“One must keep ever present a sense of humour. It depends entirely on yourself how much you see or hear or understand. But the sense of humour I have found of use in every single occasion of my life. Now perhaps you understand what the word “indifferent” means. It is to learn not to mind, and not to show your mind.”
The New Zealand writer Katherine Mansfield (1888-1923) made this reflection on a page of her diary while she was in a sanatorium due to tuberculosis. It was not a happy time in her life, yet these few lines reveal a lively and strong spirit.
It seems as if we have knocked on the door of an unknown person who opened it, sat us down, introduced herself and began to tell us about her life. And the great thing is that it only took a few words to get an idea of the personality of the writer.
This is the magic of the diary, the only true witness (often much more patient than any living being could ever be!) of our lives, experiences and emotions.
This is why it is the only kind of paper notebook that can be purchased with a padlock. it is on sale in different sizes, too big is not recommended because it has to be carried around everywhere and the weight could make it difficult to write down everything that comes into our heads! For a lot of us, the diary starts with the first tests of writing as a child and goes on until you feel like fixing on paper at least one thought a day.
ACTIVITY – Do you write a diary? If so, how many times a month? If not, tell why you aren’t interested in this activity.
Many famous writers have published their travel diaries, or their reflections on particular historical periods (think of all the war diaries that gave a closer understanding of what hell it must have been like to live under bombs or to have to be a trench soldier).
Some writers have also entrusted their diaries with rather polemical considerations about colleagues and these have often been published, generating quarrels and disputes that have lasted for years. A famous case is that between Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner, who accused each other of writing with terms that were too easy or too difficult, and the pages where they entrusted their thoughts are still alive in the memory of literary critics and their respective fans. If you want to travel the South Seas, just sit back and immerse yourself in Stevenson‘s diaries, which are so personal that you really feel like you are on a journey.
The great thing about the diary is that it is the most democratic tool imaginable, the least standard and the one that does not have any rules, except… filling it in every now and then. Some people feel the need every day to recount their days and what occupied them. Others prefer to open the pages every now and then, leave a testimony until the next time. Still others do not write anything at all but draw their words, or record them and make an oral account.
In Italy there is even a famous museum dedicated to the diary, where you can consult pages written centuries ago, some in neatly bound notebooks, others scribbled on the back of a postcard or shopping list.
ACTIVITY – Take down some notes on a copybook or on a tablet for a few days (at least three) and don’t look at them for two months. Put a calendar notification on your smartphone so you save the date. After this period, take your notes, read them and say what your feelings are about finding a memory of your life.
Doesn’t this messy world of private words on paper mean anything to you? It is a perfect reflection of people’s lives, which are not at all orderly, but instead are a motley collection of experiences, unexpected events. Many can seem very quiet lives where apparently nothing happens and yet in the pages of the diaries there is a very lively secret life full of curiosity and thoughts that could be a comfort or a stimulus for the lives of who knows how many other people.
Why is it that even though we write our own diary, we also like to read literary diaries, or those of historians or artists? Precisely because it is a silent way of communicating our lives with strangers who lived who knows when and who may appear to us to have led perfect and successful lives, but we discover that they are just like us. They tell us about complicated, sometimes painful lives, made up of many falls before a success or, even worse, falls after a success, which are the most difficult to bear.
And yet here they are, human beings and even more human in their descriptions of their own frailties, their own attempts to understand the meaning of life or to make sense of existence in particularly sad moments, like Katherine Mansfield, who would die shortly after writing that page but who gave herself courage by appealing to humour.
It would not be a bad idea to copy that sentence in our diary and go and have a look at it every now and then, thinking that if someone in another time, in another context and under conditions of suffering thought that laughing and smiling could be a way of coping with life, they have left us a good message.
Then, because the diary is democratic, we will add all our reflections on how we understand sadness and happiness and all our emotions. And we will feel that we are part of a community that is much bigger and more like us than we thought and has a long memory. And as Oscar Wilde, who knew a lot about writing and experience, said “Memory… is the diary that we all carry about with us”.
With or without a padlock.
TO GO FURTHER
Group work. In a group of three or four classmates, browse the Black Cat Catalogue (you can find it here: https://www.blackcat-cideb.com/en/catalogue/english/) and choose a book you’d like to read.
While you’re reading it, keep a personal diary of your feelings, ideas, reflections (positive or negative, you are free to write what you want). At the end of the book, when all of you are ready, exchange your personal diary or read a part of it aloud to your classmates and share your ideas and thoughts.