Well read-head: ‘Dear Diary’
Is there any way I could convince you to read aloud in public from a diary you kept when you were fourteen?
A group called Cringe is encouraging people to do just that. Its founder, a blogger named Sarah Brown, started Cringe in a Brooklyn bar in 2005 and it’s since spread to London. Members of the group get together and read aloud from things they wrote as teenagers – diaries, poems, letters, songs, plays, you name it.
Sarah Brown has turned the best – or perhaps the worst – of the material into a book.
Writers are often advised to keep a journal and I’ve done so since I was a teenager. My diary these days consists almost entirely of things I think I might find useful in my professional writing – descriptions of people and places, story ideas, interesting quotes and funny real-life anecdotes. But I was most prolific as a diary keeper in the 1980s while I was at high school.
Until I read about Cringe, I’d not glanced at my teenage diaries for at least fifteen years. Sarah Brown’s project piqued my curiosity and last week, I gritted my teeth and pulled out a journal covering from 1987 to 1989.
Cringe indeed. Self-absorbed isn’t the word for it. ‘All About Me’ one page is entitled, noting my best and worst traits. I was obsessed with making lists, ranking my friends in order of who I liked best, along with bands, boys, books and TV shows.
Bizarrely, I considered Joan Collins one of my favourite actresses and Whitesnake a favourite band – things of which I have no recollection today. The diaries are mostly dull – full of who likes whom, who’s fighting with whom and other standard teenage preoccupations. Any humour is unintentional, as this 1987 entry demonstrates:
At every school, there is always a set of girls and boys who are dubbed as being popular. We all know who they are. The girls always seem to have the latest fashions and the guys are always good looking and good at sports. The girls flirt outrageously with the guys and the guys lap all the attention up. The girls are usually pretty and they also say ‘Oh I’m so ugly’ just so they can hear people say ‘No you’re not, you’re pretty.’
Don’t get me wrong - a lot of my best friends are popular and they are still wonderful people.
Later in the same journal is an expletive laden rant about my dad. It doesn’t say what he’s done to provoke my rage, but it’s scrawled in a furious hand and includes the words ‘f***ing dictator’ and ‘f***ing get stuffed’.
Immediately beneath it, without a hint of comic awareness, is an entry headed New Year’s Resolutions 1989: ‘I will cut down on swearing and speak softer and more ladylike.’
Reading my own diary years later feels strange. It’s like going against the natural order.
The admirable Canadian writer, Margaret Atwood, wrote in her book The Blind Assassin:
The only way you can write the truth is to assume that when you set down will never be read. Not by any other person, and not even by yourself at some later date. Otherwise you begin excusing yourself. You must see the writing as emerging like a long scroll of ink from the index finger of your right hand; you must see your left hand erasing it.
Diaries have always provided useful literary pickings, whether invented (Bridget Jones, Adrian Mole) or real (Anne Frank, Samuel Pepys, Harry Truman). In his wonderful essay, On Obsession, Malcolm Knox writes about his grandfather, Roy, who kept a diary almost every day of his life for seven decades, beginning in earnest in 1929.
Roy guarded the journals fiercely and not even his wife had ever read them. When Roy died at age 87, Malcolm seized the journals with great curiosity.
To his astonishment, he found his grandfather had obsessively recorded his life in the most mundane of manners. The entry on Roy’s wedding day, 26 December 1935, read: “83. Warm + humid + rain at night. Went to Hotel Sydney with Chip. Luggage. Married Lillian Ellen at 7pm at St Thomas’ Church N. Sydney. To Hotel Sydney later.”
Roy’s spare style had one obvious benefit: nothing to cringe about in hindsight there.
Here are this fortnight’s ten gems to read, watch or listen to:
1. Blogger Sarah Brown explains the origins of Cringe in The Times, including samples from contributors.
2. Luckily for me, my teenage diaries were written in the days of pen and paper rather then on My Space or Facebook. Given the nature of online technology and the way teenagers use social websites, Dan Gillmor in The Guardian argues there should be a statute of limitations on youthful stupidity
3. Diary keeping has a close cousin, letter writing. Check out this beauty from Hunter S. Thompson to a film studio executive getting in the way of a project with which he was involved. The website includes other letters of note.
4. I loved this cartoon about the complications of sleep.
5. Polymaths are people who are a highly skilled in a range of unconnected areas, such as Leonardo da Vinci or Thomas Jefferson. But are polymaths a dying breed?
6. Melbourne writer Avril Rolfe can’t understand people who have a major success and then feel the need to follow it up.
7. Libya’s leader Muammar Gaddafi recently raised eyebrows at the United Nations with a rambling speech that lasted for 75 minutes. This picture from the event is one of my favourite news photographs of the past couple of weeks
8. In 2007, after US President George Bush announced the surge policy, a journalist at The Washington Post spent eight months on the front line with one of the battalions sent to Iraq. His name is David Finkel and he wrote a book about the soldiers’ experience called The Good Soldiers. It focuses on the human experience of the soldiers and makes no judgment about the merits or otherwise of the surge or the war in Iraq. His book is probably the best piece of non-fiction I’ve read in several years. I interviewed him on Lateline about it.
9. A particular scene from the film Downfall is regularly parodied. Every time I see it, I think surely it will have lost its power to amuse. But it never does. Here is Hitler learning about the release of the Vegemite isnack 2.0.
10. Speaking of Adolf Hitler, does your cat bear an uncanny resemblance to him?
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