The Writer's Secret Weapon: a Diary
by Nick DiSpoldoI'm always amused and amazed by the writers' tools and aids that flood the market; incredible computers that do everything but make love to another computer and machines that perform like something Captain Kirk and Dr. Spock used on the flight deck of the "Enterprise." There is little doubt in my mind that one day a person will be able to sit in front of some machine, announce that he or she wishes to "write" a novel and out will come something between War and Peace and Look Homeward, Angel.
I learned to write by keeping a diary; my "tools" were a fifty-cent Bic pen and a thirty-five-cent composition book. I began my diaries with no thought of writing with grace, euphony, or the other components of style. Actually, I didn't know what they were. I began diary-keeping at sixteen and at that time had I even written a note for the milkman, he probably would have rejected it. Upon the death of Warren G. Harding, Poet E. E. Cummings, quipped, "The only living man who could commit five grammatical errors in a single sentence is dead." There is no doubt I would have shared that distinction with the late President had he not died before I began to write.
My boyhood buddies delighted in much good-natured kidding when they learned I was keeping a diary. I grew up in the Italian section of South Philadelphia and it wasn't exactly macho for a boy to keep a diary. A lot of the guys in my neighborhood looked like Stallone in Rocky and talked like Joe Pesci in Casino. Petey, a kid next door, always came into our house, singing, "You-who, Nicky, are you writing in your diary, dearie?" Later, when The New York Times published excerpts from my diaries, I received a good deal of mail from teenagers saying I had inspired them to begin keeping a diary. A great majority were from girls and I began to wonder why schoolgirls are far more likely to keep diaries than are schoolboys. In fact, if one were to offer a blank diary to most schoolboys and suggest they begin keeping it, they would cringe in fright and back away, like a vampire cowering before a cross.
I have since accumulated more than 7,000 diary pages; probably more than the combined production of Pepys, Nin and Sylvia Plath.
I was inspired to keep a diary by that slim but startling volume known as The Diary of Anne Frank. An English teacher had assigned it to me for a book report and I think I was the only boy in high school entranced by the diary of a fourteen-year-old girl. I was shamed by the fact that Anne was two years younger than I when she started keeping her diary and she seemed to reflect a sensitivity and maturity far beyond her years; indeed, the more I read, the more it became clear I was an utter imbecile. I recall telling my teacher, "Gee, she was only fifteen when he died. Had she lived, she would have been an important, maybe great, writer." I will never forget her response: "Well, she is living, isn't she? Isn't that what great writing is all about?"
This great reading experience inspired me to read other diarists and journalers and I became an insatiable, voracious reader. Reading, of course, is the fundamental foundation for all good writers, and I began to devour books but without discipline or direction. I went from book to book, author to author, as undirected as the hobo who goes from train to train, not really knowing where he's going, only knowing he must continue on. Mark Twain was fond of saying, "A classic is a book everyone wants to have read, but nobody wants to read." That had been the case with me. Often I attempted Greek tragedies, Renaissance poetry, or the tepid tomes of Kant or Spinoza, only to throw-up my hands in impatience. My second spiritual romance with another mind, following Anne, began when I discovered the Journals of Henry David Thoreau. These, along with Thoreau's Walden, absolutely fascinated me. I identified with Thoreau's contempt for worthless social values and the social hypocrisy in which most of us are self-enshrouded. I liked Thoreau's contempt for the existing social order, his unambivalent civil disobedience and his self-imposed exile at Walden Pond. Why give a thought about society? I began to hear the call of that "different drummer" which Henry discussed. Why give a damn about social "principles"? It was Society that made Socrates drink poison, burned Joan at the stake, crucified Christ and claimed women shouldn't have he same political and social rights as men. It was Society that waged countless wars, promoted the Inquisition, Witch Trials and other incredible and colossal idiocies. I identified with those who spent their lives remote and aloof from the mainstream of the moronic masses. The abuse and criticism sustained by Michelangelo, Van Gogh, Gide, Rabelais, Crane, Bret Hart, Poe, Emma Goldman and Susan B. Anthony, to list but a very few, were but a few examples of society's worthless values and its inability to recognize the worthwhile, enduring quality of the men and women whom walked among them.
I was entranced by Thoreau's Journals. My life had been selfish and superficial and at first it was difficult for me to understand and fathom anther man's infinite love of nature and the soul-searching adventure it could be to watch autumn leaves change color or study the beaver in its intelligent preparations for winter and the building of a home every bit as difficult for the beaver as later superstructures were for pioneering architects. Thoreau's life was a loving dialogue with nature and he no doubt experienced in reality what Blake believed in his heart: "To see a world in a grain of sand and a heaven in a wild flower."
After just one reading of Walden and several of his Journals, I was aware of a very subtle change in myself. I was not transformed into John James Audubon, but I was instilled with a new sense of appreciation for the things I had always felt but had never really experienced; a walk in the fresh fragrance of a spring shower, a walk on the beach and the intoxication of the Pacific's perfume, the gorgeous garlands of flowers lining even the busiest of highways. Each passage of Thoreau was like a window opening in my soul. I was to experience the same sensation of self-awareness with other writers in other lands, other cultures, but it was Anne and Henry whom first nudged me in new directions.
Diaries and journals provide several personal values. The daily discipline of writing each and every day is certain to develop whatever powers of expression one may possess. Equally important is the fact that diaries will provide much material in terms of offering one a chance to absorb insight and self-analysis. It is, very often, therapeutic. I wrote of things of a personally painful nature; descriptions of nightmares, my mother's drug addiction, unhappy childhood memories. Gradually, my diaries became my sanctuary and very real refuge. Montaigne wrote: "Writing does not cause misery; it is born of misery." My diaries are often a morass of immoral miasma, but they are always me. Somerset Maugham, my favorite writer, wrote, "If I were to set down on paper each and every thought that had crossed my mind, the world would consider me a monster of depravity." How well I know what he means.
I have to write exactly as I think and feel at a given moment; its the only way I can give my writing spontaneity of thought and feeling, the only way I can avoid the paralysis of comatose prose. I realized long ago I would never attain the richness of Ruskin or the easy elegance of Emerson. The diarist must write as he or she can and not like the diarist would like to write. We all have these daily flashes of inspiration and little gems of thought and they should immediately be captured on paper. There is a Chinese proverb: "The palest ink is stronger than the most miraculous memory." Precisely.
Each morning at dawn I take my diary or journal and walk out into the Mojave Desert, where I live, and sit among the rocks, rubbish and rattlers. The desert's stark sinister beauty and silence acts like a sedative for my soul and its the only way I can divorce myself from the continuous floor show we call the 21st Century.
The diary should always be an extension of Self; an itinerary of the individual's inner uniqueness. When I experience the creative trauma of sitting with pen poised, staring at a blank sheet of paper, I recall words of Sir Philip Sydney: "FOOL! Look in thy HEART and WRITE!"
**Nick DiSpoldo is a former Arizona Daily Star reporter whose work has appeared in many publications, including, The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Writer's Digest, Psychology Today, America and Commonweal. He can be reached by email at: firstname.lastname@example.org or through his website.