Throwing Language: Craft and Artifact in Journal Writing

by Morgan Grayce Willow

Whatever else it involves, writing a journal means being engaged in a relationship with language. Critics sometimes characterize the nature of this relationship as an illegitimate one. After all, they claim, the writer of a journal doesn’t really do anything, not the way a novelist or poet does. Novelists and poets turn and form language until, at long last, there is a finished, polished work, one that stands outside the writer. These crafters of language produce readily identifiable artifacts which, like clay pots, occupy a distinct space, have definite shapes and well-defined boundaries. Journal writers, on the other hand, seem to them like novice potters who are afraid, after moistening the clay, to begin turning the wheel. Reveling in the feel of the wet, formless substance, journal writers, these critics argue, never get to artifact.

Certainly there is a difference between the writer’s relationship to language in formal works like poems, novels or essays and the writer’s relationship to language in a journal. But the difference lies less, perhaps, in the application of tools and technique than in the artifact that’s being shaped.

One reason for feeling that the goings-on between writer and language in the journal are in some way illicit is the rarely articulated belief that there is a kind of identification between the person who writes the journal and the journal as written. We like to think the journal is the person who wrote it. At least, this is one of the reasons we read journals, especially those kept by famous writers. We long to find out what they were really like, those novelists, say, who wrote finely crafted novels in which autobiographical detail is skillfully disguised. In the journals of these writers, language seems to be crafted only to the extent that it succeeded in drawing the writer’s self down out of the misty air of being and onto the white, lined page. Quite different work, the reasoning goes, from the artistry and skill that went into the novels. In the case of the latter there seems to be a nice, three-way distinction: writer, language, and completed artifact. In this case the writer, like the accomplished potter, throws language on the wheel, and through an intimate, sensuous process of shaping and control creates the novel, a work of art.

If it’s true that the object of a writer’s crafty (if you will) intentions is the application of language tools to the shaping of an artifact, what does the writer shape in the journal? In a preface to Tristine Rainer’s book The New Diary Anais Nin mentioned some classes that she and Rainer had taught together: “We taught the diary as an exercise in creative will…as a means of creating the self, of giving birth to ourselves.” Nin’s remark suggests a different objective from the one that prompts the writing of novels; the intention here, or one of them, seems to be the use of language to shape the self. Perhaps the self, then, is the artifact that emerges from the writer-language relationship in journal writing.

This could seem a grim view for, after all, we know how often we lie in our journals. Not that our lies are intentional—or even, at first, recognizable. It may be some months or years before we read back through them and notice, for instance, that during one particular three-month period we seemed only to whine and complain in the journal. Yet memory reminds us that things weren’t all bad during that time. There was that week at the cabin in the woods, or the visit from a friend who’d been out of the country, neither of which even got mentioned. We’ve recorded a distorted picture. What does this say about the uses to which we’ve put language? Or about the artifact we’re creating?

For those of us who keep journals, if we trust anything at all about the process, it is that the language in the book will track the rise and fall of our subjective states. We know and accept, more or less gracefully, that our moods change willy nilly as the circumstances of the days and weeks change. Whether we articulate it or not, we proceed with a kind of confidence that the language will carry the various ups and downs of that adventure of the self—that the lies in one chapter of the journal will be revised by the insights in a later one—that the craft in one entry will capture the truth about a particular moment in which the self exists. We know that the journal is not who we are, however tempted we may be in the heat of a particular entry to believe that this time we’ve really gotten it. All we need do is read back a few entries to see that what we’ve snagged with the language of an entry is one particular subjective state, one of the many “moments of being,” as Virginia Woolf called them, that string themselves along the thread of word-marks on the pages of the journal.

This may be more apparent, and at the same time more disguised, when we are reading journals written by others. Let’s imagine a reader of Etty Hillesum’s journal. We’ll name her Susan. Susan has picked up the book because she’s read critics’ remarks that Etty Hillesum was a grown-up Anne Frank, and she has fond memories of reading that diary when she was in her teens. Published under the title An Interrupted Life, this journal was written by a Jewish woman living in Amsterdam from 1941 through 1943. The journal ends when Etty, at the age of twenty-nine, dies in Auschwitz. Susan longs to know what it was like to live under conditions of extremity such as Etty experienced and to know what Etty was like, who she was. Susan comes to the book eager to gobble it up and forgetting, for the moment, how she feels about keeping her own journal. So when she reads, for example, Etty’s remark that “Hatred of Germans poisons everyone’s mind,” and “If there were only one decent German, then he should be cherished despite that whole barbaric gang, and because of that one decent German it is wrong to pour hatred over an entire people,” Susan is likely to think about how noble and wise Etty was. She may feel Etty was a kind of valiant hero because she was able to forestall the wave of hatred that might have overtaken her in the face of the systematic destruction of her people by Nazi Germany.

Continuing on, however, Susan reads, “Generally the most ominous measures—and there are quite a few of those nowadays—have no power against my inner certainty and confidence and, once faced, lose much of their menace.” When over and over again Etty responds to the Nazi menace with similar protestations of strength and endurance, when Etty claims that “if you have given sorrow the space its gentle origins demand, then you may truly say: life is beautiful and so rich,” Susan may, after a while, begin to question Etty’s sincerity. Imagining what her own reaction to the escalating restrictions and abuses imposed by the Germans might have been, she may doubt whether, after all, Etty is the exemplar of nobility she’d at first taken her to be. She may begin to suspect that she is, instead, a model of denial.

Thus Susan’s response to Etty’s uncompromising inner dialogue may waver back and forth from admiration to incredulity to, eventually, the judgment that Etty is not being honest. Susan may decide that Etty is hedging, not telling the whole story, or that she’s out-and-out lying. She may wonder whether Etty’s practice of writing the journal hasn’t become a systematic effort to alter her true feelings, an effort that escalates in direct proportion to the escalation of Nazi oppression. Might Etty, Susan wonders, be using language to cover up, rather than reveal, who she really is and how she really feels?

Susan has, as I’ve said, forgotten the uses she puts language to in her own journal. She’s forgotten how often she records moods that contradict themselves. And she’s forgotten how often she’s written things like: “Next time I see Robert, I intend to respond to whatever he says with perfect equanimity. I must—and will—stop letting his feelings spill, like a barrel of ripe apples, out onto my own.”

On the other hand, it’s also possible that certain of Etty’s remarks could startle Susan into a recognition of something that both she and Etty do. When Susan reads, “I must work on myself some more,” or “I must learn to accept myself,” she may see that such intentional assertions constitute Etty’s efforts to improve herself.

Although it is certainly true that in writing novels, poems or essays, the writer ends up somewhere other than where she or he starts out—knowing something more intimately, more fully, and is thus changed by the process—the journal still provides the best format for a systematic development and creation of the self. In their journals both Susan and Etty are saying to themselves, “Come along now. Let’s do better. I want to see some change here.” The journal enables the self to take the sometimes kicking and screaming self in hand and initiate the task of revision; the journal writer uses language to craft the self. Thus Etty’s claim that the most oppressive measures of the Germans “have no power against my inner certainty and confidence” becomes a kind of incantation to the better, stronger self she hopes to become, an invitation to a self-fulfilling prophecy. Thus Susan, when she next encounters Robert, having rehearsed the self she wants to be at the moment when this encounter occurs, may respond, though perhaps not with “perfect equanimity,” from a clearer sense of the boundaries between herself and him.

This process of creating the self involves much reacting to the world, to every experience the world presents. In the midst of this interaction between self and world—between Susan and her world—the language of the journal is both moist, ready clay, and, like the potter’s wheel or the potter’s own hands, it is also the tool.

As deceitfully concrete as the language in a journal is, it cannot bear the burden of being identified with the journal’s writer. Nor can it be reduced to the experience Susan records, for however she may choose—often without forethought, often in the heat of passion—to write about a particular experience, the fact remains that her use of language is selective. Say she is writing about some remarks made to her by Robert when they last had dinner together. Say she is angry about those remarks. In the froth of her anger she may not be slowing down over the choice of this word versus that, over whether to write in full sentences or in fragments. It may feel to her as though a furious drive to articulate the experience has swept control of language away from her, but in fact she is doing what Terrence Des Pres says writers must; she is trusting “the occasion itself…to inspire an adequate diction.” And in doing so she is employing language as any craftsperson of language does. But whereas the novelist, poet, or essayist then reshapes each sentence and paragraph through draft after draft, Susan’s revision occurs on page after page as the journal unfolds. Revisions of the journal occur within the text of the journal itself.

Nor are the tools of journal writing value-free. Language itself travels between journal writer and experience during the act of writing an entry. Afterward, it stays there like a zone across which the writer must now travel in order to read about the experience. Just as the physicist’s instruments change either the velocity or location of an electron in the instant the physicist tries to measure it, the tool writers use, language, casts and recasts the experience the writer may once have thought she or he was only recording. Thus as Susan records her next encounter with Robert, as the words roll out of her pen, she is writing in the light of her earlier entry about her intentions. Perhaps she writes: “There were no spilled apples. This time when he talked about the divorce, I simply said, ‘I’m sorry you’re going through this. But there is nothing I can do. Call me when the papers are signed.’ Could it be I’m finally learning, as I’ve hoped, as I’ve tried, to distinguish his bruised apples from my own? I will try to keep this up. But if he does call before it’s final? Well, we’ll just have to see.” And so language revises Susan.

Because the revision of the journal revises the self, journal language is not, finally, a true tool in the strict sense in which a potter’s wheel is a tool. Unlike the wheel, it’s not a thing completely separate from the craftsperson. Language emanates from the writer as she or he remembers and begins to record an experience. Then it emanates back up from the page; what’s written shapes what’s written next.

Still, like a potter throwing a pot, the journal writer does mold, turn, and shape language in that area where self and world come together. For journal writers—for Susan and for Etty Hillesum—the result is more than the volume, or the many volumes, of the journal. The journal writer becomes her own artifact.

Copyright © 1988
by Morgan Grayce Willow. Appeared in: A View From the Loft, Jan., 1988.

Entry Filed under: A. Personal Essays