What Do We Know of Other Times, Really?

November 3, 2013

Having just turned forty, have resolved to embark on grand project of writing every day in the new black book just got at OfficeMax. Exciting to think how in one year, at rate of one page/day, will have written three hundred and sixty-five pages, and what a picture of life and times then available for kids & grandkids, even great-grandkids, whoever, all are welcome (!) to see how life really was/is now. Because what do we know of other times really?
— George Saunders, b. 1958
American fiction writer and essayist
from “The Semplica-Girl Diaries,” short story originally published in The New Yorker

NaBloPoMo November 2013 For reasons that are not completely clear to me, the New York Post has been printing excerpts from the private journals Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. kept, in particular covering a period that included his cousin John F. Kennedy, Jr.’s death in 1999 and events in his personal life from 2001. The story notes that the journals (or maybe just a single 398-page volume) were discovered by Mary Richardson Kennedy, who killed herself in 2012, reportedly distraught over a separation and pending divorce that had been in the works for two years.

The most recent of the Post’s installments about the private life of an environmental activist with a famous name came my way not because I regularly read the Post but because a friend is a reporter for that publication. He usually works on the digital side, but yesterday he had a bylined piece in the print edition, an achievement over which he is understandably excited.And in the way of Internet surfing, click led to click led to click, and there was the story about family squabbling after the deaths of John F. Kennedy, Jr., his wife, Carolyn Bessette, and her sister Lauren.

RFK DiaryThe details were mildly interesting. What really got my attention, though, was the picture of what is described as a “thick red journal” (Seen at right) covered in bumper stickers, a notebook not unlike the one the narrator in George Saunders’s story buys at Office Depot. Kennedy has festooned the plain book with items that come to hand while he is working in the book. My daughter’s assignment book from her senior year in high school has had the same treatment. I do it on occasion myself.

I have been keeping a private journal steadily for more than twenty years. I also have a collection of notebooks and papers that cover, somewhat sporadically, the years from 1980 to 1992. Only a single sheet of paper survives from before 1980. I am currently in Volume 40 of the notebooks, which I keep in two wicker crates under the highboy in my living room, seen below.

The Js

 There they are, out in the open. The material within them covers a wide range, including ordinary “I had a pork chop for dinner” entries, notes on what I’m reading, drafts of stories and ideas grabbed by the tail and jotted down before they escape completely. There are secrets, too, thoughts about the people I live with that I don’t readily speak aloud, observations about my friends, my acquaintances, people I wish paid more attention to me, or people I wish would leave me alone. I have always had an expectation of privacy regarding this material, an absolute trust that Ron or Lynn would never go paging through the books. Ron has declared he has no interest whatsoever in them, and would destroy them instantly if they passed into his care. As it happens, that New York Post reporter has been named, at least informally, my literary executor. I don’t expect anything in those volumes to wind up in the pages of the Post, or whatever entity my friend is associated with when the time comes. My life’s just not that interesting, my secrets not that titillating.

In recent times I have considered the idea of a public diary, one kept with the expectation of a future audience. I started one in the summer of 2011, in an unlined large Moleskine with an orange cover. I’ve pasted things in there, most recently the receipt from a purchase at the Sephora store in Times Square (August 12, 2013), and then more than two months later but on the very next page, the obituary of the mother of childhood friends whose funeral I will attend this week.

Hereby resolve to write in this book at least twenty minutes a night, no matter how tired. (If discouraged, just think how much will have been recorded for posterity in one mere year!) The diary George Saunders creates for his character covers only about a month in which the family goes though a difficult time.

The reader cannot know if the diarist continues. And I can’t know how long I’ll persevere with this new resolve to write a line or two. But the impetus to create a picture of my life and times for my grandchildren and my great-grandchildren, is strong, at least today.

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