Wednesday, 11 January 2017

The Diary Habit

I was reminded recently that I had completely forgotten about even the concept of a 'New Year's Resolutions': I have certainly not made any. I do not feel the need for them. If I need to start doing something, I am usually disciplined enough to get on and do it; I don't need special or specific occasions upon which to start even though, I must admit, specified starting times or dates can be useful.

With this year nearly two weeks old, some who have resolved to keep a diary may be floundering. It is not necessary an easy thing to do. So the following, from Arnold Bennett's The Diary Habit may offer some encouragement to persevere.


But beware of that word "writing." Just as some persons are nervous when entering a drawing-room (or even a restaurant!), so some persons are nervous when taking up a pen. All persons, as I have tried to show, are nervous about the psychological effects of the written word, but some persons - indeed many - are additionally nervous about the mere business of writing the word. They begin to hanker, with awe, after a mysterious ideal known as "correct style" They are actually under the delusion that writing is essentially different from talking - a secret trade process! - and they are not aware that he who says or thinks interesting things can write interesting things, and that he who can make himself understood in speech can make himself understood in writing - if he goes the right way to work!

I have known people, especially the young, who could discourse on themselves in the most attractive manner for hours, and yet who simply could not discover in their heads sufficient material for a short letter. They would bemoan: "I can't think of anything to say." It was true. And, of course, they could not think of anything to say, the reason being that they were trying to think of something to write, and very wrongly assuming that writing is necessarily different from saying! Writing may be different from saying, but it need not be different, and for the diarist it should not be different. And, above all, it should not be superficially different. The inexperienced, when they use ink, have a pestilent notion that saying has to be translated or transmogrified into writing. They conceive an idea in spoken words, and then they subconsciously or consciously ask themselves: "I should say it like that - but how ought I to write it?" They alter the forms of their sentences. They worry about grammar and phrase-construction and even spelling. As for grammar and spelling, in the greatest age of English literature neither subject was understood, and no writer could be trusted either in spelling or in grammar. To this day very few writers of genius are to be trusted either in spelling or in grammar. As for phrase-construction, the phrase that comes to your tongue is more likely to be well constructed than the phrase which you bring forcibly into being at the point of your pen. If you know enough grammar to talk comprehensively, you know enough to write comprehensibly, and you need not trouble about anything else; in fact, you ought not to do so, and you must not.

Formality in a diary is a mistake. Write as you think, as you speak, and it may be given to you to produce literature. But if while you are writing you remember that there is such a thing as literature, you will assuredly never produce literature.

This does not mean that you are entitled to write anyhow, without thought and without effort. Not a bit. Good diaries are not achieved thus. Although you may and should ignore the preoccupations of what I will call, sarcastically, "literary composition," you must have always before you the ideal of effectively getting your thought on to the paper. You would, sooner or later, say your thought effectively, but in writing it down some travail is needed to imagine what the perhaps unstudied spoken words would be. And also, the memory must be fully and honestly exercised to recall the scene or the incident described. By carelessness you run the risk of "leaving out the interesting part." By being conscientious you ensure that the maximum of interest is attained.

Lastly, it is necessary to conquer the human objection to hard labour of any sort. It is not a paradox to assert that man often dislikes the work which he likes. For myself, every day anew, I hate to start work. You may end your day with the full knowledge that you have had experiences that day worthy to go into the diary, which experiences remain in your mind obstinately. And yet you hate to open the diary, and even when you have opened it you hate to put your back into the business of writing. You are tempted to write without reflection, without order, and too briefly. To resist the temptation to be slack and casual and second-rate involves constant effort. Diary-keeping should be a pastime, but properly done it is also a task - like many other pastimes. I have kept a diary for over twenty-one years, and I know a little about it. I know more than a little about the remorse  - alas, futile! - which follows negligence. In diary-keeping negligence cannot be repaired. That which is gone is gone beyond return.