Day 42 and I am going to write a little about ethics which was the subject of the journal session this evening although I’m not sure I want to. It is a huge subject, a minefield often and tricky to navigate in a practical sense. How, for instance do you write about the people who figure in your life — significant others, family, friends, colleagues, acquaintances — while protecting their right to privacy? How do you avoid hurting people if the portrait is not always flattering? The dilemma is how to balance your right to express your thoughts openly, honestly, insightfully if you can, with their entitlement to privacy and respect. And how do you stay safe yourself? How much to reveal, what to leave out and how to achieve something satisfying without annoying your audience, because a curious and perceptive reader will sniff out omissions and silences, these are all dilemmas the writer has to consider.
One of the challenges for the journal writer is how to navigate the pressure that arises from the common perception of the genre as a confessional mainly. This carries with it a weighty expectation that you will reveal all, leave nothing out, in short write an exposé of your life. But is it possible to provide access to your inner life, to supply the kind of detail that is expected — the hidden passions, secrets, dreams and yearnings, the fears and insecurities — without compromising your privacy? I don’t honestly know the answer. But this is why I have a deep respect for the writers who have plumbed the depths and in the process allowed us to learn from them. I’m thinking of Thomas Merton, Anais Nin, May Sarton, Kate Llewellyn… And yet I’m also aware of how they have been diminished and judged by their critics, for their efforts.
In our discussion today the journal writers considered other dimensions of the journal form as well, for there is so much more, there are the dazzling strands of nature writing woven through the journals of all the writers mentioned above that offer inspiration and delight to the reader. In an historical sense a journal provides a window onto how people lived at a daily level during a particular moment in time. Think of the seventeenth diaries of English writer Samuel Pepys, written over ten years and how this record of daily life is now prized for the glimpse it allowed into the life of an English naval administrator and politician and his wife, poor Elisabeth Pepys. On Wednesday 1 January 1661/62 Samuel wrote, “Waking this morning out of my sleep on a sudden, I did with my elbow hit my wife a great blow over her face and nose, which waked her with pain, at which I was sorry and to sleep again.”
One of the pleasures to be had in reading his journal 360 years on is the discovery that people all that time ago, weren’t vastly different from us. They were flawed, they fell down, they got angry, they loved, they yearned for more. In this context a journal, your journal hopefully, written in the time of coronavirus will offer insight into how lives were lived at a critical historic juncture in the early 21st century. It is this aspect of the journal that appeals to me. More than any other written form, apart from the personal letter, a journal offers a window onto people’s experience at a given moment in time, it brings history vividly and intimately to life in a way that an academic history can not.
It is late and I think I have strayed off the topic. Ethics. There are so many dimensions to consider it can tie you in knots trying to get it right.
My advice is to write. Write with feeling, write with urgency, express exactly what you need to now, as if you have been waiting all your life for this moment. And enjoy the process. Allow yourself to revel in the pleasure of releasing thoughts and feelings that may have been building inside for a long time possibly, and committing them to the page or the computer screen. That is the first task. Later in the edit you will have time to consider the implications of what you have written. This is where you can begin the process of sharing relevant passages, trialling them with a neutral reader first, then showing them to the person concerned. In my work as a biographer this is the part where it gets interesting. I think of it as negotiating the content. It involves trust and a deep engagement with the people concerned and ultimately leads to more writing, expansion and deepening of the content. In the case of my own personal pain journal the process that I embarked on with my mother, where I sent her the relevant passages of memoir and asked her to check and approve the content, there was learning and healing on both sides. (In the photo accompanying this entry my mother is seated on the right of Margaret Mahy who featured in my book 'Her Life's Work'. With both women there was a participatory process whereby we worked together on the text until we were satisfied. Then the books went to print.)
The other thing I will say is this. I think a journaller needs to be brave and a little bit tough. You have to create a carapace around yourself as you go, because for the journal to be worthwhile it ultimately does require you to open up and give of yourself and share something of your vulnerability.