Helen Garner: I’ve always liked my journal better than anything I’ve written | australian pounds


When I was young, I liked to write. It was the only thing I was good at, and I wanted to do it all the time. But I knew I would never be able to write a book.

A book, back then in the 1950s and 1960s, meant a novel. Novels were all I knew. I had read hundreds of them. But I thought you couldn’t write one unless you have an “idea” that you wanted to “express”. Writers, which I learned in school and college, had plots, characters, and things called “themes.” I didn’t have any or didn’t know how to get them. All I had was a million details. I didn’t see how it would ever be possible to make a container for the cascade of interesting things that were pouring out over me every day.

But I liked to push a pen, so I kept taking notes on the stunt to keep my head in a relieved way. This is how I started to keep a journal; and I never stopped.

Eventually I got older and figured out how to pretend I was writing the right way. When I published my first “novel”, the smart guys saw through my charade and denounced me. “She only published her diary. “She talks dirty and passes it off as realism.” It stung, but there was no point in worrying about it. I was using the only material I had available: the world as it presented itself to me and through me. In other words, I was using myself.

Photography: text editing

Almost everything I have published has been taken from this compulsion to watch, to testify and to record. Large chunks of the journal have come in handy in the books I have learned to write on my own. I learned to “make up characters” who could do and think of things that people could interpret as “themes” if they wanted to. But it was all based on my motivated, daily and nightly habit of writing things down. In my heart, I have always loved my journal better than anything I have written.

When I sit down to write something to publish, I will do anything to avoid the desk. I drag the chain for half a day at a time. I eat cookies or put in the laundry or vacuum the mats or lie on them and curse my fate. To write with a conscious purpose, I have to lock myself in, strap on a harness before I can even begin.

But every night before I go to sleep, and every morning when I open my eyes, I take my diary and my fountain pen, write down the date and time, and start writing. I never do not want. I never does not want to Where can not be disturbed. I just do it, sitting in bed, and when I’ve been writing for 10 minutes or maybe an hour and I feel like quitting, I stop – because I’m not writing for another reader. than myself. During these hours of singular solitude, in conversation with myself and with no one else, I am free.

I used to think (and I’ve been told many times) that there was something egocentric and neurotic about journaling, that it was a way of defending myself from the world. Why would anyone be interested? Why on earth should a complete stranger care, let alone feel anything, when I describe, say, a dream I had of a bear in the back seat of a car? A broken umbrella in a trash can, a rat in a kitchen, a bird singing all night in a park? Isn’t it almost pathological to be sitting there scribbling all by yourself?

But I get letters from people. Strangers make lists of things they recognize and send them back to me. Sometimes they even say, “Thank you. It could be my life. It could be me.

What I have learned, by editing the diaries into books and publishing them, is that during these thousands of private hours, I am never alone. If I go far enough, if I keep pushing past the boring, obedient part of me with its foot on the brake, and through the narrow, dark parts that are abject or angry or scared, I find myself moving into another region, a larger and wider place where everyone lives: an intrepid and open-hearted firmament where images swarm, and there is music, and poetry that we almost understand, fleeting moments of heaven and earth, subtle changes in the light, a feather of hesitation, mistakes and pain and the overcoming of pain, all kinds of screaming and dawn and small pleasant things to eat, and being allowed to carry a stranger’s baby into a garden, and to sing in the car to the house.

Helen Garner’s third volume of diaries, How To End A Story: Diaries 1995-1998, is now available through Text Publishing


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