Against Journaling: Dennis Tang on the Joys of Not Writing It All Down

I remember being a small child, doing arithmetic at the kitchen table, but not what state I was in—Delaware, Nebraska, Pennsylvania, we moved all around. I remember the face of my middle school bully, but not his name. I remember falling desperately in love with a girl in my college Shakespeare lecture, but not what words we actually exchanged. At the time, I must have trusted I’d remember every detail, every second. I’d felt those moments so deeply, after all. How could I not?

Nothing marks growing up like being proven wrong. I was wrong, there is simply too much, too distant, to remember. Accumulating memories flatten under their own weight. Watershed events are smoothed down to a plain. Indelible images smudge and blur. Moments that once felt committed to film, cinematic, are shaved down to a point: a single sharp feeling of joy, heartbreak, or loss. What’s most easily lost are the specifics. Dates forgotten. Details jumbled. Was it raining that night, or am I being dramatic? In that Shakespeare lecture, were we reading The Tempest, or Twelfth Night? Bits and pieces are lost forever, now. Memories become like dreams of the past.

For those who hope that a journal might provide an empirical record, the subjectivity of the author always interferes.

And yet, I have never kept a journal.

Perhaps I should have. Written it down, I mean. As a writer, it feels like a duty. To keep a journal is a near-ubiquitous piece of introductory advice. Start a journal. Write in it every day. We hear so often about the journals of famous authors—Woolf, Sontag, Kafka, O’Connor, and so on—that it’s as if the rest of us are lazy, negligent, bad writers. Letting the raw material of our art slip through our hands. In a world of endless writing prescriptions and inspiration, such is the party line. As a writer, few things fill me with more guilt that I nevertheless, steadfastly do not do. Why is that? Every day, I wonder if something is happening to me that I’ll want to remember. I fail to write all of it down, and I repeat.

Put that way, it sounds like abject insanity. But hints abound that other notable writers are like the rest of us: abortive and lapsed in their recordkeeping, skeptical of what kinds of truth a journal offers anyway. They offer some hope for the rest of us, that lax recordkeeping is not the death knell for an aspiring writer.

To start, we may distinguish between notebooks and journals. All writers, we can presume, keep some version of the former, jot down somewhere their thoughts and stray bits of poetry or prose, whether it be bound and organized pages, a Notes app, Post-Its—whatever. A journal, however, is a chronological recording of events as they happen. Joan Didion famously penned an essay about the former called “On Keeping a Notebook,” in which she admits to failing at the latter. “At no point have I ever been able successfully to keep a diary,” she writes.

“My approach to daily life ranges from the grossly negligent to the merely absent, and on those few occasions when I have tried dutifully to record a day’s events, boredom has so overcome me that the results are mysterious at best. What is this business about ‘shopping, typing piece, dinner with E, depressed’? Shopping for what? Typing what piece? Who is E? Was this ‘E’ depressed, or was I depressed? Who cares?” Even for an obsessive like Didion, it can be tedious work to record all events with enough fidelity. The minute-by-minute might interest the future self, but often not the self who is living it.

Patricia Lockwood describes a similar block, in her memoir Priestdaddy. “The sort of diary that fixes my body in time and space, that records the weather and my moods and what my rosebushes are doing, has always been impossible for me. As soon as I begin to set down the facts, the old childhood chorus of Is that true? Is that really true? starts up, and I hesitate, and then I scratch out the sentences until they’re solid black.”

Here, too, we see a skepticism that even daily diary keeping can stick to the facts, the reason Catherine Lacey calls journaling “that practice of private self-mythology”; even when it is fixed in time and space, the self is prone to spinning yarns. For those who hope that a journal might provide an empirical record, the subjectivity of the author always interferes.

Even for writers who do journal, it can prove less than useful. Heidi Julavits kept a diary as a child, yet its tediousness is the germ of her memoir, The Folded Clock. “The actual diaries, however, fail to corroborate the myth I’d concocted for myself. They reveal me to possess the mind, not of a future writer, but of a future paranoid tax auditor. I exhibited no imagination, no trace of a style, no wit, no personality.” But is that really true?

We might infer that things were left out of these journals, something exhibited as a child that hints at the creative spark of Julavits the adult. If I’d had a journal, I’m sure I’d have written about some toy I desired hundreds of times—and yet, I hope, there were more multitudes to my young mind. A journal is never complete or perfect, not even in recording one’s thoughts. It was written by a different person, fixated and unaware in their own ways. A relative child, regardless of age.

Journals miss things, and so more and more effort can always be expended to preserve the long tail of experience, every bit of marginalia that could ever inform anything. Sarah Manguso, in an essay about memory, describes a case that is the logical end of this impulse:

The graphomaniac Robert Shields spent four hours a day recording his life in five-minute increments, including logs of his body temperature and blood pressure and descriptions of his junk mail. He slept in two-hour stretches in order to record his dreams. He eventually donated the diaries to Washington State University, on the condition that they could not be read or subjected to a word count until fifty years after his death, but their length is estimated at 38 million words.

One day, someone will dedicate nearly as much of their lives to seeing what these entries contain as Shields did to writing them. Something tells me that they will most likely resemble the diaries that Didion and Julavits considered disappointments: painstakingly mundane, full of the parts of life that we depend on literature to elide, summarize, and synthesize.

If we do not journal, we are left with memory: fallible, slipshod memory. Louise Glück appears to rely entirely on memory in her essay “On Revenge.” “When I was a child,” she writes, “I was enormously sensitive to slights; my definition of slights as broad as my sensitivity was deep. I trust my memory on this point because the child I describe corresponds so exactly to the evolved adult.” And indeed, the kind of telling that follows is less rooted in evidence, more memory’s evocation of the past. “Pride governed my behavior. It precluded, to my mind, all show of anger […] Anger was the show of blood that proved the arrow had penetrated.” No diary entries were used in the making of this. Glück instead interrogates the memory of her feelings, often the memories that linger strongest, for the truth of her interior life. It feels like as rich a vein as any journal.

There remains the matter your own mind, rich and vast, full of more than you could ever hope to put to the page.

Annie Ernaux is another writer who we know must rely on memory: after all, her mother burned all the diaries she wrote as a youth. And yet her memoirs are full of the details that matter most, serve almost as sociological windows into the times in which they occur. Her style of l’écriture plate or “flat writing,” as she calls it, is an attempt to impartially represent her own recollections.

As she writes in A Woman’s Story: “This way of writing, which seems to bring me closer to the truth, relieves me of the dark, heavy burden of personal remembrance by establishing a more objective approach.” Ernaux represents an alternative mode of writing from memory: memory as pure sense-data, sans the subjectivity of one’s sentimental or emotional bias. Memory as both a source of knowledge and subject of interrogation in itself.

Yet still, as I write this, I feel like I’m making excuses. I regret forgetting the names of people whose faces I remember. I wish I had the crucial scenes of my life in writing in front of me, narrated with complete clarity. Problem is, no journal can do that. Wading through the fog of the past to cherry-pick the information you want requires hindsight, knowledge after the fact of what matters. What you need is not a journal, but a time machine.

On some level, a journal is a play for control. It is a fight against the fear of loss. The hoarder’s fear, that one will lose anything that might ever be useful. A fear of growing older, losing one’s youth, and forgetting. Not coincidentally, such fears are only amplified by the pressure to produce, capitalism’s dictum to translate every iota of time and energy into inputs for profit. If you are not writing it all down, the reasoning goes, constantly creating material so that it may pay dividends in the future, what the hell are you doing?

Well, living, I suppose, which matters for writing too. Reading and writing other things, because I can’t do everything. To be sure, there is nothing wrong with keeping a journal, and perhaps, someday, I’ll try. But it is important, I think, to reject claims of any one weird trick to great writing, to let go of the anxiety that comes with insisting on complete mastery over our habits and ourselves. Whether it is 38 million words or “dinner with E, depressed,” no volume of ink can encompass all of time and space. There is something mollifying in accepting this, in living with an acknowledgment of one’s limits. Recognizing that memory is not merely an inferior keeper of records, but an alternate form of truth in itself.

In the end, nothing can be nailed down forever by the beings of this moral coil, trying to live and be happy in the perpetual present. Something is always being forgotten. Something is always being lost. A journal is just one of the many ways by which we try to stem this tide, and any way in which we write and think and feel represents nothing other than our best attempt. Which is good. It’s okay. And regardless of what’s recorded or lost, there remains the matter your own mind, rich and vast, full of more than you could ever hope to put to the page, anyway.

In the end, to forget is to be human. Don’t be afraid of losing touch with the past. After all, you were there, living it.

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