Wednesday, August 27, 2008

I’ve always admired those who can keep a regular diary. Take for instance the Orwell Diaries, a page from the folks at the Orwell Prize, who are publishing the writer’s diaries daily. The question is, of course, who really cares how one person’s life was lived enough to read their diary on-line? Even if you are George Orwell, most diaries aren’t worth publishing (could you imagine if they were!), and even the lives of writers aren’t really eventful enough to warrant this kind of attention.

Most of our lives are rather mundane and those of us who have kept journals scarcely ever go back to re-read what our lives were like, what insane or inane thoughts we had when we were kids or worse, when we were young adults and knew better before writing emotive drivel to ourselves. I have gone back and been shamed by some of the stuff I’ve written, by the moments of self-pity, by the vanity or shockingly weak moments of my life, recorded and filed for some yet-to-be-determined future use.

I suspect a lot of diarists write when they are feeling the need to get something down. This inevitably means that we write when we are feeling rotten. For those of us who write volumes when sad but scarce words when content, it means that our record for posterity is a melancholic one indeed.

I have a friend who told me the following. “Most people (in their diaries) never write what other people actually say.” Those who do, like Boswell, may get some quotes wrong or even manufacture them. For a diarist, I suppose, the gist of a conversation is what really matters. If you’ve ever tried to reconstruct a conversation on paper, you will quickly realize how difficult it is to do with any sense, any true sense, of accuracy to write from memory.

What is striking about the Orwell Diaries, from the little of it I have read, is how mundane and ordinary his life was lived. But (of course there is one) his ordinary life exposes two key components that I think are important at a first glance. 1) Orwell has a diligent eye for details that are easily overlooked. 2) His record is more reporting than strictly retrospective on life – meaning he writes about blackberries as well as on the great political issues of his day. Both of these are huge lessons, I think, for any diarist who is interesting in recording the stuff of life that is really interesting.

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