Wednesday, June 07, 2006

The Intended Audience for Diaries and Blogs

Dorothy W. at Of Books and Bicycles has been reading Virginia Woolf’s diaries and, following from them, contemplating parallels and distinctions between diaries and blogs. In her latest post on this topic, she addresses the matter of audience. I began drafting a comment in response and found it quickly expanded into a post of my own.

In my diaries, or journals (that term seems to me to more accurately reflect what they have become), I write exclusively for myself. However, this has not always been the case. I’ve kept a journal on and off since I was ten-years-old and in the very first one there’s a preface addressed to the future reader. Who did I imagine this future reader to be? All those who would be interested in my childhood later when I became a famous writer, of course. Delusions of grandeur! This preface was viciously crossed out and annotated with contemptuous margin notes by my twelve-year-old self.

By then I had reconceived my diary as a private space in which to impart secrets. Yet I still wasn’t writing wholly for myself. You see, I didn’t just embellish my experiences in my adolescent diaries, I made things up. In her comment on Dorothy’s post, litlove wrote of sanitizing her diary in case her mother should read it. If my mother had read my diary, I would have been in serious trouble for things that I hadn’t actually done. Who was I trying to deceive? To my knowledge the only person who ever read those diaries was my summer camp nemesis who did so on the sly. She believed my fictions and tarnished my reputation accordingly. She was definitely not my intended audience, though I did address a few diary entries expressly to her thereafter. I suppose it’s possible that it was just for me, that in my diary I was trying on a tough girl persona that I aspired to at the time. It used to make me squirm to reread those entries but it’s occurred to me since that in fictionalizing myself in that way I was beginning to learn how to write stories. Certainly those diaries are an invaluable resource to me now when I try to tap into the thoughts and emotions of teenage characters in my fiction.

In my late teens I stopped striving for coherent narrative and my diaries became journals. They contain bits of description, philosophical ramblings, quotations that interest or inspire me, lists of books read or to be read, snippets of conversations overheard, broad plot outlines and beginnings of first drafts of stories. This is still the sort of journal that I keep when I keep a journal and there’s no question in my mind that it’s for me alone. It’s a place to work things through and try things out. Something may start in the journal that I later transform into something for public consumption, but the journal itself is just raw material, for my eyes only.

My blog is a different story. From the beginning it was intended for an audience although initially I didn’t realize how broad an audience that could be. I thought that a blog would be a great way to share book recommendations with a few friends. I was amazed and delighted when I belatedly discovered the extent of the litblog universe—so many quality blogs to read and so many avid readers with whom to discuss books and writing. My blog still serves as the forum for book reviews that I originally envisioned, but now the reviews are interspersed with posts that are essentially thoughts-in-progress which I hope will elicit, and I know will benefit from, input from others, and also posts like this one which are responses to other blogger’s posts, my contribution to the ongoing conversation.

There’s plenty of overlap between journals and blogs, but for me there’s no question that the intended audience for each is quite different.


Dorothy W. said...

Great post Kate! I love the description of the various forms of diaries/journals you have kept. I like the idea of the journal you describe that isn't a diary, exactly, but a collection of ideas, quotations, and thoughts. If I kept a journal, that's what I'd do!

litlove said...

I have to say I wish I'd thought of writing things I hadn't done in my diary - it might have served my mother right if she'd read them! I do agree with your distinction between the journal and the blog. I keep a notebook by my bed that I write in if the ME is getting me down and I would never dream of letting anyone see that or incorporate it into any form of public writing. Some things, and particularly raw things, are best left strictly private.

Stefanie said...

OMG! I have that very same red Japanese fabric covered diary! It is one of my favorites out of all my various notebooks.

Kate S. said...


That's quite a coincidence! The entries in that one span from May 1980 to December 1984. Though I seem to have stopped and started again, filling two other notebooks in the middle.

Stefanie said...

The entries in mine go from January 1982-May of 1984. I wrote really small and usually only one or two pages and for some reason included a lot of baseball scores which is funny because I do not now consider myself a baseball fan :)

danielle said...

Hi Kate, Your posrt reminded me a little of the movie Harriet the Spy when you said your nemesis read your diary. I was never very good at keeping them. I did manage to start one, but it was so personal that I was afraid of anyone ever reading it,that the cringe factor made me rip out the written sheets. I do wish I now would keep a sort of journal where I just write things down that I have read or seen--not really personal, but things that are important to me. As always it is a matter of finding the time and inclination.

Half Wit Theocrat said...

This is a wonderful post! As a psychologist, there is so much grist for the analytic mill ... just kidding.

When I started keeping a journal, I considered, quite narcissistically, for the sake of posterity. But, I have come realize that there is someone more important for it - my daughter and son. Though they are only 3 years old, and 4 months old, respectively, perhaps one day they will look through the journal and see what their father was thinking and rambling about. With this in mind, my journal takes on a very different tone than when I was writing for "posterity" or even myself.

I have also started using books as a kind of journal. In The Well Read Life, founder Steve Leeven makes the point that one day our children will look through our library and may be pleased by what they find there - not just the books we have collected, but also the personal marginalia we have added. So, now I mark up my books - I scribble in the margins and I underline passages and quotables.

Writing, whether in a journal or in the margins, has for me become a way of talking to my kids long after I am gone.

Julie said...

Wow! If I'd thought of making stuff up I might have managed to fill up the book! As it was, though, I could never keep a diary because I couldn't decide who I was writing to. If on one day I felt in the mood to write to my future biographer, the things I'd previously written in a my-eyes-only mood were repugnant, and vice versa.

I first started blogging simply because I felt so rusty and inarticulate after almost a decade of being home with the kids. To my surprise and joy, I actually do have an audience and blogging feels as natural to me as breathing. Still don't keep a journal though.

Cam said...

Interesting post, Kate. I think you've hit on a fundamental distinction: diary/journal - private, with a diary being more confessional perhaps than a journal; blog - with an intended public audience. However, there are a lot of blogs out there that are very confessional, although I think some of them are very intentional in portraying a specific public persona (for instance someone looking for social contacts on MySpace might only 'confess' their wild night at the club, not their mild night sitting at home watching tv).

I found an old notebook from college(20+ yrs) a few years ago. I would have been horrified if someone else had read it; I cringed at some of the things I wrote (was I really that naive?) Yet, in some ways it was like visiting an old friend -- the young girl I was trying to figure out school, career, and relationships. This was definitely a diary, although I'm sure I called it a journal.

A notebook from a few years later contained books to read, lists as I made wedding plans, some astute political cartoons (I didn't recall that I knew who Al Gore was at that time, pre-Clinton era, but I had drawn a spot-on caricature in my notebook). Wouldn't label this anything other than a journal.

As for blog writing, I've been blogging since January. At first I had a difficult time finding a 'voice', because I didn't want it to be confessional. After all, who wants to hear me moan about my job, traffic, what I had for lunch, how I've lost or gained x pounds? As I've become acquainted with some of my readers through their blogs, I think my writing has relaxed some, become less formalized. Still not 'confessional', and it will never be a diary (oh someone just shoot me if it does, please!), but still very different from a journal.