The first three books that came to mind will (I hope!) offer meta-inspiration for your own self-reflective projects. In “The Hidden Writer,” Alexandra Johnson considers, with uncommon sensitivity and immersive storytelling, the ways in which the work of seven diarists — including the celebrated early-19th-century 7-year-old Scottish prodigy (and poor speller) Marjory Fleming; Henry and William James’s famous, sharp sister, Alice; and the expatriate New Zealander and modernist writer Katherine Mansfield — functions as “the first draft of creative identity.” The sections are artfully composed to track the developmental arc of a writer’s life, but it’s the diarists’ own words that make the book sing.
“A Book of One’s Own,” Thomas Mallon’s survey of the form, likewise includes the work of famous writers, among them Virginia Woolf and Anaïs Nin, but it also contains anonymous ones. A sampling from each promises to send you into the stacks, seeking out those whose voices call to you.
The title of Yiyun Li’s memoir-in-essays, “Dear Friend, From My Life I Write to You in Your Life,” may be borrowed from one of Mansfield’s journal entries, but her book takes a distinctly inward turn. In her moving and emotionally lucid account of the hospitalizations that followed her suicide attempts, she looks to literature to tether herself to life and to keep her company during her darkest hours.
By contrast, my next suggestion falls squarely within the confines of traditional journals. “The Diaries of Dawn Powell: 1931-1965,” edited by her biographer, Tim Page, is as witty and sardonic as Powell’s satirical novels. It is also filled with gossipy details about her literary friends in New York (Dorothy Parker, John Dos Passos, Edmund Wilson among them), mundane details of her daily life, notes for fiction and tender, heartbreaking entries about her disabled son, Jojo.
This Be the Verse
Your affection for Charles Simic’s epigrammatic gems put me in mind of the uncategorizable work of a clutch of poets and an essayist-novelist whose distillations of experience and philosophical style match the tone and structure of diary entries, even if their work does not strictly adhere to the genre.
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