The Perks And Perils Of Keeping A Diary

Illustration for article titled The Perks And Perils Of Keeping A Diary

Do you have a diary, a place you write things you don't or can't tell other people? And after you die, would you want that diary published?


The reward: you could have your words lovingly selected and explicated in The New Yorker, as Darryl Pinckney does for his late friend Susan Sontag in his review of Reborn: Journals and Notebooks, 1947-1963. He writes of her diaries as evidence of a "ferocious will," a voice that "never aged, perhaps in part because she did not lose her avidity for experience." She wrote:

Superficial to understand the journal as just a receptacle for one’s private, secret thoughts—like a confidante who is deaf, dumb, and illiterate. In the journal I do not just express myself more openly than I could to any person; I create myself.

And, more weirdly:

I don’t know what my real feelings are [...] That’s why I’m so interested in moral philosophy, which tells me (or at least turns me toward) what my feelings ought to be. Why worry about analyzing the crude ore, I reason, if you know how to produce the refined metal directly?

Pinckney's treatment of Sontag's diaries shows a brilliant mind, never at ease, always churning up not only new ideas but new selves. But the risk of keeping a diary is that it might fall into the hands of someone like Sam Anderson, who in the latest New York Magazine describes Sontag's life as "happiness-starved," calls her return to her first female lover "a sad circularity," and says, "if some researcher ever wants to study the connection between insecurity and intellectualism, Sontag’s journals would be a very good place to start."

It's hard not to prefer Pinckney's version — the journal as place of self-creation — to Anderson's journal as repository of inner anguish. A diary offers not only the chance to make a private inner life for yourself — it also allows you to be, for a time, self-absorbed. And since self-absorption is still much less accepted for women than for men, perhaps it's no wonder that Anderson wants to call it "insecurity." But writing a diary doesn't have to mean scrawling "nobody likes me" with a Hello Kitty pen; it can be a way to acknowledge that you are an interesting person and deserve to be written about — even if nobody but you ever reads it.


The Book Of Lists [The New Yorker]
Wake Up, Little Susie [New York Magazine]


Erin Gloria Ryan

Any journals I have kept have been about as far from a holistic representation of my general state of mind as possible. They're more an outlet for negative feelings that I didn't care to express to other people. Someone posthumously reading my journals without knowing non-dead me would think I lived teetering on the edge of complete despair, when, in reality, in person I'm usually teetering on the edge of complete silliness.