Clare Sestanovich on Keeping a Diary

In “Different People,” your story in this week’s issue of the magazine, twelve-year-old Gilly begins to keep a journal. Her life seems uneventful to her, so she makes up stories about the conflict between her parents, who have a very peaceful relationship. Apparently, she does this because she has encountered the first problem that anyone who keeps a journal faces: who is the journal’s audience? Do you keep a journal, and if so, who is its audience?

I’ve tried journaling at various times in my life because it seems like something writers should do, or at least be able to do. But I really can’t! The expectation of immediate is unsustainable. Perhaps this is the case for most people, to a greater or lesser extent, and the first step to successful journaling is to find a form of mediation that works for you. When I was about Gilly’s age, my preferred form was affectation. The first page of a diary I kept as a thirteen-year-old reads: “However, I am completely and utterly exhausted, but for the sake of my grandchildren, who for whatever reason might be interested in these reports, I will begin a fascinating (I hope?) story about” —well, I’ll leave you in suspense.

At its most generous, affectation is an attempt at what might be called style. As a character in one of Elizabeth Bowen’s novels about diarists says: “Style is a thing that is always somewhat false, but at the same time you cannot write without style. . . . a diary is, after all, written to please myself—so it must be written a great deal.” (In other words, all this teenage history of mine was not for my hypothetical grandchildren; it was for me.) “Different people” are interested in what Bowen describes as phoniness: Gilly takes the cover-up style to the next level—downright deception. This makes her journal sound like a complete hoax, but I’m not sure it’s that simple. If style is something you “can’t write without,” something fundamental and inseparable, does it perhaps also express your truest voice?

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Like in a wicked fairy tale, Gilly basically conjures up disaster. Her parents, who actually avoid conflict to the extreme, eventually decide to divorce. Obviously, in fiction and life, it’s hard to blame a divorce on a child. But is there any way that Gilly is the point of contention that is driving her parents, Peter and Lisa, apart?

Your question about the diary audience makes me wonder about the marriage audience. In both cases, a narrative is at stake—made up of intensely private experiences, but deeply shaped by public convention and perception. Much of this story is about audience experience: Gilly is almost certainly the closest observer of her parents’ relationship. But as a result, the story is also about the experience of observation. It’s not always pleasant, is it? There are some things we can avoid seeing about ourselves until we see someone else see them. If Peter and Lisa seem to be vying for Gilly’s loyalty in their very different ways, they may also be responding to her careful observation. After all, it is the critic in the first place who scribbles in the notebook, the one who reminds us of what we might otherwise forget: it’s all just a show.

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After the divorce, the narrator tells us that Lisa changes—she becomes a different person—while Peter remains the same. Gilly seems to be looking for stability, but is more attracted to Lisa’s evolution, especially the man she thinks may be courting her mother. What, besides danger, draws Gilly here?

One of the classics, I think: unknown! According to Gilly, among the biggest “injustices of childhood” is that her parents have known her all her life, but she has only witnessed a fraction of theirs. Unfair, destabilizing, but – quite intriguing! If we’re all simultaneously attracted to and repelled by what we don’t (and can’t) know about other people, it may be because of the way it mirrors what we don’t and can’t know about ourselves.

Writing about children and teenagers from their position is fraught with danger. Which one are you most wary of? Do you find yourself writing defensively when you take the perspective of a young person?

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An early version of this story also featured an adult Gilly. This didn’t work at all, partly because it turned Gilly the kid into a sort of prequel, and the story itself into a game of connect the dots: how did this girl become that woman? this it is an interesting question, but it can be a bit annoying when asked by adults. Now that you bring it up, I wonder if this is a defensive issue. This makes the child pure potential – someone who will become someone else. It allows us to lose ourselves in the puzzle of deconstructing identity, reverse engineering destiny. . . the sort of thing that Gilly’s mother, a philosopher with a penchant for the incomprehensible, could talk about for days. But what does the potential feel like? Does he feel good— wondering who you will become, how and why? If the hints that these questions are at the heart of this story make Gilly sound premature—another unfortunate fate of many children in fiction—well, it is and it isn’t. In the end, her problem seems endless to me: she has no answer. ♦

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