Some Notes on the Genreless Freedom—and Subsequent Power—of Journals

When is paint on canvas not a painting—words on a page not literature?

“There is a time to write and a time to walk and a time to reflect and a time to act and I come unwillingly to this journal today, wanting to do something less reflective and feeling that I sometimes strip myself of my most reasonable attributes, bent over this machine.”

—John Cheever, 1955

The Journals of John Cheever (1990)


“Begin here.”

—May Sarton, Journal of Solitude (1973)


What’s an art form, anyway?

As in, what makes something something and not just a messy mass of artistic ingredients? When is paint on canvas not a painting—words on a page not literature?


Reading Susan Sontag’s As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals & Notebooks 1964—1980. So impressed by her rigorous, uncanny intelligence. Deborah Eisenberg: “She seemed to be at least twice as alive as most of us—to know everything, to do everything, to be inexhaustibly engaged.” Yes, to read Sontag’s journals—clearly jotted down, casually, extemporaneously—is an exhilarating experience, but to be Sontag must have been exhausting.

Here she is on her 32nd birthday (just a year older than I am at present):

Becoming inhuman (committing the inhuman act) in order to become humane…

Realizing that one must go against one’s instincts (or training) in order to get what one wants.

An insect identifies light with air, exit—so, an insect in a tube will fling itself to death against a glass wall on the other side of which is a light, ignoring the exit which lies behind him in the dark.

Geez. Happy birthday, Susan.


What’s interesting to me about form is not its definition—but the way in which our preconceived notions of form affect how we interact with that form. We go see a movie, we expect “movie” stuff to occur, and if it does not, we are aware that this film is working against our presumptions. I.e., if a ‘form’ exists, we cannot disentangle our ideas of that form from the form itself, even when a work breaks every single one of its conventions.


What makes good art, anyway? My sister once showed me a photo she’d taken, which I thought was beautiful. When I told her she seemed to have a gift for photography, she said, dismissively, “I took like a thousand pictures; one of them was bound to be good.” Such a simple remark, but so full of truth. What has, for instance, my writing development been other than a thousand essays of which one was eventually bound to be good?

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So does art come more from repetitive action, from practice, than from any creative drive or point of view? If so, what other activities would constitute “art work”? And are there a thousand failures behind every success?


Edmund Wilson’s journals from The Twenties open with two quotations from the great critic himself: “The letters and records of writers of genius are one of the ways we have of finding out how life was really lived in any given time and place.”

The other quote comes from his novel I Thought of Daisy: “What a gulf between the self which experiences and the self which describes experience.”


(My girlfriend’s dog is named Daisy. Thinking of Wilson’s titular Daisy, Henry James’s Daisy Miller, and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Daisy Buchanan—what a legacy for her name! A bunch of insecure male writers taking out their sexual frustrations on fictional versions of their failed romantic overtures—which is to say that I’m stoked my girlfriend’s dog is named Daisy.)


What, then, of the journal form? From one perspective, it seems as if the journal form were the most pervasive, as anyone from a prepubescent girl to an assiduous storeowner has reason and resources for such an activity—a journal, in fact, seems much more definable and recognizable than the murkier notions of novel or poem, which both seem to allow for miles of wiggle room. A journal is nothing more than the records, however truncated or abbreviated, of one’s daily life—how much more precise can we get?


Is Wilson’s “gulf” an actual thing? Are all our written accounts so vastly different from the experience we’re recording? Is this deliberate on our part? A form of disguise or concealment? Or is it merely the result of language’s inherent incapacity for capturing the cascading calamities of consciousness? And what about the difference between how one writes when one is planning on being read vs. when one is not? Say, an essay for a column vs. a journal? How wide is that gulf?


I’ve read three of Joyce Carol Oates’s novels—Expensive People (1968), The Accursed (2013), and Wild Nights! (2008)—but I’ve read five of her collections of criticism and her journal from the years 1973—1982 (so far the only published volume). In a way she is like a writer character in fiction, a novelist whose novels are mostly inaccessible to the reader but whose reputation (suggested by other characters or the writer’s intelligence or the trappings of success, etc.) is convincing enough as to grant a good deal of authority to them, thereby taking their observations seriously as a novelist without having read the work on which such authority rests. I don’t mean to suggest, of course, that Oates’s literary bonafides are somehow suspect, or illusory—in fact, quite the opposite: merely that my perception of her fiction (mostly unread by me) has been reciprocally enhanced as a result of the searching intelligence of her nonfiction, almost as if, since Oates is indeed real and not fictitious, the reverse effect occurs. Instead of the assumed legitimacy of the novelist character’s fiction granting credence to that character’s insights, Oates’s insightful nonfiction imbues her novels with the aura of brilliant expertise.


Especially her journal—holy shit.


Writing on November 17, 1974, Oates recalls the riots that took place in Detroit in 1967, when she and her husband Raymond Smith were living in the city. Here is how she contemplates that event:

Homeowners, we felt the riots as threats, necessarily; but the rioters themselves must have felt a marvelous exhilaration, a sense of sudden, absolute, unguessed-at freedom—the freedom to destroy, which is usually the privilege of the ruling classes…[]

Still, judgments must be attempted. It is wrong to kill, it is “wrong” to be violent. But it is even more wrong, more reprehensible, to put human beings into a position—psychologically and morally—where their life’s energies can be expressed only in destruction, in killing. Violence is an admission of impotence. Violence is a kind of impotence. But who has brought the impotence about, who is to blame…?

The sentiments here are still so relevant. We are still asking these questions, though it seems to me we’ve already answered them.


Or take Audre Lorde’s The Cancer Journals, a devastating record of the writer’s fourteen-year illness. The honesty and courage of that journal is astounding. Lorde, as a writer, was already a brilliant and groundbreaking writer and feminist, but her journal takes those attributes to new, self-directed heights. Consider this entry from November 2, 1978, the year she was diagnosed with breast cancer:

How do you spend your time, she said. Reading, mostly, I said. I couldn’t tell her that I mostly sat staring at blank walls, or getting stoned into my heart, and then, one day when I found I could finally masturbate again, making love to myself for hours at a time. The flame was dim and flickering, but it was a welcome relief to the cold darkness.

Her record is one of bravery and remarkable strength, and that she continued to write through the anguished process is a testament to her power. “I am writing across a gap so filled with death,” she writes, “that it is hard to believe that I am still so very much alive and writing this.” The Cancer Journals, then, offers a glimpse of a vibrant mind dealing with incredible suffering and existential dread. But her tone throughout is one of resolved integrity:

I must be responsible for finding a way to handle those concerns so that they don’t enervate me completely, or bleed off the strength I need to move and act and feel and write and love and lie out in the sun and listen to the new spring birdsong.

I think I find it in work, being its own answer. Not to turn away from the fear, but to use it as fuel to help me along the way I wish to go. If I can remember to make the jump from impotence to action, then working uses the fear as it drains it off, and I find myself furiously empowered.

Isn’t there any other way, I said.

In another time, she said.

I’m certain I couldn’t think of a more fitting description of Lorde’s work as a whole than “furiously empowered,” and can’t express how inspiring it is to know that she wrote those words about herself. That she knew how powerful she was, even when faced with the stark fact of her own mortality. What an amazing person she was.


You know, I can’t remember the last time I had fun. As in, uninhibited, wild, partying kind of fun. Not since I quit drinking, at least, and that was three years and eight months ago. What the fuck have I been doing since then? Why can’t I have any fun? Writing is a kind of fun, but it’s a private, almost secret sort—I can’t share it with anyone. And anyway writing isn’t fun in at all the same way: it is merely the only thing I do that gets me through periods of time without boredom, misery, or anxiety. That’s why I write: nothing else works as well.


There is, of course, one aspect of our interest in authors’ journals that is basic and obvious and voyeuristic in a fly-on-the-wall sort of way, and that is the entries involving their run-ins with other writers and/or celebrities. Joyce Carol Oates describes, on May 15, 1974, meeting Philip Roth. “Attractive, funny, warm, gracious,” she writes, “a completely likeable person.” She says his latest novel, My Life as a Man, is “irresistibly engaging” but that she “wonders at Philip’s pretense that it isn’t autobiographical.”

Edmund Wilson, of course, ran with some of the biggest literary names in the world, and his diary of the 1920s features this little gem that took place at the Playboy Ball in April, 1923: “Fitz [F. Scott Fitzgerald] blew up, as usual, early in the evening, and knocked Pat Kearny unconscious in the lavatory.”

But perhaps there is not greater diarist for such eavesdropping than composer Ned Rorem, whose diaries Paris, New York, and An Absolute Gift, et al, are filled with stories and references to numerous culturally significant figures. Dude knew and interacted with so many people, and was brazen about their privacy, outing several closeted gay men, and describing his relationships with Leonard Bernstein, Noël Coward, Gore Vidal, and Samuel Barber. For me, though, the diaries are fascinating for Rorem’s opinionated takes on music, film, and art. He hated, for instance, Mel Brooks’s Blazing Saddles (he walked out on it, in fact), but found Young Frankenstein to be “mildly funny.” He notes that “original Boris Karloff version was meant as satire” and that “the cast split their sides during the rushes” and were taken aback “when the public ‘believed’ the film.”


Here’s my point about journals: though we all know what a journal is and what it entails, it is actually the least fixed literary form in terms of expectations. Since a person can write whatever they want into a journal, when we read them, we cannot know what kind of content comes next—a quick note for a novel, a reminder of an insightful quotation, a brief summary of an event, a memory, a rant, an admission. Which means the journal-writer has an opportunity that, as a writer, I can see is incredibly valuable: the chance to put down on paper certain thoughts, ideas, formulations, lines of thought, and responses that you can’t find homes for in completed pieces. This may make a journal sound like the garbage disposal of a literary mind, but any writer will recognize how wonderful such an outlet would be—many of our best ideas and sentences get cut out, revised, or remain unwritten in our minds, hoping that we’ll eventually find some place to put them. For Oates and Sontag, et al, those scattered and orphaned notions have found a place to rest and thrive.


Today I read John Cheever’s journals and noticed that sometimes he uses the third person when describing certain things. E.g.:

Whatever happened to Johnny Cheever? Did he leave his typewriter out in the rain? Anyhow, he was never known as Johnny by anyone but his friends C. and L., who changed all names to suit them. Eddie, Neddie, Robbie, and even Petey. Did he write a very clean story? A story about love?

This is a very different use of third-person than, say, an autobiographical piece of fiction or a pretentious guise of self-importance—this is a man, an alcoholic, a stymied bisexual, trying his very best to figure out what happened to him.

This is another element of journals: the more complex the psychological self-scrutiny, the more elaborate the need for contemplation, the more unpredictable and utterly original a journal becomes. Since Cheever, for instance, isn’t interested in communicating these ideas to a reader—to anyone, for that matter—the effect of such passages is one of illumination, of the recognition of dexterous relationship between public writer and private words.


But none of this matters if the reader were to have more specific expectations. But we can’t when reading a diary, because no one requires that a journal “work” like a great piece of art, and no one expects a narrative arc or a tidy summation or a clear resolution. What we expect—and this of course predicated upon the desire to read a given author’s private writing—is simply the record of days, each of value in an of themselves, without much regard for the work as a whole. Consequently, reading the journals of Sontag, Oates, Wilson, Lorde, Rorem, Sarton, or Cheever, we open to a larger variety of literary techniques and tropes and styles than we are for any other form.


“Nothing exists unless I maintain it (by my interest, or my potential interest). This is an ultimate, mostly subliminal anxiety. Hence, I must remain always, both in principle + actively, interested in everything. Taking all of knowledge as my province.”

—Susan Sontag, sometime in 1967.


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About Jonathan Russell Clark

JONATHAN RUSSELL CLARK is a literary critic and the author of An Oasis of Horror in a Desert of Boredom. His work has appeared in The New York Times Book Review, the San Francisco Chronicle, Rolling Stone, The Atlantic, Tin House, The Georgia Review, and numerous others.

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