The best piece of advice I was given as a child is this: If you want to be a writer, then write. It is obvious, of course; but in fact it doesn’t seem to be a given these days that if you yearn to become a writer, you must practise, practise, practise.
For me, growing up, practice meant crafting short stories, which I shared with my family and, eventually, my friends at school. But I was taught that all writing has merit if one wants to learn to write well, and so I also kept a diary. For me, this did not mean recording each day of my life necessarily, but jotting down in a notebook anything that took my fancy, from a description of a beautiful sunset to an idea sparked by a book I’d read. I loved that diary. It was a constant and loyal friend, and a safe place in which to experiment and practise my writing.
Writing for the Guardian, novelist Elena Ferrante tells of how keeping a diary in childhood ‘transformed [her] into a fiction writer’. She found that the growing tendency towards fictionalising in her diary drew her toward writing stories instead. I found the same thing, which is why I packed away my diaries in my teens.
Of course, many writers who keep diaries don’t make the transition to fiction absolutely. ‘Keep a diary,’ said Mae West, ‘and someday it’ll keep you.’ Literary legends like Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, Franz Kafka, Susan Sontag and Anais Nin published diaries, to great critical acclaim. Some diaries have been completely ground-breaking; I am thinking, of course, of The Diary of Anne Frank.
The idea for this article was inspired, in fact, by Anne Frank’s diary. Recently, the media reported on the discovery of concealed pages in her diary. Anne had pasted brown paper over some pages in her notebook, and researchers using new digital technologies were able to reveal the hidden writing, which relates to what Anne called ‘sexual matters’.
Quite honestly, this news item didn’t sit well with me. Anne didn’t write her diary for the world to read, and she was clearly especially determined that no one in the attic would read these pages. It feels like an invasion of her privacy to publish extracts and the gist of that content.
Returning to the Elena Ferrante article, she writes about the freedom she had in her diary to be uncensored, but then her growing anxiety that her diary would be discovered. Ultimately, that discomfort propelled her toward writing fiction: ‘In the invented stories,’ she writes, ‘I felt that I was – I and my truths – a little safer.’
That word ‘safer’ strikes a chord with me. Yes, you must write about what you know; yes, fiction is personal – but it is a safer space than a diary. I think that is why I would not want a diary to ‘keep me’ someday; I would not publish a diary.
What do you think of the line between personal and public when it comes to writing, and diaries in particular? I would love to hear your thoughts.