My Secret Diary
Despite having kept one for nearly four years, I’m still not sure for whom a journal is written. It can’t be written for other people, for that invites self-censorship (and furthermore, at that point, really, just do some editing and show people a short story if you want attention). At the same time, how does one write for oneself? Your thoughts will always be more meaningful to you in their natural amorphousness than they can be in concrete words. At best, a journal is a photograph of your mind: imperfect, but an acceptable representation, one that can at least jog your memory, and remind you of the person you used to be.
I began keeping a journal midway through my freshman year at college, the same week that I read Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem, which contains (in addition to an eerily timely piece on keeping a journal) an essay entitled “On Self-Respect”. The essay, as I wrote in my journal,
speaks uncannily to my current situation. Just to highlight some lines: “I lost the conviction that…these rather passive virtues that had won me approval as a child automatically guaranteed me…happiness, honor.”…”To live without self-respect is to lie awake…counting up the sins of commission and omission…the gifts irrevocably wasted through sloth or cowardice or carelessness.”
At the time, I was feeling as though I’d taken some grievous missteps during my first semester at NYU. At a time when I should have been outgoing, I had carved out a position of high-browed aloofness, refusing to – or rather, being too cowardly to – engage in normal social intercourse with my schoolmates. These were the “passive virtues” that had seemed to secure me approbation and serenity throughout my life, and I had seen no need to change. My adolescence was fairly painless (except for once, at age 14 [14!], when I was hoisted off of the ground by a large kite and dragged along the beach [past plenty of girls, I’m sure] for 50 feet) and I assumed that the tricks that had worked in a high school in Colorado would translate to an immense university in the country’s largest city. When this failed, I fell into a funk and – because the nature of the funk was thinking I had no close friends – poured it all into the journal.
But reading Didion’s essay alleviated the gloom. “I don’t know why,” I wrote at the time, “but seeing this in print has lifted almost everything off of my shoulders.” I now know why: I was relieved to see that my feelings were not unique, and therefore, not without a cure. (One of the most alienating parts of rereading these journals is glimpsing epiphanic moments like this and realizing how many “breakthroughs” of mine are now so obvious and axiomatic that I’m embarrassed to bring them up.) The cure, I believed, was to reverse course, and begin sharing my feelings with others, a task I attempted clumsily for the next year.
From January of 2008 to March of 2009 my journal was bloated with useless details (“I went to work, took a break to take a psychology study, then went back to work.”), which is also how I conducted personal conversations that year. In my effort to connect more deeply with my friends, I subjected them to excruciating stories and half-stories in which no incident was too meaningless to ignore, and no detail was too irrelevant to merit inclusion. Their patience was admirable, and I was sure to note their – and any – kindness in treacly journal entries: “If you have people who like you…and who are concerned for you, then you have a lot. It was touching to hear that _____ evidently cares about my well-being.” And that was in reference to a kid who had been gossiping about me.
Eventually, I was able to get those interactions under control, and the remainder of 2009 passed undramatically. I was finally occupying the psychological space I’d been hoping to inhabit since I started the journal. But restlessness gradually crept in. By December, I wrote, of an action I was considering taking, “Perhaps trouble and drama will arise, but then, I always get a perverse enjoyment out of that.” For the sake of giving myself something to think about, I began working myself into anxieties so patently manufactured that one entry’s parenthetical closure – “How do I manage to make myself so distressed all the time?” – was immediately followed by another, berating myself for the phony protestation of innocence.
Whatever was missing from my life was apparently instated when I went to Ireland, for the next six months of the journal are full of cheer, excitement, and, because I was in such a good mood, some straight-up jokes. (Since I’m never going to write a travelogue, I may as well use this joke here: “I walked along the River Liffey, passing its numerous bridges, including the Samuel Beckett Bridge, which, presumably, will not actually take you across the river.”) Page after page is filled with glee. I was living in rarefied air, but if I knew it then, I certainly didn’t show it. “How nice that some things only get better,” I wrote at the end of my trip, swiping a blurb from a Harry Potter book jacket.
I continued in this tone until July, at which point the journal gets very heavy. I suffered a big embarrassment, the shame of which lasted two months, easily eclipsing the 30 seconds I was kite-dragged across the beach. The entries I wrote during this period are so primal that I’m almost proud of them. They’re naked displays of raw humanity – the intellectual version of Cro-Magnon Man killing and devouring a saber-toothed tiger – unlike anything I had hitherto expressed. “I felt like a cowardly asshole,” I scrawled, “I felt angry, embarrassed, betrayed, and depressed beyond all reason.” “I have failed repeatedly, in increasingly wretched ways.” (Yes, “increasingly wretched” is a phrase I use in the heat of my emotions.) Even in later, calmer, more reflective entries, I was writing passages in which I weighed the total sum of my life and concluded, “More so than not, this does not reflect the person I want to be.”
But from that summer, I developed the personality that I have today, the one that seems to suit me best. That incident (combined with the Christopher Hitchens/counter-culture fandom I picked up at the same time) has made me less approving of the world, more prepared to see the worst. But these allegedly cynical qualities have actually made me more satisfied. Because I went through such a vigorously emotional experience, I’ve conquered the inability to forge emotional connections that dogged me in 2008. By looking at the world more critically, I can always find the intellectual stimulation whose absence left me feeling so restless in 2009. And the more negative worldview I’ve developed doesn’t preclude me from feeling joy as I did in Ireland; it makes the joy stand out. “I may have concerns about the future,” I wrote after one great day, “both on the personal and extrapersonal levels, I may feel despair about much of the world, but I have a group of immensely intelligent, witty, fun people in my life.” When 2010 drew to a close, even the dreariness of the summer gave me no hesitation in labeling it my best year yet.
It seems to me that the personality I have now is the last stage in my evolution, but I’m sure that’s how I felt at every intermediate stage. In his essay “Centrally Located”, Jonathan Franzen writes that the agony of adolescence comes from feeling the genuine emotions of the experience alongside the awareness that the real world is yet to come and that none of these genuine emotions actually matter. “This cruel mixture of consciousness and irrelevance” he explains, “is enough to account for how pissed off you are.” But this sensation isn’t limited to teenagers. “The double bind, the problem of conciousness mixed with nothingness, never goes away. You never stop waiting for the real story to start, because the only real story, in the end, is that you die.”
The “me” I am today seems entirely suited to The Real Story – more than any earlier “me” does. But if Franzen is as right as he usually is, then this version of myself will eventually just be another exhibit in the procession. And if that is the case, what consequence does that have for the beliefs and values under which I operate every day? In what ways am I dead wrong again? It’s an unsettling train of thought. (On the other hand, it’s equally unsettling to imagine that, yes, I have figured it all out, and I’m going to stay this way for the remaining 75 years of my life. [I’m estimating high because I just became a vegetarian.])
I haven’t written in my journal for some time, because nothing interesting has happened to me for some time. But when things pick up again, I’ll resume the project. It’s satisfyingly mysterious to look back on a time gone by, a time when I could write, “For the bleak and uncaring universe that it is, it certainly has done me a gracious turn” and not have any second thoughts about the sentiment. That’s why this is a record worth having: it’s a window to a past that’s at once familiar and totally unfathomable. When you write a journal, you’re not writing for yourself, but for the person whom you never imagine you’ll be.