I first learned how to journal from a story in the New Yorker. I’ve tried to find it since, without success. Here’s what I remember: in the apartment I grew up in, we had that continually growing stack of waterlogged and disintegrating copies of the magazine stowed next to a radiator in the bathroom. I was on the toilet, a teenager, flipping through one. I was reading an article about anxiety, or maybe addiction. I can’t remember if it was a profile or something more scientific. The article told me: So-and-so kept a list of things that stressed her out, and next to each item, she put a big X. So my attempt at honest writing began as a list of Xs—a list of the things that felt the most emotionally preoccupying on any given day. I could write them down furtively. They accumulated into a collage of my mental life.
Prior to this, I had wanted to write about myself, but had gotten overwhelmed by the totalizing demand of the diary. I couldn’t write down everything, I could only write down the beginnings of thoughts, of days, and I struggled with how partial it was, inherently. (At one point in middle school, I kept a diary in which I signed every entry, “Tom.” Tom was short for Tomboy. A boy at school—his claim to fame was eating gravel on the playground—gave me the nickname. Tom became my character, with none of my history—he was a scientist, maybe?) The list of stresses solved that problem: it wasn’t descriptive of my life, it was cathartic. It created a second, a shadow self, one who was as moody and self-loathing as I wanted to be. I am reminded of this when I read snippets of Susan Sontag’s diaries, which now circulate, bite-sized, on Twitter: “Humiliation with every slip-of-the-tongue, sleepless nights spent rehearsing tomorrow’s conversation, and torturing oneself for yesterday’s.” Or: “It is useless for me to record only the satisfying parts of my existence—(There are too few of them anyway!) Let me note all the sickening waste of today, that I shall not be easy with myself and compromise my tomorrows.”
I wanted my diary, my self-workshopping, to help me become an interesting person. A diary is all about becoming interesting. In seventh grade, one of my classmates laughed at her fifth-grade self: My diary was all about how I wanted something bad to happen to me, I wanted to be an orphan. And then I was like, P.S. my parents are getting divorced. As catharsis, it had no status as a record of my life, and it didn’t (probably) survive. A list of stresses is something you can write on a piece of paper and then throw away. Most diaries are more than that. I evolved; I became too embarrassed to write most of my feelings down. After college, I started making lists of rules, and manifestos, mostly having to do with writing more. “Vegetarianism, no grad school, no self-exceptionalism, money is not incentive, painting/doing/making, no laptop (only desktop),” reads one list I made in 2014 or 2015. On the next page, I appeared to workshop some of these rules: “if I had a laptop I would do more things.” Line break. “I don’t have a laptop so I can do more things.”
Susan Sontag also made a lot of lists in her diaries: of books she read, films she saw, and, most interesting, criticisms she had of herself and rules to live by. She even had something she called “X”—she called it the “scourge,” a set of characteristics that cause her to lie to other people in order to please them. Her self-flagellation—her lists of stresses and self-loathing—went one step further than mine: she learned to use the diary not only for expressive catharsis but for performance. In one scene, she reads her lover Harriet’s diaries and discovers that Harriet does not love her as much as she had hoped. She says, of Harriet’s diaries, that they must have been written with the intent of being read. She writes: “Do I feel guilty about reading what was not intended for my eyes? . . . No. one of the main (social) functions of a journal or diary is precisely to be read furtively by other people.” Should we also think of Sontag’s diaries that way? Do I think that of mine? As I page through undated fragments, I come across an abstract drawing. The caption of the drawing: “Will someone look in here someday?” If they do, all they’ll see is a mess of scribbles.
We have a tendency to think of the inner self (the one that creates the running monologue in the head) as the most essential. It holds all the secrets; it purports to know all the motivations; it is personality, pure. It has held fast as everything else in life changes, our bodies most of all. In his new biography of Sontag, Benjamin Moser tries to understand who she was under all those layers of insensitivity and intellectual performance. He finds an alluring co-conspirator in Sontag’s diaries, which, first published in 2008, seem to reveal the person behind the mask—a very different person than the one available for public consumption. And she, almost against her will, wrote them to be read.
“Even when she was fourteen, she rued her tendency to primp for future biographers: ‘If I could just stop writing for posterity for a minute and make sense!!!’” Moser quotes, and continues: “In an essay from 1962, Sontag asked why writers’ journals are interesting, and part of her answer was that in the journal ‘we read the writer in the first person; we encounter the ego behind the masks of ego.’ She must have known how extreme an example her own journals would furnish of the distance between the ego and its masks. . . . She would hide in public—revealing herself, in private, to that unknown reader.”
The situation, as Moser sets it up, is almost too perfect; it allows his biography to do what biographies can almost never do, which is to completely rewrite what’s known of the person, while also maintaining that everything that happened in her public life was also true. And Moser’s attention to the major themes of Sontag’s work elevates the book well beyond the usual realm of biography, toward a picture not just of what happened to Sontag and what she did, but of how she understood herself. In his attempt to find coherence in her fragmented life, Moser fixates on what he calls a “disconnect” between “Sontag” and “Susan”—public and private. But he also totally falls for his own distinction: The diary is another mask, and Moser takes it deadly seriously.
When Sontag writes, “Solitude is endless. A whole new world. The desert” after being dumped, this is melodrama—I think Moser realizes that. But when she writes that her own cancer is her fault, he’s less savvy. This is the kind of indulgent, blubbering, pathetic statement that a sick person must whisper to oneself—a false mantra that won’t disappear until it is said. Yet Moser seems to suggest that this was her true position, and that the writing in Illness as Metaphor is a result of extreme effort on her part to argue herself out of how she really felt, and to avoid her own responsibility for smoking. He calls the book a result of “her zeal to transform her story of guilt, shame, and fear into something usable.”
“Something usable.” The disdain in these words is palpable. It’s why people hate writers, I guess. Writers take raw, unrefined material and sublimate it. In this case, I think Moser’s contempt is misplaced; Illness as Metaphor, as he notes, was a liberating text, and I think one of her most important. If Sontag’s ego had to balloon in the process, so be it. But the process of sublimation always seems to involve a betrayal, like a bodily sacrifice for the work to enter the realm of art. Someone is always hurt. In this case, it seems to be Moser who is attached to the version of Sontag confessed, in spurts, in diaries.
His expectations are so high that at one point, he criticizes the diaries for not portraying other people in the round: “In her journals, she was unsparing with herself—but the focus was always on herself. That, surely, is what a journal is for; but even the women who caused her agony appear as players in her personal drama rather than as personalities in their own right.” He continues, pointing out that her son makes few appearances in the journals—and rallies this as evidence that she was an absent mother. Probably she was not a great mother, I don’t know; but I read his scant appearances in the diaries as a sign of her narcissistic closeness with her son, rather than a neglect. (On her deathbed, she gifted her son her diaries—of which he is now the editor.)
A diary, at least as I learned to write them, is not a coolheaded reflection of life but a perverted, nightmare version of it. We write more when we’re lonely, because not being in love is boring. We sit and write things in diaries when they can’t go anywhere else—but we also sprout up narratives around those unsayable things, to avoid confronting the fact that all our unsayable problems are versions of the same themes. If we were honest with ourselves, all we would write is: My parents, my lovers, death. My parents, my lovers, death. The art of the diary comes from the effort required to dissemble to ourselves.
At the beginning of this week, out of nowhere, I was brimming with anger—and looking for trouble. On Monday, I felt a total sense of despair; politically, everything is going wrong—and I decided that writing is useless. Tuesday, I started a fight with my boyfriend after he said someone he’d just introduced to me was similar to an old friend of ours (I said no, absolutely they aren’t similar, offended on behalf of this friend). On Wednesday (impeachment), I was walking home from work, and I crossed the street, illegally, in front of a car that had the light, but the guy was texting. He finally came to, and honked at me for being in the way. Someone in a car behind the first guy rolled down his window to yell at me. I walked uphill toward my building, trying to hold back tears of anger. I fantasized about the car coming around the block, and explaining to the second driver what had happened, telling him, look, it wasn’t my fault, it was the other guy. I imagined body-slamming the big black door of his car. I wondered how I would ever forget the sound of that man screaming at me. I went home and wrote about it in my diary, trying to turn my unused anger into “something usable.”
My mind turned to a passage that Karl Ove Knausgaard wrote recently in the New Yorker; in it, he writes that he doesn’t like dogs because always in the bark of the dog is the voice of the father. To have a dog is to be inhibited from writing:
I have always had within me that fear of doglike aggression, and, whenever I have encountered it, in the form of an angry motorist, for example, or an angry girlfriend, every time I have yielded to it and become paralyzed. The only area where I have defied it has been literature. At times I think that is what literature is for, that literature is a place where one can express oneself freely, without fearing the law of the father, the law of the dog.
I had been barked at, and I was angry at my father. I did not want to be. I wanted to be more interesting than that. I wrote: “What is it I have so much anger about: My father, what a boring answer, truly. His methods of control: a little better.” But try as I might, I can’t seem to escape the fundamental truth that children get angry at their parents. Might as well, I thought, turn my diary entry into a kind of performance. I continued:
My dad wants me to buy my mother and myself a vacation: a river cruise, or a trip to Malta. This is his own fantasy, he is the one who would go. It seems special to him, who knows why. He can’t go with her, so I must. I become like a cloth bag in the shape of a body, filled with flour or sawdust. He sticks his hands in my armpits and controls the blunt movements of my heavy arms. He types things into Google, into Trip Advisor. Should the dummy do anything wrong, the father is angry. The father throws fistfuls of flour on the ground. The father pours water on the dummy’s head. Submission is achieved again and the plan moves forward.