Diary Story: “Never More than 60 Hours without a Diary Entry”

Richard Grayson is a writer, political activist, and performance artist. He is the author of With Hitler in New York (1979), I Brake for Delmore Schwartz (1983), The Silicon Valley Diet (2000), and other short story collections. In 2004, Grayson authored a column for McSweeney’s documenting his satirical run for Congress, “Diary of a Congressional Candidate in Florida’s Fourth Congressional District.” The online magazine Thought Catalog is currently reprinting Grayson’s early diary entries. He is a self-described graphomaniac, with a daily diary-writing practice for almost fifty years.

1. When did you start keeping a diary or journal? What prompted you to do so?

I was 18 years old in August 1969. I’d spent most of the previous year in my room because of my agoraphobia. As a kid, I began getting what we would now call panic disorder; it intensified in my teenage years to the point where I asked my parents if I could see a psychiatrist, and although the doctor was probably a good psychoanalyst, I just got worse and worse, with panic attacks getting more and more frequent, and I eventually began to fear leaving the house, so I didn’t start college when I was supposed to. Eventually I got so bad that the doctor gave into ­­my mother’s demand that I be given some sort of medicine. The prescription, a combination antipsychotic tranquilizer and tricyclic antidepressant, began to work in a few weeks, and as spring came, I was able to go out more and more, still getting panic attacks but being more able to deal with them. It was the summer of 1969, a pretty exciting time culturally, especially in New York City, and I felt as if I were reborn; on Friday, August 8, 1969, I was passing a bookstore near Brooklyn College and saw this 1969 diary on sale for half-price. It was a hardbound red book, the size of a regular book, and I felt compelled to buy it, and right after I bought it, I sat down on the grass on campus and wrote the first eight entries for August, as if I’d started writing the week before. And I just kept writing every day for the rest of my life.

2. How often do you write in your diary or journal?

Almost every day. I never let a day go by without an entry. The diary has one page per calendar day. As I got older, there would be times when I knew I’d miss a day, like a drive from New York to Florida or back, or I knew I’d stay over at someone’s house and didn’t want to take the diary, so I’d write a little in advance sometimes or the next day. I’ve never gone more than about 60 hours without writing a diary entry. I am compulsive and I am somewhat of a graphomaniac.

3. Have there ever been periods of time when you ceased to write in your diary or journal? If so, why?

No.

4. Describe the physical form of your diary or journal: handwritten or typed? notebook or laptop? etc.

It’s the same diary book. It’s gone through four or five changes of ownership of the company, but it’s geared toward businesses, and it’s a “standard” diary, so it’s always had the same “number” – 55-148 – no matter which company manufactured it. I write in longhand with a black pen (sometimes I’ve used a blue pen). I need to write more than the lines I’m given, so starting in about 1972, I began writing a microscript, using two lines of my writing for each line of the lines in the physical diary. My handwriting, once beautiful, is now illegible; I often can’t immediately make out the words the day after I write them. I should probably switch to a digital diary, but I don’t want to lose the connection with the past, and it’s the writing of the diary that’s important to me, not deciphering my elderly handwriting.

5. What do you write about in your diary or journal?

My day’s events; ideas for stories or other projects; sometimes, reactions to news events or things I’ve read; I’ve quoted parts of reviews I’ve gotten or newspaper articles about me; pretty much whatever comes to my mind, although it’s always in full sentences with subjects and predicates. I don’t like the “Had dinner with Jim”-type fragments in diaries. If I quote conversations, I do it the way I do it in fiction.

6. Have you ever or would you allow someone else to read your diary or journal? Is privacy an important aspect of your diary or journal writing?

I’ve published large excerpts of my diaries on websites and print-on-demand self-published books and e-books, but so far I’ve kept from publishing anything since 1998 entries. If I’m able, I’ll do that, but I probably wouldn’t show anyone stuff from the previous few years. I change most people’s names when I publish them, but not all. I don’t care about privacy.

7. Have you ever read someone else’s diary, published or unpublished?

I’ve read authors’ diaries, like Virginia Woolf’s (and her husband Leonard’s). Samuel Pepys, of course. The usual famous diaries, I guess, like those of Harold Nicolson, Anais Nin, Ned Rorem, and Donald Vining’s A Gay Diary. I met Donald Vining at a small press book fair and had a wonderful talk with him about diary-keeping.

I don’t think I’ve ever read anyone else’s diaries. One summer I was staying at the home of my friend’s parents while they were away – I later lived in that house for years – and I found my friend’s mother’s diary by accident. Once I realized what it was, I put it away without reading it. I would not want to read the diaries of anyone else in my life, and most people in my life don’t want to read my diary.

8. Has social media changed your diary writing practices, or changed how you think about your diary? If you use social media, how does your writing in digital formats compare to your diary or journal?

Social media – in particular, a blog I kept – changed the way I would describe events I went to. My blog was about the concerts, plays, lectures, art openings, readings, political rallies, street fairs and other New York events I’d attend. I’d usually write the blog entry when I got home, and my own diary entries about the event were much shorter and less detailed. Since I never used social media to write about my work or personal life, that has stayed the same.

9. How often, if ever, do you read through your previous diary or journal entries? Have you ever edited, redacted, or destroyed any parts of your diary or journal? Why?

Very often, because I’ve been transcribing them from handwriting into digital form for publication. Now I continually read old entries as I publish them more or less constantly. I proofread, correct errors, and make occasional mechanical and structural changes; at 18 or 19, I tended use a dash when I needed a semicolon or colon. I don’t read diaries I’m not transcribing or publishing unless I am trying to remember something in particular.

I’ve edited lightly, as I explained above, for publication. I’ve left out very few things, and all of them pertained to secrets of other people that I would not want to reveal, that it is not my place to reveal. For example, if I know that someone’s father is not really that person’s biological father and that person doesn’t know it, I am obviously not going to let anyone see that because it’s messing with people’s lives, something only a monster would do. For myself, I don’t censor much of anything – usually extremely mean things I’ve said at the heat of the moment. I would censor things that hurt other people. I would never destroy my writings. No one really cares, anyway.

10. What do you plan to do with your diary or journal in the event of your death?

At one point, I tried to see if I could donate the now-46 volumes to a library – my first choice would be the Brooklyn College Library or some other academic library from the other two dozen or so colleges and universities where I worked, or the Brooklyn Public Library – but no one seemed interested. So I guess I will just let whoever survives me (I have no children, no nephews or nieces, so my estate would probably either go to a distant relation I don’t know or escheat to the state I died in) deal with them. I’ll be dead, so who cares, really? Anyway, a lot of it is available online or in ebook/book form if they still exist when I’m dead.

The origins of the Diary Story in 10 Questions is described here. If you are interested in sharing your story, please contact me.

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Diary Stories in 10 Questions

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I’m looking for volunteers. Would you be interested in telling your diary story?

One of my goals for this blog has been to gather information from fellow diary enthusiasts. It is very hard to know what diary and journal writing means today — hard to develop a sufficient corpus of data to draw meaningful conclusions about who writes a diary and what they write about. The French scholar Phillippe Lejeune faced this problem early on and employed an innovative research method: he posted a newspaper ad, asking individuals to complete a questionnaire he developed.* Initially, I thought I would try to replicate his method here, using social media to gain access to a larger number of people than Lejeune was able to through the newspaper, but I’m daunted by my lack of both technical and statistical knowledge. I simply don’t know enough to gather or analyze that kind of data. But I do know how to think about stories, so that’s what I propose to gather: people’s individual accounts of their diaries, their diary stories.

These are the 10 questions I’ve developed. What do you think? Are they sufficiently thought-provoking? Do they answer the questions you want to know about people’s diary-keeping habits? Are they overly technical? (I’m worried that they are overly technical and display my scholarly geekery to its fullest.) And, most importantly, would you be willing to answer these questions here?

Diary Stories: 10 Questions

  1. When did you start keeping a diary or journal? What prompted you to do so?
  1. How often do you write in your diary or journal?
  1. Have there ever been periods of time when you ceased to write in your diary or journal? If so, why?
  1. Describe the physical form of your diary or journal: handwritten or typed? notebook or laptop? etc.
  1. What do you write about in your diary or journal?
  1. Have you ever or would you allow someone else to read your diary or journal? Is privacy an important aspect of your diary or journal writing?
  1. Have you ever read someone else’s diary, published or unpublished?
  1. Has social media changed your diary writing practices, or changed how you think about your diary? If you use social media, how does your writing in digital formats compare to your diary or journal?
  1. How often, if ever, do you read through your previous diary or journal entries? Have you ever edited, redacted, or destroyed any parts of your diary or journal? Why?
  1. What do you plan to do with your diary or journal in the event of your death?

* See Lejeune, On Diary. Eds. Jeremy D. Popkin and Julie Rak. Trans. Katherine Durnin. Manoa, HI: U Hawaii P, 2009. I wrote the questions above without consulting Lejeune’s questionnaire but, upon comparison, they have many similarities — which is not surprising, given our shared interests.

Image source: Ernest Leech’s childhood diary via Chetham’s Library (detail)