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.

In the News: Crowdsourcing WWI Diaries

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It’s a fascinating idea: Digitize thousands of WWI diaries and invite the public — dubbed “citizen historians” — to annotate the documents. And, do it not under the aegis of a traditional academic institution or public sector organization but rather a newfangled quasi-academic, quasi-digital corporation: Zooniverse. It is a creative way of engaging amateurs in the work of historical research and the digital platform (from my brief exploration) is easy to use. I think that the pre-determined tags are limited and that a trained historian or literary critic would ask much more complicated questions about the content and significance of the documents than a simple tag can communicate. But, really, why quibble with the details when the project is so ambitious and impressive in its scope?

Zooniverse’s Operation War Diary

A BBC News article on the project, “Digitized WWI Diaries Highlight Battle Confusion”

In the News: Dr. Livingstone’s 1871 Field Diary In Living Color

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Screenshot of a page of Dr. Livingston’s diary, via the UCLA Multispectral Critical Edition

Yes, that Dr. Livingston.

The David Livingston Spectral Imaging Project at UCLA has succeeded in rendering Livingston’s fragile and mostly illegible diary available for modern readers. Livingstone wrote his diary on newspaper print with ink he made from berries. The Spectral Imaging Project not only makes the text legible, it has transcribed and digitized the entire document, and made it accessible on the web for free. The project is an impressive realization of the promise of digital humanities.

Read an account of this project at the Smithsonian Associates.

UCLA’s David Livingston Spectral Imaging Project

In the News: Keeping a Necrology

Physician John Henning Schumann describes his practice of recording the names of all the patients he has treated who have died, a kind of adapted diary which he calls a necrology:

In everyday medical care, the practice of reflection is too often overlooked. Remembrance is what makes us human. Somehow, keeping tabs on who has died over the years keeps me humble. It also reminds me that in spite of all of medicine’s marvels, and whatever I might be able to do, our patients all eventually die.

Read Dr. Schumann’s essay here, via NPR.

In the News: Confederate Diary De-Coded

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Via Huffington Post: A British Cryptographer has decoded a US Confederate soldier’s diary to discover that the code was intended to hide the soldier’s gossipy speculation about his superiors.

The complete diary of Lt. James M. Malbone is viewable here, thanks to the New York State Military Museum.

Kent D. Boklan’s account of his decoding process is available here, via Taylor & Francis (limited access).