Last year I read a memoir of an actress where she discussed at length her experience of reading her own private journals from her younger years. It was about the profound realization that even though we believe there exists a continuous “I” throughout our life, it is not much more than an illusion. Our identities are constantly changing, and the “I” of ten years ago may seem like a complete stranger if we encounter it today. Her realization came when she read what she was thinking some years ago, and it all seemed so unfamiliar to her.
I immediately regretted the fact that I can never experience this as I never kept a journal, except for a brief period during my childhood. It was common practice in those days that some companies would gift out promotional diaries with a page devoted to each day of the coming year. I always used to claim one from my father, and I felt a compulsion to fill it up, on a daily basis, with a detailed account of my day to day life. But there was a big problem -- the diaries were printed in English, which somehow implied that I also have to do the writing in that language. My English language skills were totally inadequate even to write a factual journal of the uneventful life of a ten year old. Therefore my struggle never lasted for more than a week or two, and then after missing the entry for a single day, I would convince myself that continuing any further would be pointless since it can no longer be a document that completely records my life. This repeated every year until I was old enough to give it up altogether.
Therefore, as I entered a more interesting phase of my life, the self I would be interested in knowing and understanding, I didn’t leave back any clues. Since there's not much I can do about that, I thought why not start the practice now, and even though my train of change might be slowing down, it may still be interesting to look back at my today’s self a few years from now.
Since I am much more comfortable with English today, and since I rarely write using pen and paper, I naturally decided to write on a computer. So I created a Word document and started writing. Each day, or whenever I felt like I have something important to say, I would open the document, add a date and time as a heading, and start adding my text. After a few days I discovered a curious pattern. Every time I would open the file, I ended up reading some of my previous entries and make small corrections. That seemed innocent at first, but it eventually became apparent that if I continue this practice then I will always be reading the perspective of my then current self, and not how I thought and felt when I actually wrote them. Such is the convenience and ephemeral nature of electronic media.
So, I came up with another plan -- still electronic. I created a GMail account just for this purpose, and I started sending each of my entries in the form of an email to this address. That way the entries were automatically time stamped, and I had no way of “fixing” them without leaving a trail. This was an effective plan, and it worked.
I continued for a little while until another doubt started to nag at me. The whole endeavor would be worthwhile only if I can be absolutely honest in what I write. There are two problems here -- (a) I do not have the literary skill to adequately express my innermost feelings, and (b) I am incapable of being truly honest in my journals. The first problem is something I have to live with and try to improve my writing skills. It is not easy, but gradual improvement is possible. The bigger question is the second one.
Even though I was writing the journal for myself, I could not ever drive away the thought that someone other than me might read it some day. And that single thought spoils everything. I realized that subconsciously I was writing it also for an audience. The moment an outside reader comes in, is it possible to be truly honest? Wouldn’t I have a desire to paint myself in a way that looks favorable? It is not that I would not expose my weaknesses and fears, but I may do it in a way that the reader would still see it as a positive trait, or at least as an interesting quirk.
I tried to think of all autobiographies I have read and liked. They all seemed utterly and brutally honest, or else I wouldn’t have liked them. Yet, I came out impressed even at their meanest acts. If nothing else impressed me, it was their honesty to expose themselves did. Ultimately, they were all playing at an audience. They tried to be honest as much as they could, but the human predicament to ultimately justify all of our acts remained. I don’t believe there exists a single human act, no matter how deplorable, where the actor did not have a way to rationalize it. That is not to say people don't feel remorse or regret about some of their actions, but we still find a way to justify or rationalize why we had to do what we did.
So how can one be totally honest? I believe there is a way, and has been practised by all writers of fiction. It is in a fiction a writer can honestly talk about their own feelings and experiences with brutal truthfulness, as they hide behind the characters they create. Ultimately all works of fiction are partially autobiographical. If something can touch the readers deeply then it has to be felt by the author. This is why I envy writers. They can not only talk about their deepest feelings and secrets, and dissect their own lives with cold objectivity, but they also have the power to make us feel the same feelings. They can do all this because, like a magician, they can divert the gaze of the audience from themselves to their characters.
So, I finally stopped maintaining my email journal for now. If I can ever gain the skills to write well then I may take another attempt, but in a form where I can be totally open. After a few months I wanted to revisit my entries on Google’s server and realized through unuse I forgot my password. Since I didn’t leave a recovery email, I could not retrieve it through the “forgot my password” mechanism either. Therefore the brief history of a sexagenerian journal keeper is forever lost in the cavernous digital space where billions of other writing get lost every day. Unlike a piece of paper that actually disintegrates over time, my momentary thoughts will remain frozen for a very long time, but can never be read by another human being again. So there goes my unknown audience.
I often read multiple novels written by the same author in succession. That gives me a way to enter the author's personal world, as I start seeing recurring threads in multiple books, and I believe these are the threads of the writer’s own life. I play a game in those situations. I try not to read about the author until I am done. By then I have a vague idea about the inner identity of the writer. Now I try to read the author’s biographical articles and see if I figured them out already. You may also want to try this, and you will be surprised how close you can get.