I still have yet to find a word in Spanish quite like the English word journaling, something that would maintain—in a verbal, active sense—all the different senses I mean to convey when I use the word diario (journal or diary). The normal way of turning a Spanish noun into a verb results in the monstrosity diarear, so suffice it to say that with this opening paragraph I would simply like to evoke in the mind of the reader my intention to think of the journal as praxis, but also as an object, a depository for an action or set of actions, as well as a performative device, an actor, updating itself every time pen meets page.
The first time I heard someone speak about the importance of the journal in the context of strengthening one’s writing practice was ten or eleven years ago, in a writing workshop. Since then, I have tried multiple times to keep a journal with relative consistency. As a consequence of all this journaling (or should I say a consequence with this journaling, parallel to it?) I have some notebooks here and there in boxes whose exact location I remember only vaguely. There’s also a published novel, an unpublished poetry collection, maybe a novel in progress, and drafts of texts that if put together would form a brief but hideous volume of writing.
At first, it was all about writing slowly and steadily, keeping my hand warm (I think I remember Carver saying he picked up that expression from someone or other). The drive to write uninterrupted, with nothing else in mind, becomes a creative process that functions, perhaps, a bit like sedimentation: the days flow by on the surface, and one begins to notice the little spots, the imperfections, anything out of place. Some of these particles take on weight, their mass increasing enough to attract other, lighter particles, leading them to fall together to the bottom. The process leads to stronger a posteriori mechanisms than a priori ones. The notion of inspiration dissolves, and with it goes the fear of writer’s block. Then comes the work of putting order to (or discovering order in) the subtle forms lying in the silt below. The piece of writing, if one results, must be constructed from the ground up. But the raw material is already there.
According to my journal, about a year and a half ago I finished reading a striking example of this sort of process: The Luminous Novel (La novela luminosa) by Mario Levrero. In the year 2000, Levrero received a Guggenheim Fellowship: one year’s salary to finish a novel he had first attempted to write in 1984. This novel is, in fact, the “luminous novel” (I refer to the eponymous chapter within the published work that shares its title). But Levrero felt blocked in 2001. He was living comfortably off of Mr. Guggenheim’s money, but he was nonetheless tormented by his inability to move forward on the novel. So he decided to record his writing process in the “Grant Diary” (the other big chapter in the book—perhaps more of an overstuffed prologue). And thus, the reader is given a front row seat to see a piece of writing unwrap itself. It is the day-to-day record of a man trying to come out of a depression that impedes his ability to work, and his attempt to adapt his unusual schedule to a more functional rhythm: write during the day, go for walks in the afternoon light, visit bookstores and manage all the bureaucratic minutiae of daily life. But still, Levrero repeatedly insists in the “Grant Diary” that he is unable to write, that he can’t concentrate. He fears he won’t be able to finish the luminous novel.
“Is Levrero really having a crisis of writing?” one asks, in the middle of the book, after reading a good two hundred pages only to see the author still feeling sorry for himself. Hundreds of pages that effortlessly bring out the shine of dull, everyday life would seem to say otherwise. Here, writing itself is at stake: the question of life’s aspects becoming literary materials, of the mechanisms (emotional, psychic, psychological, interpersonal, corporal, etc.) that make up literature. Thus, The Luminous Novel ends up being quantitatively more diary than novel.
But it is also a question of time. We begin reading something Levrero wrote in 2001 about a project he found impossible in 1984. The potential of maturity to bring to fruition something the energy of youth was unable to execute. At the end of the book, in what barely amounts to a hundred pages, we finally reach the novel whose prologue has kept us on tenterhooks for so long. We are met by a Levrero in his forties—occasionally alternating with the old man, the Levrero who wrote “Grant Diary” and finished “The Luminous Novel” in 2001—a man trying to bring together the luminous experiences of his life, the ones that left a mark on his youth. The “luminous novel” is so important because we as readers have stood witness to the record of the impossibility of its writing. That is what makes its eventual appearance such a miracle. The diary, which, strictly speaking, is separate from and outside the narrative, turns out to be the stuff the novel is made of.
I would venture to say, then, that the diary not only opens the door for the work to exist, but it also embodies an interesting contradiction: its practice both engenders and devours the novel itself. The diary and work are interdependent, although each is presented as an autonomous entity. Is this not what critics are after when they try to find the keys to interpreting an author’s works by looking to the author’s own life story? To add a little depth to this idea, I point only to the obvious, that the diary and the work contaminate each other, and not only in the dimension of writing. The idea extends to the intersection of the writer and an audience for whom a single book is never enough, always wanting more. This in turn allows for a broader tracking of all the different forms a given person’s writing might take.
As with reading literary works, reading journals implies a dive into a diverse catalogue of forms, although in the latter case the forms may be a bit more capricious. Perhaps first encounters are fed by pure curiosity. I remember reading Kurt Cobain’s journals with an almost morbid fascination. These were the first journals to find their way to me, around the time of the workshop in which I started to keep my own. What was hidden behind his songs? What had driven him to suicide? But of course Cobain’s journal offered few answers, instead opening the door to more questions I’ve since forgotten, but my memory still holds some images of his drawings along with the sharp stomach pain from which he suffered and which tormented me too, as I read. With time, though, my journal reading digressed onto paths that led more to questions of literary technique.
Reading diaries became, for me, an attempt to decode stylistic and technical processes, the creative coordinates of my favorite authors and their works. After studying the diary for some time, a practice that leads invariably back to writing, what becomes clear is that the substance of the diary is none other than the questions it entails: What gets included and what is left out? Why is the weekly vegetable list relevant for some writers while others’ entries are limited to emotional attachments or creative processes? What else beyond writing becomes part of the diary? What formal, aesthetic, or material limits can impinge on the diary? Thus, the act of writing reappears through the act of reading and the diary becomes a playful space, a repository of pen strokes and forms, a storeroom of private replicas in miniature, an archive of experience.
These days I attend another literary workshop; it is my conviction that an important part of writing is what’s done in public—in dialogue with readers, editors, and writers. A few weeks ago, the writer Cristina Bendek presented on the process of writing her novel Los cristales de la sal (The Salt Crystals). As often happens, she went through several versions, archival research, and fieldwork before getting to the final draft. At one point in her presentation, Cristina showed us a notebook she carried with her most of the time while working on the book. At first it seemed to limit itself to the process of writing the novel, a field journal for her visits to San Andrés, but it was also an inventory of places, maps, metaphors, objects, animals, and plants—a logbook for writing in which she recorded every moment of progress, every change, every time she realized she should be using a certain verb tense or modifying the relationships between certain characters. If this journal was limited to the period of time in which she was writing the novel, its expansive nature places it within a universe in which the novel is a barely visible layer. A universe of things that paved the way for the eventual final draft, but which themselves remained, abandoned and thus buried alive.
I often wonder about the things that don’t end up getting included in the diary, the things that don’t even rise to the level of being abandoned. The things we simply forget. One thing does become clear, and it can’t be repeated often enough: the diary captures the passage of time, change, and impermanence—along with its attendant losses. As a result, the diary becomes a discourse on loss. That is, a record of the ever-changing current of life, its multiple flows (almost always along unexpected lines) through the subject, the one who writes. When loss is inevitable, the diary embodies the compulsion to fix just a fraction of what passes by us, through us. With any luck, writing reveals the necessary elements to make this transition. Or perhaps the writing itself becomes the mode of transit.
I see a continuous reflection in As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh, the second volume of Susan Sontag’s journals. In it, we see some seeds, some almost raw ideas whose later development we know from texts such as Against Interpretation and “Notes on ‘Camp.’” The records contained in the journals are somewhat random: titles of films, reading summaries, to-do lists, adjectives, brief reflections that jump from day to day, month to month. In October 1964, Sontag writes, “Camp is one of the species of behaviorism in art—it is, so extremely, it has no norm to reflect.” And, of course, where there is a transformation of ideas, there is a transformation of the subject. The tissue of thought is interposed with the tissue of experience. Notes like those mentioned above alternate with disjointed reflections on her personality, friendship, sentimental relationships, sexuality. A sort of erosion of the boundaries between her job as an essayist and her life; writing becomes a continuum, at once a work of thought and an activity of life: “As a writer, I tolerate error, poor performance, failure. So what if I fail some of the time, if a story or an essay is no good? Sometimes things do go well, the work is good. And that’s enough… If only I could feel about sex as I do about writing! That I’m the vehicle, the medium, the instrument of some force beyond myself.” Writing about life has the potential to resignify it, to make the intolerable tolerable: mistakes, posturing, failure, loss. Not because the diary allows us to fictionalize our experiences, writing things as we would have liked them to happen (although that too). Maybe it’s more that, in the journal, writing reclaims experience for itself: it shapes and transforms experience into thoughts, attachments that allow a coming to terms with multiplicity, with change, and with impermanence.
Translated by Will Morningstar
Will Morningstar is a freelance editor and translator from Boston, with a master’s degree in religion and anthropology from Harvard Divinity School. His translation work has appeared in Strange Horizons and the Massachusetts Review.