3 Reasons You Should Keep a Diary

For me, a diary is many things: a therapist’s coach, a playground, a laboratory.  It’s— to borrow Virginia Woolf’s lovely phrase— a “blank-faced confidante,” a caring friend who will always listen and never judge.  Though the practice seemed pointless at first (after all, could there be anything more self-indulgent than documenting the mundane matters of your day?  who cares?), I’ve been keeping a diary now for nearly ten years.  Nothing has been more important to my formation as a person or as a writer.

Here are three reasons why I believe you— too— should keep a journal:

1. you’ll free yourself of your inner censor’s picky perfectionism

the diary of anais nin

For Anais Nin, who began her legendary diary at the age of eleven and devoted herself to the practice for over half a century until her death, a diary was a place to explore and experiment.  Unlike in “real” writing where we’re mercilessly tortured by self-criticism and silenced by self-doubt, in a diary, we can play like a carefree child in a sandbox.  Usually, writing is fraught with anxiety (“Was our point clear?”  “Was our topic interesting/relevant?”  Did we sound silly/stupid?”) but in the private pages of our diary, we don’t have to perform— we are free to frisk and frolic.  There’s no need to obsessively-compulsively write and rewrite sentences, to endlessly tweak and alter and adjust.  We don’t have to write anything original or sharp-witted— only what genuinely intrigues/interests us.  Nor do our ideas have to march to a neat and orderly logic: topic sentence, example, evidence.  They can wander down windy roads, get lost down dead-ends.

Too often, we bring our censor to the page in the early stages of the writing process: when we’re brainstorming, when we’re just playing with ideas.  The result?  We get blocked. “What does that have to do with anything?” our censor will snap when we start to follow an interesting— if unrelated— thought, “Stay on track…no detours!”  But just as we stumble upon Maine’s best blueberry pie when we decide to stop at a diner off the main road, we often discover our best ideas when we bypass the highway and take the scenic route.

In an illuminating 1946 lecture at Dartmouth, the ever-elegant Nin argued her diary helped her amass a wealth of material and write without restriction:

“… in the diary I only wrote of what interested me genuinely, what I felt most strongly at the moment, and I found this fervor, this enthusiasm produced a vividness which often withered in the formal work.  Improvisation, free association, obedience to mood, impulse, brought forth countless images, portraits, descriptions, impressionistic sketches, symphonic experiments, from which I could dip at any time for material.”

2. you might find diamonds in dust

virginia

Perhaps the most compelling reason to keep a diary comes from dedicated diarist, Virginia Woolf.  Though it’s hard to imagine that a genius like Woolf could doubt her own talent, for the titan of modernism behind such masterpieces as Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse, writing was often torment: she loathed what she wrote, she tossed entire drafts in the trash, she exasperatedly scratched sentences out.  There were days when she felt everything she wrote was obvious and trite, when she cruelly compared herself (“Proust so titillates my own desire for expression that I can hardly set out a sentence.  Oh if I could write like that!” she once wrote.) 

The fact is writing can be hell.  Some days we dread sitting at our keyboards.  We’d rather do almost anything— get a root canal, read dusty decades-old magazines in a three hour DMV line, visit our insufferable in-laws— than put one word against another.  On days like this, putting pen to paper feels as torturous as having dinner with your right-wing, Trump-supporting uncle.  Every word, every sentence is a struggle.  We freeze up rather than let words flow.  Because we long to write The Great American Novel— something history-making and monumental— we feel blocked.  Should we employ more evocative description?  Should we replace lethargic forms of “to be” with vigorous action words?  Is it okay to simply say “went” or should we use something more specific like “hurried” or “skipped” or “jumped”?

For Woolf, keeping a diary was a potent remedy for such crippling writer’s block.  In a April 20, 1919 entry from her own blank-faced confidante, she wrote the purpose of a diary was artistic— not historical.  More than just a mundane record of her day-to-day, the diary was a safe space where she could express what first came into her mind without fear of judgement or ridicule:

“The habit of writing thus for my own eye only is good practice.  It loosens the ligaments…What sort of diary should I like mine to be?  Something loose knit and yet not slovenly, so elastic that it will embrace anything, solemn, slight or beautiful that comes into my mind.  I should like it to resemble some deep old desk, or capacious hold-all, in which one flings a mass of odds and ends without looking them through.” 

In a diary, we can write with an ease and effortlessness that often eludes us.  Ironically, our writing is worlds better when we stop trying so hard.  Think of a first date.  When we try to “make an impression” and dazzle our date with impressive accomplishments, riveting stories, and hilarious jokes, we repel rather than attract our potential paramour.  But when we relax, sip our wine, and be ourselves, our chances of a second date increase tenfold.

The same is true in writing.  If we write out of ego— to impress with our scholarly, sophisticated vocabulary or to astonish with our ability to quote Dante in the original Italian or to gain literary celebrity or to win awards— we’ll a) find it impossible to write at all or b) only write god awful dross.  But if we dash things off instead of compose, if we simply surrender and let go, we can write— and write well.

Will our diary be a masterpiece of prose?  Most likely not, much of it will be worthless junk, but— in Woolf’s charming words— other times we might uncover “diamonds in dust”:

“I have just re-read my year’s diary and am much struck by the rapid haphazard gallop at which it swings along, sometimes indeed jerking almost intolerably over the cobbles.  Still if it were not written rather faster than the fastest type-writing, if I stopped and took thought, it would never be written at all; and the advantage of the method is that it sweeps up accidentally several stray matters which I should exclude if I hesitated, but which are the diamonds of the dust heap.”

3.  you’ll create yourself

susan sontag

Lastly, we should keep a diary because it’s a place where we can create ourselves.  As essayist, political activist, and public intellectual Susan Sontag wrote in her 1957 journal:

“Superficial to understand the journal as just a receptacle for one’s private, secret thoughts—like a confidante who is deaf, dumb, and illiterate.  In the journal I do not just express myself more openly than I could do to any person; I create myself.  The journal is a vehicle for my sense of selfhood.  It represents me as emotionally and spiritually independent.  Therefore (alas) it does not simply record my actual, daily life but rather — in many cases — offers an alternative to it.”

Writing— above all— is an act of making meaning.  Sadly, most of us don’t try to make our lives mean: we simply go to work, pay bills, go grocery shopping.  Rather than form a narrative that follows a conflict’s escalation from exposition to climax to resolution, we let our days pass without scrutiny.  A breakup of a long term relationship, a heated argument with our headstrong sister, an impossible roommate are a series of unrelated episodes.  Because we don’t examine our lives, we can’t identify the unifying theme, the recurring patterns.  We have no sense of how chapters contribute to the whole novel.

But when we take the time to reflect in a diary, we better understand our lives and ourselves.  By translating our thoughts into words, we make things comprehensible.  Our diary is the narrative of our lives, a novel we can analyze and dissect and pour over. 

Have we written the same tear-filled story about our husband day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year?  Maybe it’s time to get a divorce.

How many pages have we spent wondering why our on-again/off-again “boyfriend” hasn’t called?  Maybe— our diary suggests ever so gently— he’s not our boyfriend at all.  Maybe we should drop his ass because he treats us like a booty call. 

How many times have we written that we missed our regular ritual of Sunday brunch with the girlsMaybe it’s time to pick up the phone.

Are we always enviously admiring the accomplishments of our ambitious friends who volunteer for good causes and get their Master’s?  Maybe we should sign up to read to children at our local library or research grad schools.

Are we constantly complaining about how we despise our dull, dead-end jobs?  Maybe it’s time to change careers.

Or does page after page brim with a desire to explore and adventure?  Perhaps we should road trip across the country or trek to Timbuktu or abandon civilized society and live in a loincloth.

“I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means.  What I want and what I fear,” Joan Didion once wrote.  Writing makes us aware of who we are and what we want.  Keeping a diary, we realize we’re the authors of our own lives: we can take control of our narratives, we can rewrite our stories, we can revise our plots.

Anais Nin on the Secret to a Satisfying Sex Life

Ours is a sex-saturated society.  On television, 2 out of 3 programs contain suggestive, sexual anais & diariescontent; spectacles like the Super Bowl regularly feature twerking and pole-dancing.  On social media, millions follow shirtless men and scantily clad women in thong bikinis.

Half a century ago, porn was limited to your dad’s Playboys and a few rare home videos; today porn is mass produced by a multi-billion dollar industry, as easy and convenient as french fries from the McDonald’s dollar menu.  The internet is a portal to a pixelated play land where your filthiest fantasies can come true.

Despite the prevalence of porn and the widespread acceptance of casual sex, today our sex lives are less satisfying— not more.  By giving men unrealistic expectations of women’s bodies, porn extinguishes male libido and can even hinder their ability to perform.  In the words of groundbreaking feminist Naomi Wolf, “real naked women are just bad porn.”  Not only does porn ruin real sex, it causes women to loathe themselves.  After all, how can a flesh-and-blood woman begin to compete with a submissive sex slave whose only purpose is to fulfill her male viewer’s every fantasy and whose vocabulary is limited to seductive moans and exaggerated exclamations of “yes!  more!”?

Though pornography had yet to completely spoil sex in her lifetime, dedicated diarist Anais Nin understood sex is a matter— not of the body— but of the mind.  Along with her lifelong friend, lover and fellow writer Henry Miller, Nin wrote erotica for an anonymous client at a rate of $1 a page.  “Leave out the poetry and concentrate on sex!” the collector demanded.  In this passionate and prophetic letter, featured both in the indispensable Letters of Note and the exquisite The Diary Of Anais Nin, Volume 3, the always articulate Nin responded:

“Dear Collector:

We hate you.  Sex loses all its power and magic when it becomes explicit, mechanical, overdone, when it becomes a mechanistic obsession.  It becomes a bore.  You have taught us more than anyone I know how wrong it is not to mix it with emotion, hunger, desire, lust, whims, caprices, personal ties, deeper relationships which change its color, flavor, rhythms, intensities.

You do not know what you are missing by your microscopic examination of sexual activity to the exclusion of others, which are the fuel that ignites it.  Intellectual, imaginative, romantic, emotional.  This is what gives sex its surprising textures, its subtle transformations, its aphrodisiac elements.  You are shrinking your world of sensations.  You are withering it, starving it, draining its blood.

If you nourished your sexual life with all the excitements and adventures which love injects into sensuality, you would be the most potent man in the world.  The source of sexual power is curiosity, passion.  You are watching its little flame die of asphyxiation.  Sex does not thrive on monotony.  Without feeling, inventions, moods, no surprises in bed.  Sex must be mixed with tears, laughter, words, promises, scenes, jealousy, envy, all of the spices of fear, foreign travel, new faces, novels, stories, dreams, fantasies, music, dancing, opium, wine.

How much do you lose by this periscope at the tip of your sex, when you could enjoy a harem of discrete and never-repeated wonders?  Not two hairs alike, but you will not let us waste words on a description of hair; not two odors, but if we expand on this, you cry “Cut the poetry.”  Not two skins with the same texture, and never the same light, temperature, shadows, never the same gesture; for a lover, when he is aroused by true love, can run the gamut of centuries of love lore.  What a range, what changes of age, what variations of maturity and innocence, perversity and art, natural and graceful animals.

We have sat around for hours and wondered how you look.  If you have closed your senses around silk, light, color, odor, character, temperament, you must by now be completely shriveled up.  There are so many minor senses, all running like tributaries into the mainstream of sex, nourishing it.  Only the united beat of sex and heart together can create ecstasy.”

seduction & anais nin

A writer of erotica and a notorious seductress herself, Nin had the prescience to know porn would pose serious problems.  Pornography is provocative in the most predictable ways: lewd profanities, unimaginative dirty talk, obscenely large breasts, huge cocks.  Its purpose?  To immediately satisfy our most depraved desires. 

Seduction, however, depends on delaying— not gratifying— desire.  After all, who is more alluring: the belligerently drunk bro who instantly agrees to come home with us or the mysterious man who only longingly looks at us across the bar?  It’s the tease that’s most tantalizing.  If you want to make yourself irresistible, you should conceal, not reveal: the curve of a hip, the graceful arch of a back, the neckline that reveals just a bit of your decolletage, the entrancing scent of perfume on the wind, the forbidden, flirtatious glance across the table that lasts a little too long seduce us in a way the most x-rated porn cannot.  As Proust so wittily observed over a century ago, we most want what is denied us.

The great tragedy of our time is we have porn, but no passion; we have sex but have forgotten how to make love.  For sensualist Nin, sex can only enrapture if it involves all the senses, if it’s connected— not divorced— from head and heart.  Hungry for more of Nin’s intriguing insights and luminous prose?  Read her on the mystery of memory and the bliss and hell of New York.  Need more advice on sex and love?  Revisit Alain de Botton on how to be charming and Proust on how to be happy in love.

Sylvia Plath on the True Definition of Love & the Dynamics of a Healthy Relationship

the unabridged journals of sylvia plath

Since the shattering dissolution of my ten-year relationship, I’ve been preoccupied with what constitutes “love.”  What, exactly, is this emotion that has endlessly puzzled philosophers?  Is it carnal passion?  physical chemistry?  Does it burn and blaze through our hearts until it’s extinguished by domesticity?  Or is true love as stable as a 30-year mortgage and 2.5 kids?  Is it dirty dishes and morning coffee?

Can love take many forms?  Can it be romantic and platonic?  ruled by the mind, body and heart?  Can you have a sexual soul mate and an intellectual one?

After so much misfortune in the romantic arena, I wanted to learn how to distinguish infatuation from idealization, real intimacy from rushed intimacy, commitment from codependence, charm from manipulation, love from love-bombing.  I became a lexicographer dedicated to reducing love to an accessible definition and understanding its many meanings.  If I possessed the linguistic tools to name love, I would be better able— I hoped— to recognize it.

In many ways, our culture’s definition of love is unhealthy.  From a young age, girls are bombarded with toxic messages, usually in the form of damsels-in-distress and Prince Charming bedtime stories.  These fairytales teach us we’re Snow White: breathtaking but helpless creatures who require a handsome prince to awaken us from our spell-induced slumber.  The result?  When we grow up, we believe we need a knight-in-shining armor.

This idea that we need another person originates in the ancient world.  According to Greek mythology, human beings were inseparably intwined with their soul mates until Zeus split us in two, dooming us to eternally wander the Earth in search of our other half, our “one.”

Today the belief in soul mates persists in sappy chick flicks and the prepackaged cliches of sentimental Hallmark cards.  Though we swoon over the Platonic myth of our “other half,” at its base is the rather unhealthy conviction that we’re fundamentally incomplete and need someone else to make us whole.  The uncoupled among us are seen as missing a vital piece of our soul.  Women are especially taught to equate their worth to their relationship status.  If we reach a certain age and still haven’t walked down the aisle, we’re pitied as lonely spinsters.  “Poor Sheila, still single…and after all these years!” our relatives mercilessly gossip over cranberry sauce at Thanksgiving dinner. 

blonde sylvia

In The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath, a masterpiece of introspection worshipped as the first feminist bible and hailed as a genuine literary event, dedicated diarist and prolific poet Sylvia Plath challenges us to rethink our definition of a healthy relationship.  During her 1950s era of shiny chrome appliances and the picture-perfect Beaver to Cleaver white picket fence, women only had one option: housewifery.  Finding a husband was the end-all and be-all of her existence; she didn’t have an identity outside her marriage and mothering responsibilities.  While her husband commuted on the morning train to his job where he practiced medicine, transacted business, administered justice, and delivered impassioned sermons, she tied an apron around her waist and cooked casseroles in quiet desperation.  She might bake brownies for her son’s bake sale or attend the occasional PTA meeting, but her life was in large part circumscribed by his. 

Though we’ve come a long way since the conventional gender roles of the 1950s, we still possess many of the same outdated ideas about relationships.  “Real” love— we believe— is losing yourself in your partner; a “real” relationship is two lost and lonely “I’s” merging and melding to become a single unit.  However, ancient philosophers and contemporary psychologists agree that the healthiest relationships strike a balance between distance and intimacy, independence and togetherness.  A marriage should be a union of equals: one partner’s passions and preoccupations should never dominate the other’s.  Ideally, a relationship is a reciprocal exchangenot a crusade for control or battle for power.  To be satisfied with our significant others, we must have a shared life but also a life outside each other.

In a May 15, 1952 journal entry, Plath fashions the elegant metaphor of a Venn digram to illustrate that the happiest marriages are composed of two people with overlapping but independent identities:

“I plan not to step into a part on marrying— but to go on living as an intelligent mature human being, growing and learning as I always have.  No shift, no radical change in life habits.  Never will there be a circle, signifying me and my operations, confined solely to home, other womenfolk, and community service, enclosed in the larger worldly circle of my mate, who brings home from his periphery of contact with the world the tales only vicarious to me…No rather there will be two over-lapping circles, with a certain strong riveted center of common ground, but both with separate arcs jutting out in the world.  A balanced tension; adaptable to circumstances, in which there is an elasticity of pull, tension, yet firm unity.  Two stars, polarized…in moments of communication that is complete…almost fusing into one.  But fusion is an undesirable impossibility— and quite non-durable.”

For more illuminating insights about love, read Alain de Botton on the lover as a detective obsessed with decoding symbols and discerning meaningdating as a form of performative playacting, love’s two stages: idealization and disillusionment and how heartbreak hurls us into the depths of despair and dispels our hubris.  If you’re feeling hopelessly incomplete without a partner this Valentine’s Day, remember Edna St. Vincent Millay’s consoling assertion that love is not all.  Still struggling in the romantic department?  Delight in Marcel Proust’s timeless advice on how to sustain a loving, long-lasting relationship.

Anais Nin on New York

brooklyn bridge

“London is satisfied, Paris is resigned, but New York is always hopeful,” woman of wit Dorothy Parker once wrote, “Always it believes that something good is about to come off, and it must hurry to meet it.”  The Big Apple is a seductress that has always entranced artists.  Ayn Rand remarked of the modern metropolis that the sky over New York was the “will of man made visible” while Zadie Smith noted in her altogether marvelous essay “Find Your Beach” that in Manhattan “you are pure potential.”  To witness New York City’s startling skyline is to marvel at human will.  The city itself— its towering heights, its shining surfaces of glass and enamel— is a near perfect symbol: like its greedy skyscrapers grasping to snatch the gods’ fire, New York is always longing, always reaching for something better.  So vast is its ambition that it can’t be contained in this stratosphere.  Much like Gatsby, the classic literary emblem of our national identity, in New York, we believe in an “orgastic future that year by year recedes before us.”  And though what we strive for eternally eludes our grasp, we resolve to “run faster” and “stretch out our arms further” the next day and the next.  

In America, we believe it’s our duty to find happiness.  If London is satisfied and Paris is resigned, New York is unfailingly optimistic: we’re confident— almost naively so— in our ability to manifest our every dream, our every desire.  The big city embodies this unshakable conviction: in New York, you can be a best-selling novelist, a Nobel Prize-winning poet, a groundbreaking painter; you can be a steel tycoon, a Fifth Avenue billionaire, a Wall Street stock broker.  New York shimmers on the shores of the Atlantic as the holy land of dreamers, a real-life representation of the tenets of American philosophy outlined by our founding fathers: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.”  

In New York, everyone is pursuing happiness.  But though this pursuit is exalted as a right, it’s a heavy individual burden.  After all, if you never actualize your dreams, if you never attain that magical, mysterious, much sought after state of “happiness” in a supposed meritocracy that rewards hard work and talent rather than inherited privilege, who’s to blame but yourself?  In our land of near limitless opportunity, to be a nobody is the worst possible outcome— nothing is more disgraceful.  The disheveled drunkard pan handling at the subway station, the mentally ill homeless guy mumbling to himself: to those who have faith in the doctrine of self-determination, their suffering is their own fault.  Maybe, some of us think, they weren’t diligent or persistent enough.  Certainly they didn’t work hard.  Rarely do we consider that those who fail to secure the American Dream fail as a result of a complex web of social, economic, and cultural forces outside their control.  No, instead we condemn the poor as lazy, the unhappy as morally contemptible.

retro subway

“New York City is the most fatally fascinating thing in America,” James Weldon Johnson once observed, “She sits like a great witch at the gate of the country, showing her alluring white face and hiding her crooked hands and feet under the folds of her wide garments— constantly enticing thousands from far within, and tempting those who come from across the seas to go no farther.”  New York may enchant our imagination with promises of possibility and success but she most often conceals the costs of this singularly American credo.  If you live in a culture where nothing is outside the realm of possibility and you— and you alone— are ultimately responsible for your fate, the pressure to be “something” is immeasurable.  In the hurry to “make it,” you inevitably lose some of your humanity as you become more ruthless and self-centered.  

In her pellucid literary memoir The Diary of Anais Nin: Volume Two, 1934-1939, always eloquent Anais Nin suggests New York is both largeness and smallness, hope and delusion, energy and agitation, paradise and hell.  Writing in 1934 while living in the city and working for Austrian psychoanalyst Otto Rank, Nin describes hyperactive New York as the antithesis of reposeful Paris and achievement-obsessed America as the converse of sensual, romantic France:

“From where we sat I could see all of New York pointing upward, into ascension, into the future, to exultation, New York with its soft-oiled hinges, plastic brilliance, hard metal surfaces, glare and noise, New York gritty, sharp and windy, and the opposite of Paris in every possible way.

[…]

Paris, New York, the two magnetic poles of the world.  Paris a sensual city which seduced the body, enlivened the senses, New York, unnatural, synthetic; Paris-New York, the two high tension magnetic poles between life, life of the senses, of the spirit in Paris, and life in action in New York.”  

anais nin new york

In a passage calling to mind a recent study that found NYC boasts some of the world’s fastest walkers, Nin suggests the “city that never sleeps” is driven by an irrepressible desire to achieve.  Propelled by this restless, fitful energy, she hurries at a hysterical pace, always in perpetual motion, never at peace:

“In the evening he [Dr. Otto Rank] took me to see the magic doors at Pennsylvania Station, which opened as one approached them, as if they could read our thoughts, and then the Empire State terrace, which seemed to sway in the wind, so that I could see the panorama.  It was beautiful and strong, the whole design thrust into space, arrogant sharp pointed arrows piercing the sky as if seeking to escape from the earth into other planets.  

In New York the acoustics are good for laughter, for life is all external, all action, no thought, no meditation, no dreaming, no reflection, only the exuberance of action.  No memory of the past, no looking back, no doubts, no questions.”  

The tragic irony of the modern era is that the sweeping technological and scientific advancements of the last one hundred years have in many ways made life retrogress. We have farther-reaching social networks but fewer meaningful relationships; we’re more “connected” through Instagram and Snapchat but feel more lonely and have fewer friends.  In fact, in the last twenty five years, the number of quality social interactions has decreased drastically; one study found that compared to 1985, when only 10 percent of Americans said they had no one with whom to discuss important matters, and only 15 percent said they only had one real confidant, in 2004, 25 percent reported they had nobody to talk to, and 20 percent revealed they only had one close friend.  “Dazzled by the overwhelming credentials of science, the beauty and elegance of the scientific method, the triumph of modern medicine over physical ailments, and the technological transformation of the very world itself, the self finds itself…disappointed,” Walker Percy once said.  This sentiment certainly rings true for the millions who have countless followers but few friends.

As a psychoanalyst, Nin learned first hand that living in a materially affluent, technologically advanced society does not guarantee happiness.  Much like her patients, who— despite having all the external trappings of success— lie on her psychologist’s coach and lament of dissatisfaction, we in the modern age— despite having beheld the wonders of the computer revolution and modern medicine— lack the community, connection, and genuine sense of belonging we need as humans to truly be content.  

New York occupies our imaginations as the epicenter of human progress.  Yet— regardless of its promise to be the final destination on our route to happiness— New York consistently ranks as the unhappiest city in the U.S.  In evocative, stream-of-consciousness prose whose fast-paced rhythm mirrors the unrelenting speed of the city, Nin wonders if New York, like Sodom, represents the demise of humanity:

“The transparent brilliance over all things, from shop windows, to cars, to lights.  A texture which is not real, and not real human.  Days all bright and glossy.  One feels new every day.  The poetry of smooth motion, of quick service, a dancing action, at counters, changing money for the subway.  Rhythm, rhythm, rhythm.  After knowing what seethes within them, I do not dare look at the people too closely, for they seem a bit artificial, like robots, parts of concrete and electric wiring.  A million windows, high voltage, pressure, vitamin-charged, the city of tomorrow, and the people of tomorrow who cannot be human beings, and who, perhaps knowing it, come to Dr. Rank to weep and complain for the last time, for they too may be a vanishing race.  Just as the aristocrats are a vanishing race in Europe, perhaps here the human being who thought this was to be his world, is also being sacrificed to something else.  Here in Dr. Rank’s office I hear protests, revolts, sorrow, but outside they seem a part of the white-enameled, sterile buildings.” 

As the sun rises over the Hudson, stylish men in suits crowd into subway stations.  They are New York: the ambitious go-getters, the remorseless social climbers willing to squash anything— and anyone— who stands in the way of their ascent.  Though there’s something inhuman about life in the big city, after returning home to France in June 1935, Nin finds herself missing New York’s vitality and vibrancy.  Whereas she used to love the depth and richness of historic France, after shiny, modern New York where each day “you’re born anew,” the Old World seems like an antique: charming, quaint perhaps, but burdened by the past:

“Louveciennes.  Home.  Rush of memories.  Sleeplessness.  I miss the animal buoyancy of New York, the animal vitality.  I did not mind that it had no meaning and no depth.  Here I feel restless.  The Persian bed.  The clock ticking.  Time slowed down.  The dog barking at the moon. Teresa bringing the breakfast.  All the electric bulbs missing, the tenants took things away.  The books are dusty.  My colored bottles seem less sparkling after the sharp gaudy colors of New York.  The colorful room seems softer, mellower.  The rugs are worn.  Where is the jazz rhythm, the nervous energy of New York?  The past.  The glass on my dressing room table is broken.  The curtain rods are missing.  Where are the garden chairs?  France is old.  It has the flavor, the savoriness, the bouquet, the patina of ancient things.  It has humanity which New York does not have.  

[…]

Louveciennes is old and tranquil.  I once loved its oldness, its character.  Now it seems to have the musty odor of the past.  New York was new.

[…]

I miss the electric rhythm of New York: it was like riding a fiery race horse.  I was drunk on liberty, on space and dynamism.  Where are the dazzling lights, the roar of airplanes, fog horns, fast cars, wild pace?  I am restless.  Adventure is pulling me out.  

[…]

All I have been suffering from is falling from a quick rhythm to a slower one.  I cannot sit in a cafe for hours, or talk for ten hours as Henry and Fraenkel do.  I crave action and motion.  It is as if my heart were beating faster than theirs and I had broken into the running pace of New York.” 

french countryside

In the end, Nin concludes New York embodies the dual nature of America itself.  A work of breathtaking lyricism and revelatory insight, The Diary of Anais Nin: Volume Two, 1934-1939 is a genuine literary event.  More than just a portal into the content of one ordinary woman’s mind, Nin’s diary is a gateway into the mysteries of human life, exploring topics as diverse as the nature of America to the enigma of memory.  A masterpiece the Washington Post argued “examines human personality with a depth and understanding seldom surpassed since Proust,” The Diary of Anais Nin: Volume Two, 1934-1939 is sure to delight.

Anais Nin on the Mystery of How Experience Becomes Fossilized in the Sediment of Memory

anais nin typewriterOscar Wilde once wrote “memory is the diary that we all carry about with us.”  Much like a diary— or, as Virginia Woolf affectionately called, a “blank-faced confidante”— memory is a record of our many guises, a monument to the ever-shifting fluidity of self.  And like a diary, memory is manufactured: we concoct the stories of our lives, magnifying certain plots while downplaying others.  But how is it that certain experiences become fossilized in the sediment of memory while others vanish into oblivion forever?

This question is what prolific diarist and courageous chronicler of the human spirit Anais Nin explores in The Diary of Anais Nin: Volume Two, 1934-1939, the masterpiece of literary memoir Swiss newspaper Tagblatt called a “daring advance into the psychology of female being.”  An artist of remarkable sensitivity and perceptive intellect, Nin writes with lavish love of life, her prose as poetic as it is precise.  In this entry from August 1935, Nin wonders at the enigma of the subconscious mind: why is it that we retain some memories over others?  what permanently stores a memory in our mental hard drives?  and how is it possible to recall an experience with overwhelming intensity many years after it occurred- despite the fact that we were asleep to it at the time?  Though definitive answers will always elude her, Nin muses:

“The mysterious theme of the flavor of events.  Some pale, weak, not lasting.  Others so vivid.  What causes the choice of memory?  What causes certain events to fade, others to gain luminousness and spice?  My posing for artists at sixteen was unreal, shadowy.  The writing about it sometimes brings it to life.  I taste it then.  My period as a debutante in Havana, no flavor.  Why does this flavor sometimes appear later, while living another episode, or while telling it to someone?  What revives it when it was not lived fully at the time?  During my talks with my father the full flavor of my childhood came to me.  The taste of everything came to me as we talked.  But not everything came back with the same vividness; many things which I described to my father I told without pleasure, without any taste in my mouth.  So it was not brought to life entirely by my desire to make it interesting for him.  Some portions of my life were lived as if under ether, and many others under a complete eclipse.  Some of them cleared up later, that is, the fog lifted, the events became clear, nearer, more intense, and remained as unearthed for good.  Why did some of them come to life, and others not?  Why did some remain flavorless, and others recover a new flavor or meaning?  Certain periods like the posing, which seemed very intense at the time, violent almost, have never had any taste since.  I know I wept, suffered, rebelled, was humiliated, and proud too.  Yet the story I presented to my father and to Henry about the posing was not devoid of color and incidents.  I myself did not feel it again as I told it.  It was as if it had happened to someone else, and the interest I took in its episodes was that of a writer who recognized good material.  It was not an unimportant phase of my life, it was my first contribution to the world.  It was the period I discovered I was not ugly, a very important discovery for a woman.  It was a dramatic period, beginning with the show put on for the painters, when I was dressed in a Watteau costume which suited me to perfection, and received applause and immediate engagements, ending with my becoming the star model of the Model’s Club, a subject for magazine covers, paintings, miniatures, statues, drawings, water colors.”  

“It cannot be said what is lived in a condition of unreality, in a dream, or a fog, disappears altogether from memory, because I remember a ride I took through Vallee de Chevreuse many years ago, when I was unhappy, ill, indifferent, in a dream.  A mood of blind remoteness and sadness and divorce from life.  This ride I took with my senses asleep, I repeated almost ten years later with my senses awakened, in good health, with clear eyes, and I was surprised to see that I had not only remembered the road, but every detail of this ride which I thought I had not seen or felt at all.  Even to the taste of the huge brioche we served at a famous inn.  It was as if I had been sleepwalking while another part of my body recorded and observed the presence of the sun, the whiteness of the road, the billows of heather fields, in spite of my inability to taste and feel at the time.”