I am a terrible diary-keeper, a fact which troubles me, mostly because every writing book I’ve ever read suggests the keeping of a diary as being fairly essential to one’s writing process.
And I can see the point.
If the aim of fiction writing is to capture a sense of emotional truth around made-up events, then surely it makes sense to practice with one’s own reality first.
Still, to put it plainly, my diary-writing really blows. I’m good for a day or two, until I realise the tedium of my existence. ‘Dear Diary. Today, I did x, y and z and I felt a, b and c….’ Ugh! Shoot me now. Such gauche writing. So self-obssessed. So useless.
I’ve been doing it all wrong. I know that.
But how to do it right?
Helen Garner’s Everywhere I Look is a collection of thirty three short works, spanning 17 years of Garner’s life. I say ‘short works’ because it’s a mix of essays, reviews, profiles, and a couple of diary entries.
Yes, diary entries. Interesting diary entries. Yes, it’s possible. And here’s what I have learned, thanks to Helen.
1) A diary is not a chronicle, nor a narrative of your daily life. Because, let’s face it – we are creatures of habit. One day tends to look a lot like the rest. A little boring, unless you’re living it. Actually, a writer’s journal seems to work best as a series of anecdotes, that is, the parts of your day that struck you as funny, or sad or downright strange. Things you heard, things you saw, things that made you think. Quotes, images, conversations, even the ones you weren’t part of. Actually, especially the ones you weren’t part of.
One young woman to another, walking along Bridport Street: ‘So I said to him, “If I wasn’t your girlfriend, I’d be really concerned about your sexuality”‘.
2) A diary needs detail. Who said what? What was their facial expression? What was the weather? Was there a particular smell? What were you wearing?
These details are the stuff of life, and it is the detail that writing is brought to life.
‘The unnerving silence of Christmas morning. No sound of traffic. Sun lies fresh on everything. Birds sing with unnatural sharpness. The air is still.’
3) Connect the dots. Life is actually not a series of random events, there are themes that govern everything – love, conflict, death, power – and the things that happen in our own, small lives connect to these much larger themes. The thing is, connecting those dots takes time and thought.
One of Garner’s anecdotes concerns constant radio chat about collapsing financial markets. She follows this with an observation: ‘In a fashionable cafe, five men in shirts and ties sit near met at a circular table. First I think they are having a business meeting. Then I realise they are praying.’
For me, many terrible conversations have begun with the phrase I had this dream last night… But, it’s time to forget this dream-prejudice and refer to point 3 above. It’s about connecting the dots. Our subconscious gives us dreams for a reason, because it wants us to understand something, and we must listen.
5) Be honest. Write it how it was, not how you wanted it to be. Let yourself be vulnerable. Admit to your flaws but come to the page with an open heart. See it as a way to understand others, not to judge.
Actually, approach all your writing that way.