be able to use the search function for finding specific words that haunt me. You’ll be surprised how often things come back at you. You write about them in passing, when they crop up, then forget them and when they crop up again you have this odd feeling of deja-vous  – well the diary will reveal these things to you, like loops in the code of your life. But the diary’s not a place I go to for inspiration. I think its function is more indirect, more mysterious, and therefore best left alone. Just write things down in it. Flick back through it from time to time. And between times,  keep it encrypted.

An encrypted cyber diary is both useful, and deniable. What diary?

The paper diary is highly visible, vulnerable and potentially damaging.

Get rid of it.

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