I do not keep diaries. I keep notebooks.
Diaries record the outer events and encounters of our daily lives, possibly with interpretations of what happened or reflections on how we reacted.
Notebooks are less linear: they are haphazard collections of phrases, questions, and observations. They reflect the inner workings of our mind, no matter our surroundings. Notebooks challenge us to leave everything open-ended and ripe for further exploration.
I do not like diaries, although I recognize that they can be a therapeutic tool for some. There’s a certain sense of closure: when you record the goings-on of the day and put in your two cents about it all, you can comfortably file away that day into the history of your life, convincing yourself that it’s final.
But just as religion can be used and abused as a crutch to make our lives more comfortable, I believe that our writing habits can (if we let them) give us a false sense understanding–whether of ourselves or of the world. If you write to tell yourself a story, you’ll become deaf to all other stories. If you write only to make up your mind, your mind will become your sole maker. What makes us trust days over dreams is that the day is linear while the dream is divided.
And on the flip-side: just as religion can be used to stir up our discontents and strive to seek something higher, writing can be an open-ended exercise in questioning everything, every day, for days on end. Half of my notebooks entries end with question marks; the other half are up for revision.
On June 16th, 2016, as I was working a full-time internship, I wrote the following notebook entry:
Two kinds of discontent. For one, when I get so tied up in the everyday (the school, the work), that I know what I’m missing in terms of the inner life. The other: when I give my solitude the time that it deserves, to the point that I’m overwhelmed by how impossible it is to cover these grounds–to learn what there is to learn, to be the mystic to full extent, to feel worthy of the earth.
Almost one month later–on July 11th, 2016–I recorded a similar thought:
Discontent comes two ways. One: the suppressed despair because you roll through life complacently, eating&sleeping&using free time for entertainment. Two: the intense despair, the longing, the constant searching. (What everyone really wants, deep-down, is the second).
Suppressed despair. Hidden discontents. False comfort and false closure. The difference between diaries and notebooks is awfully similar to the differences between these discontents. The longer you keep a diary, the more likely you are to believe that your life consists solely of events and milestones–that is, of your outer life. But the longer you keep a notebook, the closer you are to realizing that your inner life is just as real and just as present as the family and career that have taken its place, and it’s begging you to ask the questions you dared to ask when you were young.
The problem with transitioning from diaries to notebooks is that diaries are easy while notebooks are not. The content for a diary is handed to you by the hour: you simply record these outer events–the promotion, the dinner party, the camping trip. In the case of notebooks, anything is fair game, and the contents of your mind are running a mile a minute.
The content of my days? I barely retain it. If you ask me on Monday whether I had a nice weekend, I might say yes, but I usually have difficulty remembering exactly what I did. I’m more likely to remember thoughts I had, emotions I felt, questions I asked, transformations I underwent. That’s the stuff that makes me who I am, and yet, it’s also the stuff that you will never see.
Is it a surprise, then, that the best biographies supplement the timeline of the subject’s life with the reflections found in their notebooks? We can only know so much from someone’s family, education, career, and hobbies. If they kept a diary, they might have filled in their life timeline with more detail, in attempts to bring closure to each day, month, and year, but we aren’t necessarily the richer for it.
In Sarah Manguso’s book Ongoingness, she documents her years of obsessively recording the contents of her days–a debilitating diary. At some point during this journey, she realized where she went wrong:
All I could see in the world were beginnings and endings: moments to survive, record, and, once recorded, safely forget. I knew I was getting somewhere when I began losing interest in the beginnings and the ends of things. Short tragic love stories that had once interested me no longer did. What interested me was the kind of love to which the person dedicates herself for so long, she no longer remembers quite how it began.
In other words, Manguso learned to forget the story. She began to look beyond the story, to question the story’s origins, and to be inspired by the passion someone can carry while having little regard for its beginning nor its end.
It’s one thing to neatly catalogue your days. It’s another thing entirely to pull them out of the dusty cabinet and spread them throughout the house, the garden, the streets, so that you can pick them up again in no particular order, with only the mindset of discovery.