It is a true but maybe unfortunate fact that I have rarely ever taken much interest in my own life. Sure, I obsess about the people in it, I make plans for my future, I advise and admonish myself, I go from one paroxysm of emotion to the other, I dream, I reflect, I overanalyze — but as for any sort of “plot,” any useful recording of the events of daily life, I am afraid one would be hard-pressed to find such a thing in my diaries.
I say this because lately, I have taken to reading the diaries of other people — they seem to be all my pandemic-fatigued brain can handle right now — and I was surprised to find, for example, in the diaries of Virginia Woolf, so much social life, or in Coleridge’s Notebooks, a meditation on the beauty of urine in a chamber pot. If The Andy Warhol Diaries are all outer life — “Went out shopping and ran into Mick Jagger… Went to Schiaparelli’s show… The show was awful” — mine might be said to be their photo negative.
I could never be a good memoirist. For one thing, I never remember what people tell me. For another, I am only adept at describing the inner landscape; the outer makes an impression only insofar as it might be transfigured into this, but most times, it hardly makes a dent on the hard envelope of my consciousness.
“Write what you know” is one of the writing clichés I have come to despise. Often, I find that I don’t know what I think or feel until I write, and even then, in the very moment of writing, I have a vague sense that perhaps I am only making things up, only pouring my experience into the mold of a voice congealed out of everything I’ve ever read or watched or heard, that none of this is really “me” at all, and in the last analysis, I am forced to concur with Montaigne: Que sçais-je?
The impulse to crush life at both ends until it flattens into the vertical pronoun “I” must have been what impelled me to keep a diary in the first place. “Forget everything. Open the windows. Clear the room. The wind blows through it. You see only its emptiness, you search in every corner and don’t find yourself,” writes Kafka. Nowadays, I am not sure if I really want to “find myself” at all — not because I am afraid of what I might encounter, but because there no longer seems to be anything exciting or profitable in it.
The way the private has increasingly become public engenders the feeling that everything might be, no matter how unheard by the ears of others, a public utterance. Often overlooked is the sense of freedom in doffing the “real” personal experience and donning a richer, more heavily embroidered stuff.
Shakespeare is a writer generally praised for his “impersonality,” and a good deal of critical attention has been occupied with the detective-work of “finding” him, of sniffing out any autobiographical clues in his plays and poems that might tell us who exactly this—on the surface, unremarkable—man from Stratford was. On the other hand, we have someone like James Joyce, who was able, through the close correspondence between his life and art, to make the day on which he had his first date with his future wife into a still annually celebrated holiday.
Neither approach is necessarily better. To transmute “the daily bread of experience into the radiant body of everliving life” is certainly a noble thing, but alas, for we whose bread is so stale, so dry, so flat, so tasteless — we require a great deal more of the meat of the imagination.
Ramya Yandava is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Ramya’s Rambles runs alternate Mondays this semester.