For much of 2017, a writer’s diary has been on my nightstand. I started with Alan Bennett’s Keeping On Keeping On, his diaries from 2005-2015; then Joan Didion’s South and West: From a Notebook, written in 1970 and 1976; and finally, David Sedaris’s Theft by Finding, covering a quarter of a century starting in 1977. The genre is not a staple for me. It was a coincidence that three writers I admire published such books within seven months of each other. That I consumed them in rapid succession attests to my previously unrealized appetite for information about their lives.
I am not alone in my interest. Maria Popov, creator of the popular cross-disciplinary blog Brain Pickings, admits to “an endless fascination with daily routines,” particularly those of writers. She returns to the topic regularly, even commissioning a visualization of the correlation between writers’ sleep habits and their literary productivity. Terry Newman wrote an entire book about how authors dress, Legendary Authors and the Clothes They Wore, thanks to which we now know that Samuel Beckett carried a Gucci hobo man bag (what else would one wear while waiting for Godot?). Then there’s the weekend newspaper staple, an author interview in which we learn who the author would most like to sit next to at a dinner party or what music they listen to when they write.
Part of the reason we love a book is that the writing makes us feel seen and understood. It’s no wonder this generates a sense of kinship with the author that makes readers want more. Discovering that you have something in common with an author you admire can be cheering. I don’t believe that sharing a taste for Nescafé with Patti Smith means I’m any more likely to write the next M Train, but, nonetheless, knowledge of our Nescafé bond provides a certain succor.
Didion’s, Bennett’s, and Sedaris’s diaries illuminated the authors and their subjects in ways I hadn’t anticipated. They have much in common, despite sharp differences in tone and style.
“We tell ourselves stories in order to live” begins one of Didion’s most oft-quoted passages. At 126 pages, her South and West is a waif compared to the doorstops that are Keeping On Keeping On and Theft by Finding, and yet it is the closest of the three books to having what Didion goes on to describe in that same passage as “the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images.”
It’s not entirely fair to compare the books, because South and West is not a diary of the same sort as Bennett or Sedaris’s. It is comprised of excerpts from notebooks Didion kept on two trips—one a road trip in June of 1970 to Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi, and another in 1976 to San Francisco to report on the Patty Hearst trial—both of which she intended to write about from the outset. The two excerpts, the first much longer than the second, are within reach of Didion’s familiar essay form, and yet they never reached this finished state.
In the preface to the second notebook, California Notes, Didion explains: “I thought the trial had some meaning for me—because I was from California. This didn’t turn out to be true.” But in the foreword to South and West, written the month after Trump was elected president, Nathaniel Rich asserts that the first of the excerpts, Notes on the South, has newfound meaning for America: “Now that we live in that future, her observations read like a warning unheeded.” The narrative of the 2016 election effectively finishes Didion’s unfinished notes about the South, fulfilling her prescient if contrarian sense of that region—rather than California—as America’s “future, the secret source of malevolent and benevolent energy, the psychic center.”
Some of the most memorable imagery in Notes on the South is of Didion visiting hotel swimming pools, and these evoke another narrative: John Cheever’s surreal short story, The Swimmer. While Neddy Merrill tried to make his way home by swimming across the pools of suburban Connecticut, Didion’s route took her via the pools at the Howard Johnson’s in Meridian, the Ramada Inn in Tuscaloosa, the Saint Francis Motel in Birmingham, and the Holiday Inn in Oxford where, submerged, she hears a radio broadcast news of the election in Britain that made Edward Heath prime minister. It is a throwaway observation—Didion seems more impressed by the underwater radio than the content of the broadcast—but a remarkable coincidence in the context that Rich has set for the book. Heath’s election came in an historic shock win for the Conservatives, one that, like Trump, confounded pollsters. Shortly after, Didion returned home from New Orleans on the “9:15 National flight to San Francisco.”
If South and West gains a fresh narrative from current events, Sedaris succeeds in Theft by Finding largely by sticking to the discipline of disparate images. His diary entries are often a few lines long, and the funniest of them center on a single description: a bowl of borscht while on an acid trip, a list of things he could paint on a cat. Occasionally there are glimpses of ideas that later appeared elsewhere. His entries for July 2002, for example, are dominated by observing and feeding the spiders in his house in La Bagotière, the presumed seed of a 2008 essay in The New Yorker, “April and Paris,” in which the April of the title is a spider. But like South and West, Theft by Finding is more satisfying as a series of meditations on place than a behind-the-scenes look at the “making of” other works. Sedaris, like Didion, writes unflinchingly about the South, specifically North Carolina, where he grew up and lived primarily until he moved to Chicago in his late twenties. Being black—as some of his co-workers on construction sites and, occasionally, verbal assaulters were—or gay doesn’t come across as much fun in 1980s Raleigh.
From Chicago, Sedaris moves to New York, Paris, and finally London, but some of the most compelling scenes occur in more prosaic settings, like his beloved IHOPs in Raleigh and Chicago where he goes most nights to drink coffee and read. A decade and considerable writing success later, Sedaris wrote about a McDonald’s on the outskirts of La Bagotière:
This being France, I know I’m supposed to sit in cafés with thimble-sized cups of espresso. I’m supposed to return day after day until the owner finally consents to shake my hand and ask how it’s going. But I couldn’t have been happier that I was at my ugly little McDonald’s. It was the coffee I wanted, with no fear that the waiter would ignore me. I paid immediately and didn’t have to beg for my check. Plus I got to watch a toddler whiz down a slide onto a carpet of cigarette butts. I’m thinking that I might make that McDonald’s my place.
It is a passage that reminds me of Didion thirty years earlier at the Howard Johnson’s in Meridian, reveling in the familiar comfort a chain can bring the weary traveler: “Sitting by the pool at six o’clock I felt the euphoria of Interstate America: I could be in San Bernardino, or Phoenix, or outside Indianapolis.”
While Sedaris offers snatches and Didion near-full-blown prose, Bennett is somewhere in the middle, the closest to a traditional diarist. In Keeping On Keeping On, his movements are more limited that Didion or Sedaris’s, sticking largely to his home in London—which moves a mile from Camden to Primrose Hill in 2007—and a cottage in Yorkshire, the county where he grew up. There are occasional trips abroad, including for the 2006 opening of The History Boys in New York, the play for which he is most famous in America. But he spends much of his time in England, which suits the image of him as an ambassador of that country in the ilk of Stephen Fry or Maggie Smith, who played Miss Shepherd in Bennett’s The Lady in the Van.
His diaries read as a memoir of his country. Visits to churches and tearooms and antique shops abound—staples of a version of Britain still popular in the world’s imagination—but it’s the incidentals en route that capture his, and our, attention. An anecdote about Daylesford Organic, a ludicrously luxury retail extravaganza in the heart of the rural Cotswolds, is classic Bennett: funny, forthright and a little bit raunchy.
15 March. To Rousham in the morning to look at the gardens then to Daylesford Organic Farm Shop for lunch… It’s a definite spread—shop, restaurant, a cloister cum herb garden, together with barns, farm buildings and, one presumes, living quarters for the many employees. It’s cheering to think that, if Nigel Slater is to be believed re residential catering establishments, the young people who largely staff the place will be screwing each other rotten. Not that there’s a hint of that front of house, which is chaste, cheerful, middle-aged, middle-class and above all well-off, the car park full of four-wheel drives… ‘Look, darling. Look what they’ve got,’ calls one loving middle-aged wife to her browsing husband and then to the assistant: ‘He’s a real cheese man.’
Odd how I could take such a place without question did I come across it in New York, say, or California. But here it’s so bound up with class and money and all one’s complicated feelings about England I hold back.
His encounter with Daylesford is the flipside of Sedaris’s with the provincial French McDonald’s and Didion’s with the chain motel in the South. That which brings us comfort, or even enchants us, while away from home looks very different in our own backyard. Setting is context, whether for lunch or an election.
Why do authors publish their diaries? In the case of Bennett and Didion, both in their eighties, legacy is a reasonable answer. Bennett is unabashed about it, keenly aware of his mortality, which explains why he includes a veritable archive of his work at the end of Keeping On Keeping On and has already left his papers to Oxford’s Bodleian Library.
Sedaris is younger—although not as young as I perceived him (I was startled to read an entry from 2001 about his forty-fifth birthday)—so legacy is less likely a motivation. Both he and Bennett write about how, in keeping a diary, it took them a while to lose their inhibitions and write honestly about who they were, including their sexuality and what they liked. Bennett has this wonderfully avuncular advice on the practice: “Nothing is ever quite so bad that one can’t write it down or so shameful either, though this took me a long time to learn with my earliest diaries reticent and even prudish.”
Is it too sentimental, then, to suggest that all three of these writers published these works to encourage us readers to lose our inhibitions faster, to observe life closely, to be more honest about who we are as people and nations? If so, self-help has never been packaged more seductively. It’s time, I think, to take a crack at keeping a diary of my own.
Jennifer Richardson is the author of a travel memoir, Americashire: A Field Guide to a Marriage. Her writing has appeared in publications including The Rumpus, Full Grown People, and Edible Ojai & Ventura County, and is forthcoming in the anthology A Cup of Culture and a Pinch of Crisis.