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The 'I' at the center of 'diary'

Drawing From Life: The Journal as Art
Edited by Jennifer New
Princeton Architectural, 192 pp., $25

A Field Guide to Getting Lost
By Rebecca Solnit
Viking, 209 pp., $21.95

Several years ago I had an awful experience with a diary. It was the usual kind -- there is only one awful experience to be had with a diary -- and even today when I think of it my stomach turns, but had it not happened I wouldn't know what I do now: that diaries are pernicious little frauds.

On the small spectrum of writing about the self, diaries are at one end and memoirs are at the other. Ordered according to stylistic intent, the continuum goes: diary, letter/e-mail, blog entry, personal essay, book-length memoir. The diary, I learned the hard way, is especially treacherous. This is in part because it appears to be the most harmless -- all marbled papers and tiny golden keys -- but also because, unlike the rest of the spectrum, it relies on a fragile contract in order to exist: privacy. Of course, I called mine a ''journal," not a ''diary," and it looked like a notebook, not an Easter bonnet, but who's fooling whom? All it takes for your pathetic complaints and mawkish secrets to come roaring out is for someone else to open the cover (or publicly skewer you in a memoir, but in that case at least you can attempt legal recourse).

Even so, I remain one of those desperate deluded types -- what Joan Didion would call an ''anxious malcontent" -- who insist on keeping a diary in spite of knowing that I might as well be nurturing a time bomb. In this way I have something in common with the people collected in Jennifer New's anthology, ''Drawing From Life: The Journal as Art." But an obsessive habit is the only thing we share: These are especially inspired journal keepers.

Included in the book are excerpts from the journals of 31 contributors, among them painters, travelers, a medical illustrator, and a volcanologist, and all of whom traffic in images. New York psychiatrist Martin Wilner draws evocative pen-and-ink portraits of the people he sees on the subway. In Italian-bound journals, Dutch-born engineer Erwin Boer solves mathematical equations with fountain pens. There on an otherwise blank two-page spread is David Byrne's small, quick sketch of the ''Big Suit" inspired by No theater that came to be the trademark for his band. Visual diaries, as New notes in her preface, are ''more pragmatic, less confessional, and better fit for public viewing" than written diaries.

Poring over the book's vivid and arresting pages, it seemed to me visual diaries might also be more useful to the diarist. Occasionally the practice of writing in a journal strikes me as suspect. Rarely do I write in it when I'm happy. But when I'm distraught, or the friend who has been driving me crazy for years tests my patience yet again, I'm propelled straight to its pages. Better the pen than the baseball bat, I suppose, but sometimes it seems the journal is to its keeper what the confessional can be to the sinner: a place to unload crimes before going back out for more.

At the very least, as cartoonist Lynda Barry points out, those old entries can be a drag to revisit. Accompanying each installment in the anthology is a mini-profile by New introducing the contributor to the reader. In hers, Barry says about her old written journals, ''all I ever did was complain or worry while writing very fast. When I try to reread them, my eyes just bounce away from the pages and pages of pissed-off handwriting." Five years ago, she switched to drawing with an Asian-style brush on yellow legal pads, which slows her down considerably and ''invites more back-of-the-mind images."

That the meanings of those images and phrases -- a grackle, a shoe, ''that itself is itself itself [sic] is self evident" -- are legible only to her is one of any diary's greatest merits. Of those collected here, the less literal an excerpt is, the more compelling it becomes; mulling over the mysterious symbols adds to the pleasurable voyeurism of flipping through the anthology's pages. But even the more literal excerpts -- take Renato Umali's collection of daily digital self-portraits, each bearing one sentence about the most important thing he learned that day -- illustrate what Didion once wrote is the point of all diaries: ''Remember what it was to be me."

Rebecca Solnit illustrates the same point from a different angle with ''A Field Guide to Getting Lost." Her book hails from the opposite side of the spectrum: a collection of autobiographical essays strung together by the idea of loss -- what it means to lose, and to be lost, to abandon yourself to yourself, and to experience. But her assemblage of anecdotes and vivid descriptions echoes the collage-like feel of New's anthology. ''Nonfiction seems to me photographic; it poses the same challenge of finding form and pattern in the stuff already out there," she writes in ''Two Arrowheads," an essay that weaves together her love affair with a reclusive man, Hitchcock's ''Vertigo," and molting hermit crabs.

On the whole the essays hold up, offering interesting insights and undertold stories -- her piece on captivity narratives is especially compelling -- though one time too many the writing grows airy and loses focus. But her memories of her ancestors, old friends, and even those she never met, such as American Colonial women who elected to remain with their Native American captors, bear out her belief that ''the people close to you become mirrors and journals in which you record your history, the instruments that help you know yourself and remember yourself, and you do the same for them."

Kate Bolick is a writer in New York. Her column appears every other month.

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