I started my first real diary on New Year's Day 1974, when I was in fifth grade. As a belated Christmas gift, my dad bought me a blank diary (blue cover with My Diary One Year on the cover, and a lock. The lock was as impenetrable as Fort Knox unless you had a bobby pin.) He bought me the diary at Sugden's Book Store in downtown Marietta, and for the entire week between Christmas and New Year's, I was itching to start writing in it.
I made my first entry New Year's afternoon, as we were driving back from Richmond, Va. to Marietta. We had gone there on December 28 to be with my aunt (my mother's older sister) Jean and her family while her husband Roger was in the cardiac care unit of a Richmond hospital, undergoing treatment for the congestive heart failure that would take his life the following spring.
That diary, along with all the ones from 1974 to 1989, is long gone, since I stored them in a storage locker and never maintained the payments. I distinctly remember writing the first entry with a dull pencil, even including a dateline ("Somewhere in Virginia," which sounds like a Union Army dispatch to the War Department during the Civil War), writing about Uncle Roger's return to Intensive Care, watching the ball drop at Times Square on the television, and how hard it was to find a gas station that was open.
I was hooked from then on. My friends (particularly my male ones) thought it weird, but it was just another proof that I was completely nuts and 100% different from them. (When I had friends staying over, or if I spent the night with them, they were respectful when I would get out the diary and a pen and go off by myself just long enough to fill a page.) I even defended it with words I echoed from my dad: "You like to watch Star Trek, don't you? Well, when Captain Kirk does his captain's log, that's his diary. Besides [I added, doubly righteously], the most famous diary in the world was kept by a man!" It did take me a long time to get over the picture of the girl lying on her stomach writing when I heard the word "diary," however.
I haven't maintained a perfect day-to-day record, even in the many volumes that were lost. I have gone days, weeks, and months between entries. Overall, I am a pretty conscientious diarist. I have used a variety of books as diaries. Growing up, every Christmas I received a new one-year book (never another one with a lock), but when I was 16, I began to use blank books that were not predated, so I wouldn't be confined to a page per day. I varied in book types then, too, ranging from big red legal ledgers to spiral notebooks.
For most of my 20s, I used bonded leather blank books (usually the Anything Book brand), with the occasional stenographer's notebook or appointment diary thrown in for variety, plus whatever books I received as Christmas or birthday gifts--when in doubt, get Paul a journal, was the wisdom.
From about age 35 on, I have--with some exceptions--written in simple composition books, inspired mainly by movies such as Se7en, Joe Gould's Secret, and Henry Fool, where major characters make liberal use of composition books. They're cheap (often about $1 at places like Family Dollar) and much more durable than many of the more expensive variety. That is the type of book I am now using. (The current 200-page Mead composition book is 70% full, and its successor sits in my desk drawer right now.) I have received expensively bound blank books with parchment pages, but they're so beautiful you almost feel guilty marking the page. Plus, I have good penmanship, but I can't write without lines--the words go downhill almost immediately if I write on an unruled page.)
Steph vowed several years ago she had stopped reading my diaries. There was no higher principle involved--the matters of trust and secrecy. She had read them when she thought I may have had something to hide, or if there was something on my mind that I wasn't sharing, but she quit for a much more practical reason.
"Your diary is boring!" she said. She read page after page of my rehashing of a union meeting and its aftermath, where I would write something like:
John seems to think that this policy will help with the mandatory overtime, and he thinks that they should be adding five more people per shift per area. I told him that he'd be playing right into Management's hands if he did that, because they'll be accusing the union (and I'm not sure they'd be wrong) of deliberate featherbedding, which will bite us in the ass come contract time.Steph's remark that my diary was/is boring may well be true, but at the time neither of us knew much about the Reverend Robert Shields (1918-2007), a retired United Church of Christ minister in Washington State who kept a very detailed diary of literally everything that happened to him from 1972 until a 1997 stroke made the job impossible. I first heard of him in a "News of the Weird" column in 1996:
According to a Seattle Times feature in March, Robert Shields, 77, of Dayton, Wash., is the author of perhaps the longest personal diary in history--nearly 38 million words on paper stored in 81 cardboard boxes--covering his last 24 years in five-minute increments. Example: July 25, 1993, 7 a.m.: "I cleaned out the tub and scraped my feet with my fingernails to remove layers of dead skin." 7:05 a.m.: "Passed a large, firm stool, and a pint of urine. Used 5 sheets of paper."I thought this had to be a joke or hoax, until shortly after Shields' death, when excerpts from this mammoth diary were published on National Public Radio's Website:
One of the more exciting pages I could find in
Rev. Shields' magnum opus. Click on the
image to read the entries more easily.
This entry was written on my 31st birthday.
I bought a small white one-year diary at a junk store years ago for about a quarter, and used it for appointments, etc. until it disappeared with the coat where I carried it. Most of the pages were blank, so I was able to fill in appointments under the appropriate preprinted dates. There were a few penciled entries, such as "Me and Donnie told jokes at class today walked home there's a good chiller movie on TV tonight."
During my white-tornado blitz cleaning of the office the past few days, I christened the finished project with pictures from my new Kodak digital camera (see last entry). One of the shots I made was of my own diaries. This isn't even complete, since some of the volumes are locked in my desk at work:
These are more or less in chronological order.
The current volume stays with me, so I can
write in it whenever the urge strikes me.
Just before Steph went to The Cleveland Clinic for her heart surgery, she made out a last will and testament. I realize now I should have done the same thing, both as a gesture of solidarity and as a practical matter. (I should have made one out when I got married, and again when Susie was born.) I have no vast financial holdings--my net worth can be calculated by what's in my wallet when I die, plus how many pennies are in the jar in my office, so I don't have that many assets to distribute. If I died intestate (as I am now), Steph and Susie would automatically inherit everything. However, I do plan to bequeath my diaries to either Alden Library at Ohio University or the Ohioana Library here in Columbus--can't decide which.
Whichever place finally gets the honor, I do have daydreams of the day they arrive, when the librarians march all my diaries around the facility in procession and people touch their garments to them.
Steph puts up no objection to my diaries ending up in a library vault somewhere--they didn't interest her when I am alive, after all. In this, she was probably a lot like Evelyn Yates Inman, whose husband Arthur, a reclusive and hypochondriac poet, kept a 155-volume diary. Arthur Crew Inman kept his record while living off inherited money in a Boston hotel, living as an invalid because of a long list of imaginary ailments. He began the record in 1919 and ended it in December 1963, when he took his own life. Professor Daniel Aaron of Harvard University began editing the 155 volumes and 17 million+ words in the 1980s, while I was working for The Crimson, and Harvard University Press published a very abridged version in 1985. A movie, Hypergraphia, about Inman's life, is currently in production. This Website for Hypergraphia is the place to go for the background and news on the film.
I discovered this Website 100% by accident last month. It's one that makes me feel like I'm a little less alone in my fascination with notebooks, diaries, etc. The title is Notebook Stories, and I feel like I have a personal kinship with everyone who posted there. I used to think I was the only one who would go back into my burning house to rescue diaries and notebooks (once my daughter and wife were safely outside).
And while I'm on here:
I slept until almost noon, then I got up, took a shower, and dressed. My friend Jacques took me to lunch at Cazuela's Grill at N. High St. and W. Northwood Ave. (Normally, he'd be in Mineral at the Feed My Sheep food pantry, but the pantry is closed today for Memorial Day.) He drove me back home, I loaned him two or three issues of The Catholic Worker (poor is having to buy a Catholic Worker subscription on layaway). I took Susie to our friend's apartment so she could feed and water the cats, then she and I came back home. She may go swimming later, once we're 100% sure the cloudbursts are finished for the day. (It's in the low 80s right now, and the pollen count is in the stratosphere.)
And then I came home and wrote this entry.