Welcome to Dear Queer Diary, a column about the joys (and occasionally, the pains) of journaling. We’ll be cracking open our tiny notebooks and breaking out the rainbow-colored pens on the regular, so get ready to limber up your writing hands and document all your beautiful feelings!
Header by Rory Midhani
I don’t know whether it’s the snow that has begun falling in picturesque flakes outside my window or the blizzard of end-of-year lists (and glorious non-lists) on my Twitter feed, but it suddenly seems like ‘tis the season for curling up with a good book.
What does this have to do with journaling, you might ask? Well, let me tell you: some of my absolute favorite books are written (at least partially) in the form of diaries.
It’s difficult to pinpoint what exactly is so appealing about the diary form. I’m sure it’s partially laziness: novels in the form of journals often have extremely short chapters that make me feel like I am speeding through my book. However, I am also going to posit that there’s a voyeuristic thrill to peeking inside someone’s diary—even when you know that the someone over whose shoulder you’re looking is a thoroughly fictional character. Secrets are the tender and juicy meat of fiction (sorry, vegans!), and diaries have secrets in spades.
While the diary format is such a favorite in certain genres that certain naysayers claim “we have reached a point of diminishing returns with the diary-as-framing-device,” I will never grow tired of immersing myself in the fictional realm of the top secret.
For one thing, I love watching the ways in which authors contrive to make their character’s bizarrely faithful journaling habits plausible. Of course the protagonist has a perfect memory for dialogue! Why wouldn’t Mia Thermopolis bring her journal to prom so that she can update the reader on the night’s events from a bathroom stall? Yes, there may be a certain suspension of disbelief required, but isn’t that true with most works of fiction?
While there may be a few too many “Diaries of…” titles clogging up the category, how can we fault the format that has given us such young adult favorites as The Princess Diaries and Perks of Being a Wallflower and classics like “The Yellow Wallpaper,” The Woman in White and The Color Purple?
(Yes, I know that Perks is technically a collection of letters. Yes, I am happy to discuss the ambiguity of the term “epistolary novel” in the comments with any semantics-obsessed diary-readers.)
Next on my personal diary-as-novel agenda is Affinity, by Sarah Waters, an author who is already at the top of my list of queer lady writers who make my little heart go pitter patter with suspense and delight.
If you would prefer to snuggle under your covers with a diary written by a real human being, then your options are similarly—if not more—numerous. Judging from the eight-week independent study that I did on diaries back in my college days (which, my nerd friends, was as awesome as it sounds), just about every famous writer and quite a few un-famous ones have produced some kind of published diary, all of which have their quirks.
Want to read about James Boswell getting the clap after sleeping with—gasp!—an actress in the eighteenth century? Read his London Journal, and marvel at such gems as “I fanned the flame by pressing her alabaster breasts and kissing her delicious lips. I then barred the door of her dining-room, led her all fluttering into her bedchamber, and was just making a triumphal entry when we heard her landlady coming up.”
Prefer to contemplate a different kind of topography? Try Dorothy Wordsworth’s diary, and indulge in a spot of righteous feminist rage that her brother got all the glory for the poems that he wrote using her careful notes on the natural splendor of the English countryside.
You’d rather immerse yourself in the incredible language of one of our queer foremothers? You could easily spend the next sixth months reading the amazing, beautiful, breathtaking journals that document a huge portion of Virginia Woolf’s life—from her youthful efforts to produce a family newspaper to months before her suicide.
Whether you do 21st or 19th century, fictional or nonfictional, hilarious or heart wrenching, the good news is that you can do you while reading a diary. Which journals will you be perusing as the snowflakes pile up outside, my dearest Straddlers? Who is your favorite fictional—or nonfictional—diarist of all time?
Susan Sontag’s journals and notebooks are collected in two volumes, ‘Reborn’ and ‘As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh’, beginning with her teenage years. She writes a bit about her relationships, some with women – including first teenage experiences. I really love these – you can see in the collection of her personal writing how much she read and consumed and thought about ideas, and how open she was to changing her mind and being wrong, and analysing herself. Really, she just makes me painfully aware of all the things I don’t know, especially in her lists of books read and films seen.
“Reborn” is wonderful, I also heartily recommend it.
Sylvia Plath is by far my favorite diarist. What an intensely perceptive, intelligent, and eloquent lady.
Also, I always forget that The Yellow Wall-Paper is a journal!
By the way, the K/M/F caption reminds me of the time my college roommate and I compiled “Who would you do?” lists of authors mentioned in our Literary History classes. Unfortunately, this was done before I knew I was gay… it’s about time I revise that.
Sylvia Plath is my favorite, too. :)
TAMORA PIERCE 5EVER
This title made me think of that one day in school called D.E.A.R. (Drop Everything And Read) day during school spirit/fun week or whatever it was called…I don’t remember. Maybe it was Catholic Schools’ Week? Anyway. It was my favorite day of the year because periodically the principal would come on the P.A. system and unilaterally pause whatever everyone was doing and we’d get to read, usually for about 30 minutes. I think. Maybe it just seemed that long to me. But it was fun because we could read wherever/however/whatever we wanted as long as we stayed in the room.
I guess its purpose was to encourage us to read, but I actually needed encouragement *not* to read during class (I’d read books under the desk, inside my other books…you name it) so they clearly did not have me in mind.
But yeah…I think I’ll go read the article now :)
YES! This was the first thing that popped into my head too.
My Grade 8 English teacher scheduled one period every WEEK as a D.E.A.R. period. It was the bestest thing ever. And I was like you, always reading in class when I should *not* have been reading.
Funny story. In Grade 9 I was actually sent to the principle’s office because I was caught reading in health class. Even though I was only reading because I’d finished the assignment and had nothing else to do and every other kid in the class was talking and running around and *not* completing the assignment. When I got to the office and told the secretary why I was there, she just laughed and told me to pull up a chair and keep reading until the period was over.
That’s amazing. I’m glad I’m not alone in this.
I definitely got detention a couple times for reading in class during another class…or that one time when I got detention for reading Redwall during class instead of the class novel that I think was about wolves and really really easy that I finished the day the teacher assigned Ch.1 to read for homework. It was her fault for scheduling solo reading time during school!
Also this was in third grade. You would think the teacher would be *encouraging* my reading a book meant for middle schoolers?
If you want journalling queer foremothers, Anne Lister seems like the way to go.
I want to do a future column on Anne Lister, but I haven’t read her diaries… Maybe this can be my holiday reading project?
Just to keep up the amusing reading in school stories:
In primary school we got a letter sent home to parents saying that the year had done badly on a English test and therefore we should all be reading more. Neither my mother, nor I had any idea how that would be possible as at that time I was reading 1-3 books per day on average (granted children’s books so they were fairly short but still…)
I was too much of a rule-follower to ever read while I was supposed to be doing something else, but I am loving these rebellious reading stories!
Honestly, I was a goody-two-shoes about everything except reading. Reading too much was the only reason I ever really got in trouble, besides not doing homework. But that didn’t happen *too* often…
“Affinity” is OK, but ironically on the too dark side for me, esp. since “The Night Watch” is my favorite Waters book?
One of my dream queer diaries, though it’s never been published, is some kind of compilation of Patricia Highsmith’s “Cahiers.” Her biographers seem to agree they are juicy, and extensive. I guess she forbade publication, or too many of the people she slept with or talked smack about still aren’t dead?
Yes, Anne Lister’s diaries are so fascinating. She actually writes things like: “I love, & only love, the fairer sex & thus beloved by them in turn, my heart revolts from any other love than theirs.”
And she goes around chasing women and dating more than one at the same time, all the while managing her family’s estate, which was very unusual for a woman at that time. It’s really entertaining.
And, she wrote her diary in a code that they had to crack when they found her diaries about a hundred years after she wrote them! It’s an amazing story.
Several writers have tried to persuade me that I should be creating novels from my diaries. … Why? … It’s diary format all the way for me in my writing.
I want to create the illusion for the reader that they have stumbled across a diary and are taking a cheeky peek.