A Diary, Says Thomas Mallon, Can Be Your Letter to the Person You'll Be

updated 05/20/1985 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/20/1985 01:00AM

"Dear Diary, Jeff finally kissed me in his Chevy tonight, and I'm so sorry you can't know what bliss it was. Too tired to write another line. Love, Gay. P.S. Not just once either—3XXX!!!" For most teenage girls, keeping a diary, often with a heart-shaped, gold lock-and-key, is a rite of passage through adolescence. Most of these books wind up in the trash can, but some are sustained over years, even decades, providing an intimate chronicle of one's encounters with life. The first Western diarists, in fact, were not schoolgirls but 16th-and 17th-century English clergymen, who viewed their slim volumes as forums for the rigorous examination of conscience. It wasn't until the reign of Victoria, the diary's heyday, that everyone from the master in the drawing room to the maid in the scullery got happily and prolifically into the act. In our Freudian century, the diary became a vehicle for charting the tortuous alleys of the psyche, and the '70s saw a rash of psychotherapeutic self-awareness schemes that encouraged potential diarists "to get to know themselves better." Thomas Mallon, author of A Book of One's Own: People and Their Diaries (Ticknor & Fields, $15.95), doesn't necessarily disapprove of such notions, but points out, "Diary writing is always best when it's least self-conscious. Otherwise what may be reflected is not so much the real you as the one you're preoccupied with constructing." An assistant professor of English at Vassar, Mallon, 33, spoke with reporter Gay Daly about other people's diaries and his own.

When did you start keeping a diary?

I started one when I was 15, but I made the mistake of rereading it a few years later. I threw it out. I couldn't bear to think I had written this stuff. I started again in college, but I have only written with complete steadiness for eight or nine years. My diaries now run to more than 30 volumes.

How do you feel about what you've written?

I've just reread my college diaries for the first time, and I find it very painful. I wanted to be a writer, and they're full of reading lists and my thoughts on my reading. I think I wanted my diary to reflect "an intelligent person." It's priggish and extremely dull. I know I had all these late adolescent churnings, but they're just not there on the page.

Yet you enjoy your diary now and write an entry for each day. What happened?

I sat down at a restaurant table in Paris on, I think it was, Aug. 8, 1976 and decided I would start another diary. I haven't stopped since. I think I was barely old enough and just barely wise enough to begin to write about things that were really important. That helped, and so did a healthy sense that my chances of literary immortality were very slim, that nobody was really going to care about what I was writing, and I might as well just write it.

What advice would you give to someone starting a diary?

Don't be fancy. Keep it in a cheap notebook. Write when you're in the mood.

I thought you might say, "Be sure to write at the same hour every day."

No, because then you only get angry at your diary. Also, don't read what you write, not for a long time, anyway. Don't think about how you sound because you'll be tempted to rip it up. You need discipline to get it going, but if you are casual the habit is more likely to take root. Virginia Woolf used her diary as a kind of relief from her published writing, an indulgence. She said she wrote it faster than the fastest typewriting, and that's one of the reasons it's such a pleasure to read.

What distinguishes the great diarists?

Most of the diarists I like were people who had a healthy awareness of the outside world, who wrote about other people and things they had seen. Samuel Pepys started this tradition in 1660. In just under 10 years he wrote a million words, covering everything from the restoration of Charles II to the Great Plague to the Great Fire of London. Pepys had a complete incapacity for boredom. He began his diary and kept it going because it was all so damned interesting, and I still think that's the best reason for keeping a diary. There are no great bored diarists.

What other quality makes a diary memorable?

Humor—that's the great thing about Anne Frank's diary. She has a sharp eye for people, can spot their flaws. She's very witty and fantastically good-natured. For stretches as you read, you can almost forget how appalling the circumstances were.

You've read several diaries in their original manuscripts. How does this differ from reading them in published form?

If you're reading the actual diary, there's a tremendous sense of connection to the person. I read the diaries of Edmund Blunden, a World War I poet who had this little copybook he used in the army. I opened his diary for 1916, when he was fighting in the Battle of the Somme, and found some pressed flowers he had picked up on the battlefield. It was a tremendous emotional experience, and there's no way you could re-create that by printing the diary with a little footnote reading "pressed flowers here."

Most diaries are started by teenage girls rather than boys. Why?

Girls are allowed to have secrets, to keep confidences, whereas boys somehow know they're not supposed to be involved with themselves. It's okay for a girl—a nice, quiet occupation, like sewing.

What do girls learn from their diaries?

They learn the importance of emotion and the importance of dailiness—that a lot of ordinary things are worth preserving. There's an interesting contrast between the diaries of Charles and Anne Morrow Lindbergh. Hers were quiet and focused on things less celebrated women have written about too—childbirth, her homes and so forth. His are very preoccupied with history and making sure people have his place right. By the way we usually judge the world, what he writes about should be more interesting, but it isn't.

What are the rewards of recording these "ordinary feelings"?

Discovering the living past. Going back and reading about how dreadful it was when you broke up with X, and remembering that it was dreadful but also experiencing a great relief that you survived. Boys won't have to go through the embarrassment of seeing their past selves, but they also won't have the exquisite relief of seeing that they in fact grew up.

In your book you write that a diary can help in working through grief. How?

I wrote a lot about my father when he died five years ago. I had a very happy relationship with my father, but there were gaps in it, and I used the diary to fill in some of those gaps. Losing my father was terrible, but it became almost a good thing that there were things to wonder about, to get confused and regretful about. It gave me work to do, things to think about with an eye toward solving them or being content to let them rest, instead of just wishing he were still here.

But you also say that a diary can retard the process of recovering from a great unhappiness.

The diary can never tell you to shut up, so you may prolong the grief beyond any usefulness. You have an endless opportunity to wallow. It takes a certain discipline to say "Enough."

Do you ever think about whom you're writing your diaries for?

Yes. I think everybody has a person they write for, but I don't really know who it is. What the diarist is really asking that dimly imagined reader to do later on is to look at the diary and say that the writer counted, that there was something very special about him. A lot of diaries are great pleas to be loved. That's all my college diary is about—respect me, love me, somebody think I'm special. And the last thing in the world that 19-year-old would have wanted was to say that. People spend a lot of their lives looking for someone to listen and not finding anyone. The diary is a captive audience, and it helps. But human beings are always better than paper, so ultimately we would like the diary to be a letter to somebody.

Do you think you will always keep a diary?

I'd probably feel jinxed if I stopped. And there's no reason to. It's gotten very easy now.

Do you every worry that something might happen to your diaries?

All the volumes are in one box, sitting on a shelf in the top of the closet. I've thought what a hell of a shame it would be if they all burned up. I ought to get a safe-deposit box, but I'm a little shy about it because it seems a little egotistical somehow. It's funny to look at yourself in a box. I was struck by the fact that it's like a coffin or like the urn in which they keep your ashes.

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