Friday, February 4, 2011

Diareading

Tonight I went to the Morgan Library (of the "JP Morgan" Morgans) for an exhibit on diaries.
It was free after 7 PM, and as a life-long diarist and now, lackadaisical blogger, I felt compelled to go.

Charlotte Brontë.
Anais Nin.
Tennessee Williams.
Albert Einstein.
Napoleon Bonaparte's surgeon, Dominique-Jean Larrey.
Walt Whitman.
Henry David Thoreau.
FDNY firefighters who survived 9/11.
John Steinbeck.

Over three centuries worth of individual history was laid bare in glass cases for me to read. Sure, all of New York and its interminable current of visitors might read them, too, but so intimate was the encounter, it felt like it could have been just for me.

Second only to a miraculous actualization of the "What dead person would you most want to have dinner with?" game, reading someone's diary is about as close as you can actually get to meeting and knowing them, I would argue (unless their diaries were meant for public consumption, and then I guess maybe they never even really knew themselves - for if not in the pages of a diary, where can one be oneself?).

One man detailed the events of the Boston Tea Party, knowing even then what a monumental and potentially historic event it was.

JP Morgan's diary, in startlingly precocious penmanship, detailed the comings and goings of his 12 year old self in a small, browned date-book, remarking that the first time the girls joined his compulsory evening dance class, he, "had a first rate time."

Larrey wrote of a horrific instance in Napoleon's ill-advised campaign into Russia, wherein tens of thousands died, including children and "mothers who deliberately followed the fate of their children." He reflected that he only survived the ordeal because people in the military knew and recognized him, and got him to safety.

Brontë spoke wistfully but not sentimentally of home as she doodled in the front page of a textbook while a teacher of English at a school that housed only one person worthy of her affection in her estimation. She stated that she was cold, and wished she were at home with her father and her sisters in front of the fire.

Williams detailed a sexual encounter - deemed it a gift from God, even - and the 9/11 records were all facts about the search and rescue process that followed the collapse of the Twin Towers. Little to no emotion evident in the writing, but the existence of the writing itself is enough to show that a man needed to express, to reflect...that he couldn't carry it all himself, and had to instead burden the pages of a small notebook, or loose leaf letterhead he happened to find at his desk.

Einstein's notebook (the page they had it turned to, at least) was all indecipherable equations.

I was most drawn to John Steinbeck's log, which he kept while in the process of writing the Grapes of Wrath. I hadn't ever thought about it before, but it made so much sense to me (as someone who writes, and struggles to write) that a writer would write about writing. If we write to shake things loose from our brains, and reassemble it in front of us in plain sight - if we write to solve problems- why would one not write to help them write?
It was so obvious to me, yet I hadn't seen anything like it before.
The entries were brief, and related his day's work: how many pages written. How he thought it was going. Things he was stuck on.
Having read, and been quite fond of the book in question, it was moving to learn that he struggled with it, and that eventually the characters he crafted helped him finish it, as he learned to lean on them and respect them, "as they are much truer and braver than I," he admitted.

A blog has more of an identity crisis than most diaries ever do. Blogs are meant for public consumption, for engagement and discourse, while unapologetically representing the opinions or voice of the author. Just as artists have sketchbooks and studies, I think most writers have diaries and journals: it houses the ugliness, the raw, the unfinished. And often times, more beauty than our finished products.

The exhibition inspired me to try to be more diligent in both arenas.

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