January 29, 2008
[“The Diarist”] became a story about writing itself, about the competing desires for exposure and concealment . . . and the ways in which the act of writing necessarily calls into existence even the most hidden and frightened of selves.
— Richard McCann, American fiction writer, b. 1949
In two weeks I will mark the ninth anniversary of the first post to the first incarnation of this collection of personal essays. I quoted Frances McCollough, the editor of Sylvia Plath’s journals, on the function of a diary: “to chart a life, to pique a memory, to confirm inner life and perhaps to dispel the doubt that one exists at all. . . .” I knew that what I would be writing would be read by others (or at least I hoped it would) and that such an expectation would influence what I might choose to reveal. That didn’t make what I would be saying inauthentic, just shaped.
My earliest memory of keeping a diary dates from third grade, 1956. I remember that the book had a page for each day, and the page told you what number of the day it was and how many days in the year were left. (Today would be 29/337 because this is a Leap Year.) I wondered why anybody would want to know those facts. I wrote in it sporadically and eventually discarded it, but for years kept two pages that I tore from it. On one I listed my favorite Saturday morning TV shows, including “Fury the Story of a Horse and the Boy Who Loves Him,” “My Friend Flicka,” and “Tails [sic] of the Texas Rangers” (this was my horse period). On the other I’d written about returning from my piano lesson and having to walk more than a mile and a half in the dark through a snowstorm with my father after he had to leave our car in the parking lot of the Farm Show. I noted that we had lasagna that night and that I didn’t like lasagna but felt grateful to be able to eat it. That scene recently worked its way into a piece of my fiction.
In seventh grade I had a red leatherette five-year model with a lock and key. To get five years on a page, each year’s block had to be small and it was difficult to fit my schoolgirl script onto the narrow-spaced lines. On the inside cover I kept a list of “boys I like,” which included Eddie Gillis, a classmate who didn’t speak to me, and Fabian Forte, a recording star whom I had never met but whose aunt worked in the factory across the street from the lunch counter my uncle (by marriage) owned in Clifton Heights, Pennsylvania. (No one else in the seventh grade at Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament School was that close to a genuine movie star.) I kept that in a green shoe box under my bed where I also kept lists of families I invented and how they were connected. (These must have been early character development exercises.) My father got mad at me once for something and took the box away from me and I never saw it again.
I made sporadic attempts from time to time in high school to write in a notebook (one such episode recalled just the other day), but nothing lasted very long. I did no personal writing at all in college. In the years that followed I would do the starting and stopping thing again and again. I used artist’s sketch books because the paper didn’t have any lines. I can see myself in the stationery section of the John Wanamaker store in Harrisburg (a space now occupied by an enormous Bass Pro Shop) running my hand over the paper in a top-bound spiral sketch pad to check its “tooth.” (Slight tooth is good for drawing with pencil, but too much tooth makes writing with ink difficult.)
I am, of course, eternally sorry that I didn’t keep a journal with any regularity, and that I didn’t save the fragmented stuff I did have. When I handle the paperback copy of To Kill a Mockingbird that I bought in tenth grade (into which I pasted a picture of Harper Lee with a note that she was “at work on a second novel,” a novel which has not materialized in these almost fifty years), I know I am touching a piece of the girl that I was. To be able to read my own words, to see the world through my younger eyes, would be both amusing and poignant.
When I started this public site in 1999 I had been keeping a conventional private journal for almost twenty years. I had one fat folder of loose leaf pages culled from the several separate notebooks I sometimes kept plus seven volumes of 8.5 x 11 top-bound spiral books such as one buys in a university bookstore, the form I finally settled on in 1992. I opened notebook #25 five weeks ago. The fat folder begins with pages written on September 19, 1980, when I was about two weeks past what would prove to be a turning point in my life. Nothing from before that still exists to shed light on the inner life of the self I was before the age of thirty-three and a half.
In recent days I have gotten more personal than ever before in these posts, nearly abandoning concealment and going for more and more exposure. I’ve announced my depression and mentioned that I’m back to Weight Watchers. I’ve gotten direct communications from readers about these things — notes from the distant and phone calls even from people closer by with whom I am actually rather than merely virtually acquainted. This is unsettling at the same time that it is heartwarming. By the act of writing I am calling into existence the hidden and frightened selves who inhabit my personality.
I sometimes say that I fail to make progress in my fiction writing because “the fall into fiction,” the process of becoming my characters for a while rather than just thinking about them, scares me. The fall into nonfiction is starting to feel as dangerous.
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margaretdeangelis [at] gmail [dot] com (replace the brackets with @ and a period)