Round Up: Diary in the News

• Morgan Jerkins, “Black Women Writers and the Secret Space of Diaries” in the New Yorker

• Joe Hagan, “I wish I knew how it would feel to be free: The secret diary of Nina Simone” in The Believer, reprinted on

• Serge F. Kovaleski, “Tracking an Elusive Diary from Hitler’s Inner Circle” in the New York Times

• Michelle Marchetti Coughlin on the earliest known American woman’s diary on Ben Franklin’s World (podcast)


Michael Palin, Diary Ambassador

I have been terribly remiss in posting new stories to this blog. Ironically, my radio silence is due to the fact that I have been busy teaching — and this semester my teaching is strongly centered around diaries. My students have been reading diaries, diary fiction, and diary criticism — and they’ve been using the digitized diary index on this blog to do their own original research on manuscript diaries. So, I’ve been thinking a great deal about diaries and about the teaching of diaries … but that doesn’t leave me much time to write here. I hope to rectify that — I’ve got a list of diary-related stories that have come across my desk the past few weeks that I am eager to post — but, let’s face it, every semester has the habit of chewing me up and spitting me out, and this one is no different.

What brings me out of my temporary blog retirement is this article by the incomparable Michael Palin about his 46-year-long diary writing habit. Palin writes,

That’s the attraction of a diary. It remains in its own time. It reflects only what happened on that particular day. It doesn’t flatter and it isn’t influenced by what happened later. In that way it’s the most truthful record of real life, and that’s why I’m so glad I persevered with it – writing an entry most mornings right up to today.

The article describes one of his idiosyncratic diary-writing habits, which is to write the diary on one side of each page, and then turn the diary upside down and continue the diary on the back side of each page. I love details like that, that demonstrate the crazy inventiveness of diary writers.

I wasn’t aware that Palin was a diarist — or that he has published several volumes of his early diaries already. Now, he’s embarking on the The Thirty Years Tour, a one-man autobiographical performance in which Palin reflects on his famously accomplished career. As a result of the key role that the diaries play in this project, Palin had made himself into a kind of diary ambassador, testifying to the value that diary-writing has added to his life and advocating that everyone else should take up the habit too. Here he is on his blog, in a video about how to start writing a diary. What a sweetheart. If I were not already smitten with Mr. Palin for all the years of Monty Python humor, I would be really sunk now.

The Guardian (which published the article by Palin) invited readers inspired by the story, to upload pictures of their diaries: a crowd-sourced mini-history of the diary. Thank you,The Guardian, for your strange and reckless devotion to covering the diary beat.

Mass Murderers and their Diaries

I admit I have an irrational idea that only good people keep diaries.

Diary writing is, to me, associated with self-reflection and self-expression, both of which I tend to think of as constitutive of good character. To know yourself is a necessary step in developing the ability to empathize with others. To express your thoughts to yourself is also a way of learning how to sort through positive and negative impulses, and to write a new narrative for yourself that is empowering and affirmative.

I know, I know this is a rather naïve view — and one that has been put to the test this week, as the diary of a mass murderer has been in the news: James Holmes, perpetuator of the Aurora CO mass shooting in 2012.

I don’t have much to more to say about this — I don’t really want to know that he kept an elaborate diary of his plan to commit mass murder — but here’s a round up of relevant links, if you have the stomach for it:

Peter Holey, “What James Holmes’s Diary Says about the Aurora Theater Shooter’s Sanity” in the Washington Post

Jack Healey, “Diary’s Pages May Help Jurors Decide if Colorado Gunman Was Methodical or Mad” in the New York Times

Mark Follman, “5 Chilling Pages From the Aurora Mass Shooter’s Diary Debunk a Favorite NRA Talking Point” in Mother Jones

Mass Observation Diary Day

Screen Shot 2015-05-16 at 8.49.28 AMDid you miss Mass Observation Diary Day on May 12?

Here’s the history: In 1937, on the day of George VI’s Coronation, a Mass Observation Day was held across the UK, with citizens invited to record their daily experiences. The result was the Mass Observation Archive, which ran an annual observation day on May 12 until the 1950s. It was revived in the 1980s by the University of Sussex.

This year’s Mass Observation Diary Day was enhanced by social media: an invitation to submit diaries via email or to upload digital photographs, the Twitter hashtag #12May15, a Facebook page, and a resulting Storify page.

The archive collected over these many years is open to scholars, and I can think of so many ways that it will enhance our understanding of the everyday lives of ordinary people. Bravo!

Secret Political Diaries Do Not Stay Secret

This week in diary news teaches us an important fact, crucial for any aspiring politicians: secret diaries disclosing your private opinions about your fellow politicians have an amazing way of not staying secret.

I’ve written before about Dale Bumpers’ diary, which displayed his critical assessment of then political allies, Bill and Hillary Clinton.

This week, Richard C. Holbrooke is in the news thanks to a forthcoming documentary that reveals that the diplomat kept a “secret audio diary” about his frustrations with the Obama administration.

But it’s not only a bad week for secret political diaries in the United States. Canadian Senator Mike Duffy’s daily journal reveals his close ties to corporate lobbying, possibly illegal. It doesn’t help Duffy’s case that his diary writing style also opens him up to ridicule: writing of himself in the 3rd person and puffing himself up with self-praising admonitions like “TS up & at ’em!” Oh dear.

So, open message to politicians: If you are going to keep a diary, and you probably are because you undoubtedly aspire to write a biography soon after you leave office, just be aware that secrecy is an unstable, unreliable concept and it’s very likely that your scathing opinions and petty self-promotions will be discovered and put on full display in the press.

Dale Bumpers Diary Hullabaloo

On Tuesday March 17, Mother Jones reporter Tim Murphy published an essay recounting details from the diary kept by former Senator Dale Bumpers, relaying Sen. Bumpers’ none-too-flattering comments about Bill and Hillary Clinton, dated from the 1980s. According to Murphy, the diary is held within a collection of Sen. Bumpers’ private papers at the University of Arkansas Fayetteville, a collection that was opened to the public last year. It would appear to be a case in which the diarist out-lived the embargo on his private papers (Bumpers is now 89 years old), because in a curious turn of events, Sen. Bumpers’ son had denied that the diary was authored by his father and the library has withdrawn the diary from public circulation. But Murphy’s original reporting included images of the diary and he attests that no one but Sen. Bumpers could have authored the diary that he read. The University of Arkansas Fayetteville Special Collections has apparently caved to political pressure, as perhaps Sen. Bumpers has too — and over something so minor. Does anyone really care? There have been so many critical things written and said about the Clintons — it’s not a smoking gun to discover that a close friend privately described them “maniacally ambitious.” Obviously the family needs to decide whether or not to acknowledge the diary as authentic, and whether they want to extend the embargo on the papers but all the hullabaloo has drawn attention to the diary as a historical artifact — and that I cannot but find wonderful.

I learned something else: If you Google “Bumpers diary,” you get a handful of news articles but you also get a link to the website Zazzle featuring diary-related bumper stickers. It is the most bizarre assemblage. Check these out:

Screen Shot 2015-03-28 at 3.42.47 PMScreen Shot 2015-03-28 at 3.43.17 PMScreen Shot 2015-03-28 at 3.45.18 PMScreen Shot 2015-03-28 at 3.45.40 PMScreen Shot 2015-03-28 at 3.46.14 PMI am one of the biggest diary geeks ever and even I have to admit, these are terrible. Oh Zazzle, what are you thinking?

Diary Tweets: Trapper Bud’s Diary

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It’s a pretty common perception that social media platforms like blogs and Facebook are modern iterations of the diary. You’ll see that argument made by academics who study contemporary life writing, by journalists who are interested in the development and use of social media, and by bloggers and Facebook-ers themselves. These different forms of self-expression have some things in common: they are self-disclosing records of life, often daily, usually mundane, and sometimes extremely private. There are obvious differences, of course — differences that have been analyzed closely by literary critics — notably that social media makes the text available to an audience of strangers and that the audience engages with, responds to, and essentially collaborates on the text.

Twitter, however, seems to be of another species altogether. Generally speaking, Twitter is less about individually recorded lives and more about conversation, debate, and sharing. You are much less likely to encounter the argument that Twitter is like, in any way, a diary — and I tend to agree with that distinction. If I were to make analogies, I would be more likely to compare Twitter to a telegram, to newspaper headlines, or to the running scroll at the bottom of the TV screen — short, impersonal announcements about events occurring in the public sphere.

Derryl Murphy is breaking down such distinctions with his @TrapperBud Twitter feed, where he is tweeting his grandfather’s diary. Bud Murphy was a trapper in the Northwest Territories in the 1920s and 30s and kept a daily record of his experiences. Derryl illuminates Bud’s narrative with illustrations and occasional commentary on his grandfather’s life. Here’s a post from Derry’s blog discussing the Twitter project. It is an intriguing use of Twitter: part recovery, part publication, part personal narrative. Plus, Bud lived a really incredible life — the kind of life that seems increasingly impossible in our world, one tied to nature and nature’s rhythms. I would love to know more about why Bud kept the diary in the first place. In the meanwhile, I look forward to seeing Bud’s “voice” intermingling with other tweets in my Twitter feed.

Writers and the Writerly Denial of Diary Writing

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When you start to look around for writing about diaries, suddenly it seems to be everywhere.

To wit:

Last weekend, The New York Times Style Magazine* featured three mini-essays by writers on their relationships with diary writing: Sarah Manguso, Amalia Ulman, and Heidi Julavits.

This week, the online teen magazine Rookie** published an essay by Zadie Smith on her decision to not keep a diary.

All four essays are very interesting meditations on diaries but here are my two takeaways:

1. So, there are no male writers with something to say about diaries? The association between the diary genre and women (i.e., it’s a form of private writing, therefore one more likely to be practiced by women) has been theorized, deconstructed, and troubled by several generations of literary critics, yet it has remarkable durability. None of the four authors comments on this — they, rightfully, do not see themselves as speaking on behalf of women writers, or women in general. They do not say that diary-writing is women’s work, because it is not. But, this is news that may not yet have reached the editors of these periodicals. I wonder: has anyone ever asked Jonathan Franzen if he keeps a diary?

2. The other notable theme across the four pieces is that the authors actually don’t keep diaries. This is what I am calling the “denial of diary.” Apparently, it is best to speak of diary writing in the negative: I once kept a diary but I don’t any more. I tried to keep a diary but I simply couldn’t. I briefly kept a diary but not really because it was a fictionalized art performance piece. In some ways this is the most writerly of all the poses these authors adopt: apparently, a writer cannot and should not keep a traditional “this is what happened to me” diary. Somehow that genre is too ordinary for a real writer. A real writer will find a way to cleverly invert the terms of the genre to produce something that is indebted to the diary but ultimately rejects the terms of the diary.

I get it. I am sympathetic to the artistic impulse to push against expectations. But, on behalf of all the traditional diary writers, I am a bit defensive. Really, Zadie Smith? Writing in the first person is disgusting, dishonest, artificial, intolerable, laborious, stressful, and, horror upon horrors!, American? (All adjectives that Smith uses.) On behalf of all the people who put a date at the top of the page and write “Today I,” I would like to protest this string of invectives. Diary writing is not for everyone but can you please explain to me why someone who does not write a diary and finds the practice offensive to her sensibilities is the one who is asked to write about writing a diary?

* While I am in ranting mode, I take this opportunity to also comment on how hardily I dislike the New York Times Style Magazine. I subscribe to the Sunday New York Times and I enjoy it immensely. I like feeling as though I have some purchase on what concerns the cultural elite in our country. For the most part, my enjoyment is undiluted by the fact that the cultural elite are also the class elite — I can read about the museums and plays that rich people attend without getting too fixated on their richness. The Style Magazine makes that more challenging. Nothing like 47 pages devoted to advertisements for designer handbags and articles on how $10,000 shirt dresses are the latest thing to put the class status of the New York Times audience front and center. This context probably colors my reading of the essays by Manguso, Ulman, and Julavits: they may not be members of the literary upper-class but appearing within the pages of The Style Magazine makes them appear that they are — which makes me suspicious of their self-deprecating self-representations. Somehow The Style Magazine makes the diary appear simultaneously trendy and passé: something that trend-setters are doing, but only doing with a pretentious twist. Almost makes me want pull a Zadie Smith.

** Rookie actually has an on-going diary column in which five teen girls publish their diary entries in the magazine, as well as several previously published essays about diaries including a wonderful archive featuring pages from their readers’ private diaries. So, I do feel a bit guilty about lumping this periodical into the same class as The New York Style Magazine. They are very, very different publications and the brilliant Zadie Smith can do and say whatever she wants!

Photo Credit: Pushing Time

Reading a Diary into Evidence

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I’m listening to Serial — arriving late to this strange new media phenomenon — and in Episode 2 a diary appears: the young woman who was murdered, Hae Men Lee, kept a diary and it is read into evidence at the trial against Adnan Syed.

Which got me thinking about diaries as evidence in legal cases.

I have to admit that is one of my fears — one of the two main reasons that I consider destroying my own diaries: that something will happen that will result in my diaries being taken away by police investigators and read by them as they attempt to solve a crime. It really doesn’t matter what the crime is — whether I am being investigated or whether I am the victim — either way, I do not want my diaries read in this context. (The other reason, in case you’re wondering, is the polar opposite scenario, one in which people closely related to me read my diaries — like my parents or siblings. Ugh.)

Listening to Hae’s diary being read in the taped transcript of the trial I thought, really? This really counts as legitimate evidence in a murder trial? I’ve written before about the trope of the discovered diary in mystery novels and how it’s such a cliché that most authors wouldn’t dream of deploying it straight. Who is going to believe that a diary provides the clues necessary to solve a crime?* Listening to a non-fictional instance in which that — or something close that — actually occurred was eye-opening for me. Hae’s diary is no “smoking gun,” pointing a finger directly at Adnan as her killer. Instead, it’s used in the trial (as far as I could tell) to establish the character of their relationship, that the end of the relationship had caused emotional pain but that Hae had moved on to her new boyfriend — contributing to the prosecution’s case regarding Adnan’s motive.

And the phone number, of course. Hae writes Adnan’s new phone number in her diary, proof that he called her the night before. That bit of marginalia is completely fascinating from a textual studies point of view, demonstrating how diaries can be used for numerous, unpredictable, spontaneous, and revelatory purposes.

But: does the diary actually bear the weight of evidence?

Diaries are generally unreliable, unstable, piecemeal, deeply interior texts. They provide only a glimpse of a portion of a constructed version of the diarist’s life. When I think of how much my own diary leaves out, all the things that happen in my life that don’t make it onto the pages of my diary because I am too busy to write or they appear insignificant … well, suffice to say that my diary is no accurate representation of my state of mind, my relationships, or the kinds of incidents that could serve as clues in an investigation.

As a literary critic, the incompleteness, unreliability, and interiority of a diary are not a problem. The tools of literary analysis enable us to identify these issues and investigate their meaning. Literary critics are not looking for “truth” (what really happened) or “motive” (why did X do what s/he did) or “timeline” (when did X happen). We are looking for voice, structure, construction of identity, language use, representations of time and space — the kinds of things that make diaries rich for textual analysis but poor for legal evidence.

Nevertheless, including Hae’s diary in the trial seems like a smart move on the part of the prosecutors. They have one of Hae’s friends read the diary in the courtroom, a young woman of roughly the same age as Hae, and this seems to me like an effective way of engaging the jury’s sympathies. It gives Hae a voice — and, because the diary is thought to communicate something true and authentic, it probably comes across as an expression of Hae’s deepest inner self. Essentially, the prosecutors leverage cultural assumptions about diaries to make the jury feel connected to Hae and therefore eager to punish her murderer.**

One final detail that really caught my attention: During the trial, it appears that copies of the diary circulated pretty widely as both the prosecution and defense sought to build their cases. But what weirded me out was that Adnan had read it too. It’s not clear when or why or how it came into his possession but … what the hell? I haven’t finished Serial yet and so far I waffle back and forth on the question of Adnan’s innocence or guilt but the idea that Hae’s (possible) murderer was reading her diary … was given access to her diary … that troubles me. She was violated in so many ways — some people think that Serial is violating her again — but the idea of her (possible) murderer reading her silly, messy, charming, personal diary strikes me as yet another violation.

* Of course, then I spend some time googling “diary” and “testimony” and run across stories like this one, in which a woman documents her plan to murder her children and then describes the experience of murdering them. In her diary.

** My discussion of Hae’s diary is from the perspective of a literary critic, but I found a great analysis of the issue by lawyer Collin Miller, from whom I learned that Hae’s diary is considered a form a “hearsay” and, as such, should not have been admissible in the trial. Miller believes that Adnan’s lawyer failed to prevent the diary from being included, which was yet another way in which she failed to build a good defense for her client. Miller also points out that had Adnan kept a diary, it would have been admissible as evidence — either as proof of his motive or as defense against it. It’s an intriguing idea: If Adnan had also kept a diary it could have implicated him — or maybe freed him.

Guantánomo Diary

In 2005, Mohamedou Ould Slahi wrote a 466-page, 122,000 word diary describing his detention in Guantánomo. He remains imprisoned there today. Amazingly, in 2012, his lawyers succeeded in declassifying the document. His Guantánomo Diary is now available in bookstores.

For more on how the diary came to be published, The Guardian‘s “Guantánamo Diary: How a classified, handwritten manuscript became an extraordinary book”

To read an excerpt, or to hear Stephen Fry read it to you, also from The Guardian:
“Guantánamo Diary: ‘They made me drink salt water. The chains stopped the circulation to my hands and feet'”


The Guantánomo Diary houses a rich archive of materials:

  • a partially animated documentary explaining Mohamedou Ould Slahi’s case.
  • a link to the entire handwritten manuscript, including redactions
  • a series of audio recordings of celebrities reading from the text.

The New York Times Jan 20. 2015: “Family Seeks Release of a Guantánamo Detainee Turned Author”

The American Civil Liberties Union: “Guantánamo Diary: An Epic for Our Times” and a call to action to sign the ACLU-led petition to Free Slahi.