From Pepys to Tweets: a history of the diary as an art form
Diaries keep secrets; they harbour fantasies and fictional histories. They are substitute boyfriends, girlfriends, husband and wives and sometimes children. But in the 21st century, diary writing is on the wane. The dignified space of the private diary has been replaced by a culture of public blurting.
The Private Life of the Diary: from Pepys to Tweets will trace the death of the diary as an ancient practice. Taking its lead from the great twentieth century diarist, Virginia Woolf, the book will work backwards towards her diary ancestor, Samuel Pepys. As a diarist, Woolf instils every aspect of the genre: from personal confessions about her irritation with her servants to reports on history passing: Armistice Day, November 1918 and then the solar eclipse, June 1927.
Diaries are a form of biography; they record lives as they are lived, moment to moment. They indulge our fondness for self-dramatisation and display. On November 13, 1949, seventeen year old Sylvia Plath begins a new diary and announces her diary-personae: The Girl Who Would be God. Her diary will hold down the projects and fantasies of her expansive-ego.
In the twenty-first century, self-disclosure is big business, as the recent best- selling on-line diary of prostitute Belle de Jour indicates. Since 1999 there has been an explosion of online weblog, radio and video diaries. Young people are the most frequent users of online diaries or blogs, a clear indication that diaries, both online and off, function as workshops for building identities. Who or What am I in relation to the world? This is the basic question of the juvenile diary, coupled with the realisation that you might need to go outside yourself to find an answer. The diary or journal offers a place for that question to be explored, and this book will trace the diarist’s journey towards knowing who they are.
My First Diary
When I was seven years old my mother sent me abroad, alone. I carried one small canvas bag containing a camera and a diary-notebook. My instructions were clear: ‘take as many pictures as you can and write down everything you see. Switzerland is a very beautiful country and you’ll see lots of important things. Don’t waste it on rubbish. If you run out of pages, buy another notebook. Don’t skimp and keep your handwriting nice.’ My mother’s tone was unequivocal. I was being sent to Switzerland as a reporter, a documentarian. My adventure, like my diary, was not my own. I was to bring all the big events, the sights and the sounds, back home and share them among those who were less fortunate than myself. As Pooh Bear might say, it would contain Very Important Things.
From the first, my diary was never private: it belonged to my mother, my aunt, my grandmother, my brothers and cousins. My diary was communal, already-shared, already owned; it was never my friend. I could tell it nothing awkward, embarrassing, shameful or pathetic. I could not be homesick or lonely or afraid or bored. My diary forced me to be brave and heroic; to muster more grown up than I could manage. It was asking me to be extraordinary.
As the aeroplane lurched out of Gatwick, I pulled the new diary from my bag. My aunt had chosen it, as she had chosen my pen-pal and my host. Its purple satin covered was intimidating, too special and occasional. What could I possibly experience that would deserve such a thing? How could I really write anything in it? I had to edit out anything that would ‘let me down’ as my mother would say. ‘Don’t let yourself down, Sally. Make an effort’. There was something wrong about this instruction. Surely a real diary doesn’t ask its keeper to make an effort? Isn’t the whole point of a diary that it does allow you to let yourself down; to let go of the coherent and intact story, the picture-postcard version of events? My seven-year-old self wanted to scribble in it; to draw pictures of the funny people on the plane; to cry over it when I felt homesick and lonely, as I often did over the next few weeks; to paste in all the chocolate wrappers from all the chocolate bars I was given by kind Swiss aunts and uncles; to draw rude pictures of people sounding too silly, too French. None of this was going to be satisfactory for the family album or the Show-and-Tell session at school.
Over the course of four weeks I tried to impress my diary. I saved up lots of big words and big sights and I wrote them down. I tried to make everything sound like an Asterix adventure. Everyday was filled with difficult and foreign things, but I managed all of them: the Gauls, the Britons, the Romans and the Swiss. I took them all on. I ate rabbit and duck and lots of smelly cheese. I spoke my well-rehearsed French phrases and wrote down new ones. I shook everyone’s hand. I made friends with a boy called Michel in the village fromagerie. I kissed him. I watched his parents chop cheese and sausages. I watched my hosts make raclettes and fondue and homemade pasta. I even tried reading Daisy Miller in French and I wrote that down (a lie; I read it in English). I recorded a few conversations and then checked my French spelling which took several nights with a dictionary and lots of crossing-out. Who was I trying to impress and was it really working? When I went to Berne I took lots of photographs of the bears but most of them were smudgy and misty. So I tried to draw the bears and describe them but I couldn’t draw and my Berol pen kept running out and I was too tired to ask for another one (in French). I became anxious. I had promised my mother I would write up everyday and this day of all days had been A Very Important Day. I mustn’t let it slip away. Today had been Berne, the Swiss Capital. Today had been The Berne Bears.
But what happened in between all this perfectly edifying experience? Where did the real experience go, the off-record moments when my diary-self was shut off and I was just a lonely little girl in a small Swiss village staying with a family she barely knew? I remember wandering around in a large garden full of knotted trees feeling like Mary Lennox from The Secret Garden. Where did all my secrets go? Where was the lonely and scared seven-year-old girl? The girl who knew how to ask for the loo and for directions to the bus station but could never say that she was too tired to stay up another hour and listen to boring adults talk about ‘Madame Peterman’ and her house at the top of hill.
The diary I brought home from Switzerland held none of the things I remember now: eating too much chocolate under the bedcovers at night; the terrible anxiety that I might die from eating a shot rabbit; the shame of being sick over a croissant after a long car journey up hill (mountains). And the crushing loneliness of being alone all the time with adults speaking French. There was nowhere to be myself, not even in my diary. Where was the diary I dreamed of, my best friend and confidante; the soft beautiful thing I slipped under my pillow at night?’
The Private Life of the Diary at the front of Waterstones
Monday, 4 July 2016
The Private Life of the Diary is prominently displayed in several bookshops. This week it is part of a front of house
display at Waterstones.
Thank you to John Mitchinson and Amy Winchester for championing the book in the public sphere!
Very best to you all
On display at Waterstones.
The Private Life of the Diary makes a summer reading list
Tuesday, 21 June 2016
Dear Subscribers and Supporters,
Lovely news today: The Private Life of the Diary has made a summer reading list; it is positioned nicely just across the margin-hallway from John Le Carré (with his accent on) who is playing at Night Manager.
So, as the headline suggests, we are sorted.
Thank you for all your kind support.
The Private Life of the Diary: One of Five Must Read Titles for Penguin's Platform
Thursday, 12 May 2016
A lovely piece of news:
The Private Life of the Diary has been selected as one of five Must Read Titles for Penguin for April. The promotional video is here:
with nearly 8,000 viewers, and as Amy Winchester of Unbound points out, most of the comments are on The Private Life!
Happy May to you all,
The Private Life of the Diary on the Radio
Tuesday, 10 May 2016
Thanks to Amy Winchester, my super-hero publicity agent, The Private Life of the Diary had air time on Radio 3's The Verb programme and then Radio 4's Woman's Hour.
Here are the links to those programmes. Thank you Amy!
The Verb: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b078xlfw
Woman's Hour: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b079m0gk
Book Launch Talk: A Teenage Elegy (For Talia)
Wednesday, 4 May 2016
Last night was The Private Life of the Diary launch at the wonderful story museum in Oxford. A few of you have asked me to post the talk; here it is.
A diary is an elegy for moments, hours, days, years spent. The years of my own life that I mourn the most are my teenage years; I was at my best during those years, the years of twelve…
The Private Life of the Diary . . . out and about
Sunday, 24 April 2016
Thanks to Unbound's wonderful publicist, Amy Winchester, The Private Life of the Diary was reviewed by The Times this Saturday and was the leading non-fiction title.
It is also a 'Recommended' non-fiction title with Waterstones, spied front of house at Waterstones, Oxford. I'm tweeting and Facebooking to make sure everyone knows that it is possible for an independent publishing…
The I-News: double page spread on The Private Life of the Diary this week
Wednesday, 20 April 2016
I hope by now you have received your copy of The Private Life of the Diary. Final deliveries are being made this week (if you have confirmed your delivery address).
The book has been receiving quite a bit of publicity (thanks to Amy Winchester, fabulous publicity agent at Unbound). Here is the piece included in Monday's 'I-News' on the book, including a still from the animation, …
The Book has Landed!
Wednesday, 30 March 2016
Dear Loyal Book Waiters,
Thank you so much for waiting for so long. The advance copies of Private Life of the Diary have finally landed. You will be receiving your special editions SOON, SOON, SOON!
Meanwhile, a major newspaper has requested an extract in the last few days: this is a good start. A huge thanks, for this, to the Goddess of Publicity, Amy Winchester, whose elegant thumb you see…
The Private Life of the Diary: Book Review in the Independent
Friday, 18 March 2016
Thank you for your kind support. My first review in The Independent, yesterday:
The book is in the shops April 21 but you will receive your copies at the end of March/early April.
With best wishes
The Book! Just weeks away . . .
Tuesday, 26 January 2016
The subtitle will be larger . . .
Why I Keep A Journal by Margaret Scarborough
Friday, 1 January 2016
A brave and poignant piece on journal keeping by writer Margaret Scarborough.
I wish you all a Happy New Year.
I keep a journal out of necessity. Perhaps that is not really the right sense. I keep one and I tend one badly, but it is still necessary. If it were a garden plot it would be full of weeds, rarely fecund, its rows crooked and its seedlings…
Tuesday, 3 November 2015
We are preparing the book cover for The Private Life of the Diary. Here it is. What do you think? There will be a subtitle too. That is in process. The subtilte and my name may be delivered by my handwriting or someone's handwriting. Mine looks like a bunch of spilled Licorice Allsorts.
I think the typography is very Bloomsbury and 1930s. I asked my friend who is a writer…
Literary Diaries Master class: Wednesday October 14th, The Idler Academy, 7pm
Wednesday, 30 September 2015
Happy Sunny September!
Just to let you know that I will be running a Master class on literary diaries on Wednesday October 14th at 7pm at The Idler Academy. Do think of coming . . . and tell your friends. You will have the opportunity to work and play with diary extracts from writers Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath.
See the link below for all the information. …
Sylvia Plath's late teen diaries
Tuesday, 1 September 2015
Two summers ago, during the Proms season, I was asked to speak on the radio about Sylvia Plath. It was the middle of June and I thought, 'I'm not doing another Plath and Death Routine, not on the radio, not with my dad tuning into the concert after.'
This month was my birthday, and in order to console myself from dark thoughts On Aging as a Woman I decided to read over some…
Thursday, 6 August 2015
Greetings! During the final edits for my book I'm experimenting with endings. My book now has a memoir-thread running through it. I tell the story of my own diary as a coming-of-age story, a story of survival.
This is one version of an ending.
With v. best wishes
Orkney, August 1985
My family was too large to go on holiday. Family holidays…
Sylvia Plath sculpture
Tuesday, 21 July 2015
Happy Summer! The Private Life of the Diary: from Pepys to Tweets is in the final editing stages!
Meanwhile, I have just completed an intenstive interdisciplinary summer course at the Rothermere American Institute, Oxford University. Some of the course included diaries and diary writing: (www.rai.ox.ac.uk/summerschool). One of the attending, students, artist Mikaela Liottoa…
Book Art Commission from Mikaela Liotta inspired by the Journal of Sylvia Plath
Saturday, 25 April 2015
A very happy spring to you! Thank you for your kind support of The Private Life of the Diary, which is now in the production stage. Please do continue to tell your friends and family about the book. Pledges are still available.
The book is scheduled for publication early 2016: the diary season!
Meanwhile, I'd like to share with you a special commission to compliment my book…
A Drawing Journal: continued
Sunday, 1 March 2015
'Your clear eye is the one absolutely beautiful thing,
I want to fill it with color and ducks,
The zoo of the new.' ('Child', Sylvia Plath)
Drawing by Rosie Tomey, aged 14.
The Private Life of the Diary: from Pepys to Tweets: A Review by Alice James
Sunday, 22 February 2015
‘The Mess and Maelstrom’; Form, Function and Fantasia in Sally Bayley’s The Private Life of the Diary by Sally Bayley
‘Nothing is real except the present, and already, I feel the weight of centuries smothering me. Some girl a hundred years ago once lived as I do. And she is dead. I am the present, but I know I, too, will pass. The high moment, the burning flash, come and are gone, continuous…
Dreaming Through Things : A Drawing Diary
Friday, 13 February 2015
Virginia Woolf turned to her diary between the interval of 4 and 6pm; in February those hours are the hours of twilight, when the light begins to fade and the outlines of things in the world shift and alter.
My friend Rosie has been keeping a drawing journal because she says it draws her closer to things as they are. But I wonder if drawing also draws us closer to things as they are not. If you…
Drawing Flowers, Fruit and Frowning: A Fourteen Year Old's Art Journal
Saturday, 7 February 2015
I always wanted to draw well. But I can't. Perhaps if I had spent more time practising I might have got there. Drawing, as John Ruskin reminds us in his lectures, is a fastidious process. You have to stare a long time at your subject, you have to know what those subjects might look like as pure objects, in place, without you looking. You have to carry what you draw around with you, keep it in your…
John Lennon's Diary
Thursday, 22 January 2015
Here is another extract from my book, The Private Life of the Diary: from Pepys to Tweets.
This is from the Introduction:
January 1 Wednesday, 1969
Got up – went to work – came home
Watched telly – went to bed.
January 2 Thursday, 1969
Happy New Year
Friday, 2 January 2015
Dear Unbounders, Happy New Year to you all. I hope this year brings you time to read, write and reflect.
I've started to keep a diary-notebook on my I-phone to note down passing thoughts, book titles, snatches of conversation I hear in public spaces, bits of dialogue I think might be useful, words that have been going around in my brain, words I'm not sure I know the meaning of (still!), phrases…
Christmas Day, 1660, according to Samuel Pepys
Thursday, 25 December 2014
25th December (1660). From the Diary of Samuel Pepys:
“In the morning very much pleased to see my house once more clear of workmen and to be clean, and indeed it is so, far better than it was that I do not repent of my trouble that I have been at.'
Merry Christmas Unbounders! Thank you very much for your support. I hope that you have cleared out all your workmen too!
All the best
Sylvia Plath's Diary Entry, November 13, 1949
Friday, 12 December 2014
Sylvia Plath, November 13, 1949
As of today – I have decided to keep a diary again – just a place where I can write my thoughts and opinions when I have a moment. Somehow I have to keep and hold the rapture of being 17 . . . I want, I think, to be omniscient… I think I would like to call myself “The girl who wanted to be God.”
Teenage Diary Writing Workshop
Friday, 12 December 2014
Hello Unbounders! I am looking to fund a teenage diary writing workshop; the idea is to go into state schools and offer a writing workshop using fictional and real diaries in order to encourage budding teenage writers to find a sense of voice and identity in the practice of diary writing. I think of Dodie Smith's stunning begining to 'I Capture The Castle': 'I write this sitting in the kitchen sink…
These people are helping to fund The Private Life of the Diary.