Monday, February 11, 2008

On Journals

For as long as I could make shapes with ink and graphite, I've written. Sheets of ancient computer paper are stacked in my Mom's "memory tubs" that inscribe a little girl's literary history. From the cuneiform checks only I could read (often beginning with, "Once upon a time there was a little girl...") to neatly scripted tales from elementary and middle school. Those stories, and the essays and fiction I keep on my flash drive now, were written for an audience.

But there is an alternative history, too. In the guest room that used to be my bedroom at my parent's house, there is a thick, sticker-decorated diary hidden somewhere between layers of ballet slippers and beanie babies. The first entry was written in 1993, and it is about my mean little sister. Yes, only a quarter of the diary is filled, and it is joined with at least three or four other would-be diaries, so Louis Menand is correct in that assertion. But I think his attempted analysis of diary writing falls short. You see, seven-year-old girls do not write for Freud or Jung, and they have not yet been exposed to Anne Frank or Go Ask Alice. Seven-year-old girls write because they are handed a notebook and told, in so many words, this is what little girls do: They write their lives in diaries. Still unable to draw a distinction between reality and fantasy, there is no filter, no mental preclusion of thoughts. I think it is a very rare case in which someone sits down and writes a diary because they want it to be widely read. We write them, especially at a young age, because that is what diaries are for: to be written in. With such infallible logic, why wouldn't you keep one?

Menand continues on to argue that diaries are incomplete illustrations of a person, even more so when they are physically incomplete. But if you read what I wrote in that first diary, I think you would get a pretty good picture of who I was. I may cringe as you scan over the bits about my discovery of puberty, but it presents an accurate picture of my personality between the ages of seven and ten. Of course diaries are not a complete picture of a person, no written word can be, but they are complete enough. People write diaries because that's what diaries are for, and people read diaries because they can associate with the author, filling in the blanks with their own lives. We are, after all, all human, and it is really not so far a stretch to put yourself in the place of the author. Menand seems to agree with this last statement, but I don't think he places as much value on it as he should.

When we try to understand people, it is not because we are so completely different. We look for what is so completely the same. Advertising works because you can read an ad and watch a commercial and put yourself in that story. Yes, it is exploitation, but it works. My professors have presented loads of psychobabble on exactly this topic, spheres of influence and what not. We long for connection with someone, anyone, who can understand who we are. On a far less deceptive end of the spectrum, Anne Frank is not popular with twelve-year-old girls because she lived through a terrible time in history, she is popular because every twelve-year-old girl has had a crush and has fought with her sibling. She teaches her lessons because at twelve-years-old, you can know this little girl, and you can cry with her and blush. Anne Frank's life is a greater story, but in reading her diary, you can feel for her. You can know her because, really, is she so different than you?

The internet, in all its instantaneous glory, has intensified the diary phenomenon. Not only can you write journals, you can write them anonymously, immediately. No one need know the face behind your avatar, and journals can become famous (or infamous) overnight. You can read journals written by people from all walks of life, and you can associate with them. Here, our longing for connection not only prompts us to read these journals, but also to write them. Menand implies writing for an audience is a self-centered and foolish thing, but I agree with Hannah (). Beyond flourished prose and even fictionalized accounts, humans continue to connect. Along the edges of our personal spheres of influence, we find similarities and grasp for them.

Life is complicated, the world is complicated, but human connection is not.

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