I went to a fascinating exhibition at the Morgan Library last weekend, on the subject of the Diary. The curators of the exhibition have pulled together a selection of diaries, spanning three centuries, mostly of famous literary and artistic individuals, but also of unknown people, inviting the viewer to consider the purpose of diaries. They raise the questions of how and why we write about ourselves, and who we are writing for, when we are writing a seemingly ‘private’ document. Diaries are written for a number of purposes; for posterity, for clarity, for organisation, for discipline, for emotional release, for self expression, to name a few. However, the question of whether we really consider them private is a matter for discussion; some of the diaries on display were collaborative, such as the Hawthorne family’s, and others were written by literary heavyweights who knew their diaries would one day be of public interest. Some were published during their author’s lifetimes, such as Anais Nin’s candid writings, and Thoreau’s reflections on his life at Walden Pond, and others, long after their deaths, such as Samuel Pepys’. The most interesting thing for me was how blogs were raised in the exhibition as a new form of diary for the modern age, and that the willingness of people to publish their innermost thoughts for the world to see, rather than keeping it private within the pages of a notebook, demonstrates a societal change in our notions of what is private and what is public.
When I first started this blog, I didn’t think for a minute that anyone would ever read it apart from me and a few friends. I started it for two reasons – to get back into the swing of writing semi- creatively, and to keep a track of the books I was reading and what I thought of them. I didn’t intend it to be personal, and I didn’t particularly want it to be. I’m naturally a rather private person, and while I am very open with those who are closest to me, the thought of baring my soul online never appealed. However, I noticed that as I wrote my reviews of books, more and more of the real life me I never intended to reveal was becoming evident through the views I expressed and the things I picked out as having meaning to me within the pages of the books I was reading. Looking back over nearly two years’ worth of book reviews, I can understand exactly what I was going through in my personal life through the way I have written about certain books. The things that struck me, the memories they evoked, the emotions they brought forth, all give a rounded picture of me and my life, frozen in time, if you look hard enough. I discovered that I can’t write dispassionately, or impersonally, as much as I originally thought I was going to.
As such, I don’t think it’s possible to be impersonal; everything we express, whether vocally or on paper, is a reflection of our mind and hearts at a particular moment in time, and how we react and what we find significance in speaks volumes about our personalities and opinions and state of mind, whether we’re writing about books or politics or cooking or crafts. And really, do we want to live in an impersonal world, anyway? By depersonalising life, by saying things such as ‘it’s not personal, it’s business’, by spouting vitriol at strangers on the internet, by stereotyping and reducing people to statistics, we dehumanise and we make it acceptable to treat others with disrespect and callousness and violence. That’s why I have grown to enjoy making my blog more personal, by letting people see the person behind the words on the screen. The world isn’t made of machines, it’s made of people. A chance to glimpse inside minds, and hearts, and souls, to learn more about other people’s ways of life, their passions, their interests, their beliefs, and so on, helps us all to become better, and more considerate people, I think. It’s inspiring.
That’s exactly what the exhibition at the Morgan was; inspiring. Reading the hopes and dreams and loves and losses and just plain everyday details of everyday lives of anonymous strangers and famous faces alike made me realise that underneath it all, we are all the same, and our lives have infinite possibilities. No matter where we are from, what age we are, what religious beliefs we hold, what morals we have, we are all, fundamentally, people. If blogs are the new way for us to chronicle our thoughts, then I don’t think it’s a bad thing to be personal in a public sphere. By blogging, we are helping to re-personalise a world that is rapidly becoming impersonal, and that can surely only be a positive development. I think, obviously, you can be too personal, and you have to be mindful of personal safety, but within these boundaries, a lot of good can come from sharing your life with other people; understanding and appreciating the lives and views of those who are different from ourselves is vital if we are to solve the myriad of problems our world is currently facing. My ‘book blog’ has evolved from that impersonal chronicle of book reviews I started many months ago and has become a diary of sorts, chronicling my adventures around the world alongside the books that I read, and laying bare my musings on life and the universe. I still keep a paper diary that is highly personal and is for my eyes only – primarily because I find it useful to have an emotional outlet, as writing things down helps me to rationalise and work through problems I am facing, and to be able to look back and see how far I have come over the years- but my electronic blog is just as important to me. By publishing what I write, it forces me to think more carefully about who I am and why I am who I am, and through that process, I think it is even helping me to become a better person, in many ways.
Writing the self is always going to be a topic fraught with difficulty, with conflicting agendas and questions of authenticity. Even when we write for our eyes only, are we truly as honest as we can possibly be, or is there always an element of presenting the best version of ourselves, the version that we wouldn’t mind others reading about, if our words get caught in the wrong hands? Online this becomes an even more important issue; we can easily suppress those less than sanitary parts of our lives, gloss over the difficulties, and only write about the good things, only post those photographs that show us from our best angles. There is always, I think, a certain element of fiction, or performance, even in a diary, and this was evident in some of the diaries that were on display at the Morgan; events exaggerated, conversations elaborated, impressions coloured in a little more extravagantly than the sepia tones of real life. This is the same on our blogs; who posts about the cake that didn’t rise, the stomach upsets suffered on the perfect holiday, the colossal amount of debt they have taken on in order to buy that picture perfect house? As much as we do say, there is also a lot that we don’t, and idealising our lives is something that certainly isn’t new; it’s been going on since writing about the self began.
Even so, writing about our innermost lives seems to be an enduring and essential part of the human experience, as we all strive to make sense of what goes on inside of us, and to find inspiration in the lives and thoughts of others. As the world is changing and technology advances, access to people’s private thoughts is becoming ever easier. Do we want to embrace this, or run from it? Are there some things we should keep private? Does too much disclosure turn you off? I’d love to read your thoughts.