Wednesday, August 31, 2016


editing the self

A few days ago I finished reading the aforementioned Untold Stories by Alan Bennett (Picador 2005).  The last essay in the collection, after many other essays and a big section of his diary entries, is a fairly detailed account of the discovery of and treatment for and recovery from cancer.  One of the things that blew my mind about the entire thing was his secrecy about it all, while it happened.  For example, in the essay he quotes a few of his own diary entries from that harrowing time.  Yet earlier in this same book, and out in public in the London Review of Books before that, his diary entries appear, I thought, in full.  But no.  In those versions, he edited out any reference whatsoever to his cancer.  I flipped back in the book and looked at surrounding diary entries from that year, when he was undergoing surgery and chemotherapy, and found it mind-boggling that he presented everyday events as they occurred, while completely leaving out the biggie, the thing that must surely have been occupying much of his copious brain space, not to mention his time.

But that was of course his choice, as he explains in the final essay in the book.  Since he didn't want to be known as a cancer patient, or anything else in particular, for that matter.  Didn't want to call attention to himself, didn't want the headlines and attendant stress, didn't want to put himself forward in that role, wanted to be able to be a private person, even as he remained a very public person indeed.  But - and this is the point of the entire book and its title - here are some of the events in his life that he hadn't mentioned, until now.

I have so much respect and affection for him, as a writer and person, and when I finished this wonderful compendium I actually kissed the front of the book and quietly said Thank you.  Then (finally! after a two-month hiatus!) returned to the diaries of James Lees-Milne and proceeded to feel a bit petulant that they weren't more of Alan Bennett's, which I really want to continue reading.  Because even while I love them, I recognize that Lees-Milne's have a tone, on paper - something like conservative persnicketyness - that gets under my skin.  Only a little, like a tiny splinter.  Since his diaries are fascinating and entertaining, and he's honest about who he is, even though he too edited out some major life events, when he was alive to edit his own diaries.  He's no Alan Bennett, though, who seems to be an ideal writer for the likes of me.  His diaries remind me of Michael Palin's.  They have a friendly honesty, and some slight subversiveness to balance out what could seem like too much cheerfulness, if I didn't also recognize a tendency toward melancholy (which I identify with).  Palin a definite up, Bennett a slight downbeat.  But I feel like I could happily keep reading them both for years and years.  And so I hope they keep writing their diaries and publishing them for years and years. 

I'd love to hear from others about this - do you keep a diary?  Or did you?  If you stopped, how and why did you stop?  Did you begin again?  Or would you like to start but haven't yet?  I kept one as a child, then again in college, then stopped for several years in my late 20s, then began again and am still writing today.  And plan to continue indefinitely.  Michael Palin has written a sweet note for would-be diary-keepers.  And made a goofy video too.  I know from my own experience that what goes into a diary isn't what gets written on a blog.  Many things I've written about extensively only in my diary - really to exhaustion - and I can't imagine they would interest anyone else, so they never make it to the blog as a subject or even as a hint.  Nothing terrible or tragic, I don't think - just run-of-the-mill life events, so don't worry about that!  More like, notes about each of the paintings I make, as I make them, a gazillion quotes from the books I read, as I read them, and family events and suchlike (okay, some terrible and tragic, but that's life) - things that are other people's business, and I respect that and don't want to air anyone's laundry in public, even in a small way such as this.  And, all my deep thoughts, about life, the universe, and everything - I mean, omg, ugh!  Helps me to put it down, I know, and I've gotten into the habit, and it feels natural and good to do so.  But the unedited self can be a bit much at times!  Well, diary, or no diary?  Handwritten or electronic?  Am finding myself curious about what other people do, in this day and age...

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