THE BLOG
12/18/2014 08:44 am ET Updated Feb 17, 2015

How The Diary Became A Public Way Of Getting Personal

Stashed in the darkest corner of my bookcase is my childhood diary. Between its pastel-floral covers, behind the flimsy, almost wholly symbolic lock is a blunt emotional barometer. Entries peak in adolescence, where reflections are characterized by litanies of perceived injustices. Tragedies include not being allowed to go unsupervised to parties and being denied (temporarily, it turned out) eight-hole Doc Martens.

It's a predictably embarrassing document, and I'm simultaneously appalled by and nostalgic for the self it evokes. As far as diaries go, it fulfills some obvious stereotypes. It's narcissistic, hyper-emotional, and fiercely private. In this respect, it is unlike a new wave of diary publications that use diary to articulate personal stories, to circulate testimony, or to manifest a creative self-consciousness. My diary is not really intended to reach a readership other than my (faintly humiliated) future self. It is a private document. Increasingly, many contemporary diaries are not.

It's impossible to gauge just how many of us keep diaries. Some diarists, particularly those in the public eye or with a desire to conceal, end up destroying them. In popular representations, diaries are almost always connected to the potential for humiliation or exposure. This is because the diary is usually identified as a private pursuit -- a stereotype replayed mostly in transgression. The diary of secrets, scandal, or confession is a cinematic trope and a staple of tabloid news. The diary as private is also linked to its status as a marginal literary mode; diaries are usually considered embarrassingly raw and not designed (or able) to bear the weight of readership. Exceptions apply, of course; war diaries are considered a special case, as are the diaries of famous writers.

In contemporary popular culture, these are the kinds of stereotypes that remain strong. Yet the diary is increasingly visible as a diverse, creative form and as a public and published mode. A good example here might be Bobby Baker's Diary Drawings, which chronicles the UK performance artist's relentless but ultimately hopeful struggle with mental illness and show how diary can be used as a flexible, creative, and therapeutic mode. The watercolor sketches that Baker creates each day during her period of illness create a compound effect for the reader, and who also participates in the tense daily struggle for wellness. Baker's diary is a cathartic activity, a literal act of self-preservation, but it is also a literary act of the kind that autobiography in particular is associated with; it is designed to move, to inform, and to testify to a readership about an experience that would otherwise remain invisible and private.

Another location where diary writing is visible as a public act of self-representation is online. A lot of blogging, for example, resonates with the popularity of an intimate, personal, or "diaristic" point of view in public commentary. Not all (or even most) blogs are diaries. However, those bloggers who have actively engaged with the prospect of what they do as online diary have also often done so strategically. Belle de Jour's massively successful blog, Diary of a London Callgirl catapulted its pseudonymous author to fame and inspired an entire sex blog sub-genre. Diary-blogs can deliberately activate (and complicate) well-established conventions around the production of secret, scandalous, or very personal material.

Equally, resistance to seeing social media like Facebook as a diary (despite some clear structural conventions that would support this interpretation) remind us that diary narrative still arouses the suggestion of taboo and transgression and that there are anxieties around the articulation of private experience in public. The diary online attracts or repulses, depending on your point of view.

As a contemporary genre, the diary actively joins with the myriad hybrid modes of autobiography that now make up the literary public sphere. In doing so, it both negotiates with and deploys assumptions of diary discourse as more natural or less mediated than other autobiographical modes. An assumption that diary writing is natural and incidental, what Virginia Woolf once described as "like scratching or having a bath", bears scrutiny in a contemporary culture obsessed with accessing and consuming "private" lives played out in public for our pleasure.

What is it that we want when we read about the lives of others? Diaries are just one of the many forms in which autobiographical narrative now circulates to mass audiences hungry for the "real" story. However, while autobiography and memoir have gained ground as legitimate and canonical literary modes, the diary retains an association with inappropriate, overly personal, or pejoratively "private" discourse. What R. Jay Magill calls an ideology of intimacy underwrites the explosion in intimate self-disclosure by contemporary figures and from Hannah Horvath to Big Brother diaries have a special association to secrets, scandals, and confession. Contemporary authors who publish diaries harness the genre's rhetorical authority in the representation of private experience and they respond to a cultural milieu in which the real and the authentic have become fetish objects. Dear Diary, look at me now!

Kylie Cardell is the author of Dear World: Contemporary Uses of the Diary.

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