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Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Dear Diary: How You were Born

I guess for most people Henry David Thoreau is best known for the book he wrote about his time living on Walden Pond, called funnily enough Walden. And I suppose most people would have no idea that all or pretty much all his writings, lectures and so on came from his Journal. Note the capital: he himself called it The Journal. I recently read a very cool book called The Book of Concord: Thoreau’s Life as a Writer, which is an examination of, yes you guessed it, his life as a writer. What made it extra interesting was the way the author (William Howarth) used The Journal as his way into Thoreau’s writing and life.
  As fascinating as this book is, I don’t want to talk about it today. I want to tell you about one of the things that popped out of the book for me: the reason Thoreau started keeping The Journal in the first place. It seems that one of his neighbours in Concord was Ralph Waldo Emerson (imagine that if you can ... wow is the word that comes to mind). Anyway, one day Emerson says to Thoreau, ‘What are you doing? Do you keep a journal?’ Now, it seems that up until this moment, Thoreau had been running around telling everyone he was a writer and examining nature and the life of the town. All that writerly kind of stuff. But he hadn’t been keeping a journal.
  So, he answered Emerson by beginning The Journal. And, as I said, all his writing from then on came right out of that journal. Sometimes, believe it or not, he literally tore pages or passages out and stuck them together to form the final manuscripts. Now, that is called having supreme confidence in what your own work.
  Anyway, after I read that it got me thinking about my own journal and how I came to begin it. As I sit typing this, I can see my journal on its shelves. There are 69 separate volumes, mostly school type notebooks, some exotic ones from travels in India and a few odd looking volumes. Hard to believe I’m now on volume number 70. This is my personal journal; my writer’s journals are another matter. Just like to make that distinction, though of course for a writer there is bound to be a lot of crossover isn’t there?
  In late 1980, I returned to Australia after a few months in New Zealand during which I experienced a traumatic break up. Hanging around at my parents’ house and feeling like a ‘wet week in a thunderstorm’ (if you get my meaning), my mother out of the blue one day said, ‘Why don’t you start keeping a diary?’
  Of course you don’t know my mother, but you can believe me when I say that this is most definitely not the kind of thing I would have ever guessed she’d even think about much less suggest to her son as a way of for him to deal with his grief. But, just like Thoreau after his chat with Emerson, I went right out without delay, bought a school exercise book, and began my diary (I often interchange the terms diary and journal). And I’m still at it, as I’ve said.
  And you know what? Looking at my Journal now, I feel a sense of pride in myself. I may not have (yet) written a best seller, or penned a poem that has won competitions, or even been able to make a decent living from my passion for writing. But what I can say is this: I have consistently for thirty years (almost) now kept a record of my life. Sometimes it’s been an extremely detailed account and written every day; other times there have been gaps with just scant little notes to record my doings, thoughts and so on. But, at least it is there. I have a profound sense of achievement when I think of my journal. Maybe I need to adopt the capital like Thoreau: My Journal.
  My final word must be then, thanks Mum. I know I thanked you when you were alive, but it can’t hurt to announce my thanks to the world (as much of it as reads this blog anyway) can it?

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