I like to write. I write about things I encounter and notice. I write about everyday occurrences. I write about feelings. I write to help me make a decision, weighing up pros and cons. I write letters and cards and lists. I write journal upon journal (longhand) of ‘blah, blah, blah.’ They are full of the dullest stuff that anyone could care (or not care) to read. And the thought of ever reading back through them would be more tiresome to me than trainspotting. ‘The direst diarist’, I call myself, as I scribble in cafés.
My friend, whose first name initial cannot be divulged, has elicited a solemn promise from me. Were anything ever to happen to her (e.g. struck by lightning), I am, somehow, to find my way to her house, then to her bedroom, then under her bed, then to a box under the bed, then to a purple notebook inside the box, and I am to secrete that purple notebook on my person, smuggle it from the house of mourning, and burn it, unopened. We laugh. She means it, though, and she has no doubt that I am the woman for the job. Granted, I hope I don’t ever have to, but as she tells me, “the covert operation will take your mind off feeling sad!” I understand what lies behind her instructions. Journals have secrets. And if they are not full-blown confessionals, then they are things that you really don’t want others to read. The pragmatists amongst you might ask: So why write it down in the first place? Why not just keep it in your head? I think we write to assuage the madness, to comb out the knots, to corral the wild horses. Basically, writing just makes one (or at least me) feel a bit better!
When pushed to the edge, people have written: Anne Frank, in hiding from the fascists; Captain Robert Scott, as he made his way to the South Pole; President Harry S. Truman, when he thought an atomic bomb was going to end the world; Jack Kerouac, an angry young man railing against the world order; Virginia Woolf, writing through, and about, her depressions. I thought that Brain Keenan’s book ‘An Evil Cradling’, about his four and a half years as a hostage in Lebanon, was written on the basis of diaries. How wrong could I be? Every captivity is brutal, Keenan’s was exceptionally savage; of course he did not have the means to write. It has been a long time since I’ve read his book, I must return to it. His battle to remain sane and stay hopeful must have been all the more torturous without recourse to writing, especially for one who writes. I’ve found an old article online in which he says: “I was surprised myself, how much of the horror, the humour, the filthy cells and the mindless violence I carried in the visual diary in my head.”
As I was drifting off to sleep last night I listened to a little snippet on the radio about the diaries of POWs during World War Two. Many of these men were held captive for up to seven years. Mostly they wouldn’t talk about it when they got home. But their stories didn’t go to their graves, because – unlike Keenan – they were able to keep diaries. Diaries that probably saved their lives: keeping them hoping and dreaming and imagining and rationalising. Many have now been examined and studied upon their deaths. The radio programme read some of diary passages. They were poignant, distressing, emotional, and incredibly stoic. Besides writing about their immediate circumstance, these men also documented their dreams and imaginings. One excerpt recounted a prisoner imagining travelling home by magic carpet and spending one day with his family. He describes each family member; how their looks have changed with the passage of his years spent in captivity. He imagines his baby son, now walking and running and talking, looking at him askew as the child figures out who this unfamiliar man is. That diary was his lifeline.
There are many days when I don’t feel like writing. Usually I just dig in anyway, and I never regret it. I’ll leave you with the last three lines of the poem ‘Digging’, by Seamus Heaney.
“Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.”