There is first the craft of being and seeing,
and then the craft of writing from that attention.
The Work and days web project is a way
of publishing a lifetime's collection of journals. They began when I was
twelve. The first entry was a complaint about my father. Two volumes have
been lost. The first was in a bag stolen from a cellar in Paris when I was
twenty-one, the second forgotten on a phone kiosk in LAX between flights
when I was fifty-four. I have all the rest, and so they span forty-some
years nearly unbroken.
I am wondering whether these journals have been
the real work of my life. I hesitate to say so, but the evidence is that
writing them is what I have been most loyal to. There have been long stretches
when I've done nothing else. I have had to write in a journal. I don't know
how anyone can live hand-to-mouth without that perfectly intimate support.
Like many people, I have used them to sort myself
when I was confused or in pain, to store happiness I didn't trust to last,
to make reading notes, and to think my way through questions in work, but
they have always also been something more impersonal. I've been aware that
I was studying and recording something shared by anyone, a finite life and
its sense of being; and I've wanted to be clear and accurate for the sake
of that shared study.
They aren't secret journals. I have always wanted
someone to want to read them. At the same time I have tried to write them
as if no one were looking, because losing the naturalness of the private
voice would have been losing my ability to be.
The naturalness of the journal's voice - voices
- is partly learned. I discovered there were such things as journals in
LM Montgomery's Emily of New Moon when I was ten. Emily also
taught me a use of personal writing to sustain a loving self that wasn't
supported in the family or community. In my twenties there was Doris Lessing's
The golden notebook, which showed me how to think in a sharp, sustained
way about sex, friendship and politics. In my thirties I kept rereading
Dorothy Richardson's Pilgrimage for its breath-taking closeness as
a phenomenology of being. I had been put off by Woolf, maybe by her brittleness,
probably by her confessions of anxiety and envy, but in my forties I leapt
into her diaries with delight in any particle of her virtuosity in malice,
envy and every other bad thing. I have also adored Coleridge's notebooks
- the physical observation, the anguish, the philosophical pondering, and
these things being muddled together in whatever way they came.
My long dilemma has been that the journals have
seemed unpublishable. Since they are the center of my writing work, and
since work that hasn't been given is in a way work that has never been done,
that conclusion has been a misery.
The journals have seemed unpublishable because
they are too long, because they are about too many kinds of things in too
many kinds of voice, because they talk about living people in too candid
a way, because the person revealed in them is too nonpleasant, and because
I am not well-positioned enough to make them interesting to a large audience.
Web self-publishing solves these difficulties.
Their length doesn't matter because they can be posted in bulk but read
in sips. Stories, voices and topics can be internally linked as separate
paths through a large matrix. No publisher has to take care not to be sued.
There is no need to recover costs and so the fewness of readers matters
I do have misgivings about talking about myself
in public for so many thousands of pages. I understand, though, that wherever
those pages are well written, readers will in some sense be reading about
themselves rather than about me.
I also have misgivings about posting stories
about other people, since doing so can betray what was private when it happened.
This is an unsolvable problem. Writers fictionalize to avoid this betrayal,
and when they do I am frustrated and irritated by the inaccuracy and blur
that result. I try to read between the lines to what actually happened,
and to whom. I am grateful to writers who don't fictionalize, or who only
pretend to, because what they say is more reliable. I want that reliability
from others, and also want to give it.
The best stories in these journals are stories
about loves and friendships, and it's not possible to tell those stories
without telling stories about the friend. Leaving out what might embarrass
people with more sense of privacy than I have or leaving out unflattering
descriptions would falsify the friendship and spoil the story. So I am not
leaving these things out, but I am trying otherwise to be careful. I am
not changing my friends' names, because their names are central to who they
are and cannot be faked. Anyone who knows me will know who they are in any
case. But I am not giving their last names, so stories about them cannot
come up in a web search by outsiders. Though parts of the story do not flatter,
others show how wonderful these friends particularly are. Hopefully the
story of the friend can float over bad and good times the way the friendship
itself does. I try to make sure I don't say worse things about my friends
than I do about myself. If they show me I've said anything about them that
isn't true, I will remove it.
There are a few exceptions to this rule of reliability.
I have given my children a veto on any passage in which I describe them,
and will sometimes change names where I say unflattering things about people
who aren't close to me, since in those instances there is no overriding
affection. Where my friends have a professional web presence that could
be damaged by my disclosures I leave out last names. Outright elisions are
noted in square brackets.
The project's over-all title is Work and
days. Hesiod's The works and days was written in Boeotia in central
Greece in a dialect similar to the Homeric, probably at the end of the 8th
or beginning of the 7th century BCE. It has been described as the first
work in Greek literature to offer us a glimpse into the life of the common
people, and especially of the farmers. Hesiod and I both had fathers who
were farmers and both made our way into more cosmopolitan communities. He
was born a pagan and I became one. His book describes qualities of weather
and season, and is interested in practical skills. Apart from those points,
the parallel is not strong. I liked his title and took a version of it.