‘Perhaps all anxiety might derive from a fixation on moments—an inability to accept life as ongoing.’
Sarah Manguso, from Ongoingness: The End of A Diary
The internet is full of these white boxes that act as a constant invitation to confess. I don’t visit Facebook much more than once or twice a year now, but that box at the top of the feed always poses this invasive, tempting question: what’s on your mind? On Twitter, where I live, the ghost-grey letters that appear in the box before you enter your writing say, what’s happening? Aren’t these a pair of intimate questions to ask a person? For some of us, the only voice asking us those questions is that of the strangely governing white and blue interfaces of social media. I know there are days where the only person who asks me what’s on my mind is my husband, and I tell him, and I’m glad I can, because the nature of my work and life in 2019 means that otherwise I would be left with nothing but these pixels clawing at me to tell them who I am, how I am, what is happening. The internet is pleading with us to speak to it, to fill it with ourselves, and we do. We tell it where we are, how we are, what we want – a pizza, a break, a holiday, a partner.
We tell it when we are in pain, we confess exhaustion, we type anger like poison from ourselves into the wider, readable space. Our rage. Our disappointment. Our rallying cries. Our hope, too, God help us. Our screams. Those of us who are Online with a capital On sometimes just out of sheer habit speak our daily personhood into this invisible, ever-growing document, and look, I have been Online for a hot minute now. It’s more than half of my life in some form or other, and I am becoming alarmed by the vulnerability that I feel in speaking truth into pixels. In autumn last year, in the beginning of my realisation that the internet was becoming trouble for me, I began to keep a diary. And it helped.
I always had difficulty keeping a diary, or at least in the classic ‘dear diary’ style. When I was younger, I certainly kept half-arsed notes to myself in pink notebooks with useless locks on the side, but the implied structure of it irritated me, addressing a pointless letter to a non-existent reader. Personifying the diary as an unspeaking therapist in a one way correspondence, bullet-pointing out my day in some mundane sequence of events. Even trying to erect an emotional arc on the page of a diary made me feel stupid. Not cleansed, not lighter, not better.
The diary I keep now is structureless. It is a mess. Without it, I would be the mess. So better that the diary is a mess than me. When I say diary, I do not mean one singular hard-back notebook: I mean a series of cheap, mass-produced, children’s school copybooks that I have been filling approximately monthly for almost a year now. I sellotape the diary shut when I am done. It is for nobody.
It is a scream that doesn’t stop. It is a tiny paper rebellion in an age of digital performance where I often wonder about my worth as a human when I am not being productive.
It is defiant in the face of the millions of excruciatingly perfect Instagram pages devoted to journaling: neat bullet-point to-do lists, perfect stickers and illustrations placed around high points in the writer’s week, not a scribble or an ink-smudge or a spelling mistake in sight. Immaculate handwriting. I used to scroll these journaling and stationary pages and permit them to keep me away from the act of keeping a diary, as an excuse. My penmanship is frankly terrible. I have handwritten three of the four books I have written and the bulks of pages that make up these manuscripts are almost illegible. I enjoy admiring beautiful notebooks, but what is the point of a beautiful notebook if my handwriting is so bad that it is almost an act of disrespect to the paper I’m writing on? What is the point of expensive pens when I lose things in handbags, when I hand them away to people, when they generally only last around a week because I write so heavily that I bleed them out? Nobody will want to look at any diary I write, I used to tell myself, as though that was a statement that made any sense at all. As if every thought I have has to be up for consumption, has to be moulded directly into a post and distributed for approval. Log off, Sarah.
The point of a diary is not to be looked at. For me at least, as a person whose thoughts ring loud and constant, there has to be space wherein opinion and feeling and want is not performance, or product, or capital, or feed for anyone at all. The point is allowing yourself to think and express yourself in privacy and not feeling as though that is wasteful. I write for the luxury of this privacy, if not secrecy, because secrecy implies something is hidden. I am a far throw now from little plastic locks on notebooks covered in pink faux-fur but I am not far from the girl-child who just wanted to speak the truth somewhere without judgement, risk, exposure, pain. I still need somewhere to go to scream. And the internet asks me to scream there: what’s happening? What’s on your mind?
My diary is a long, formless, inky scream into a plain little vessel that is taped shut when it is full, or spoiled by rainwater, or I am bored of looking at it. It is a scream that doesn’t stop. It is a tiny paper rebellion in an age of digital performance where I often wonder about my worth as a human when I am not being productive. A diary is not productive: it is holistic, recreational, and thus necessary. I have filled so many books and I may never look back through them. I assume they appear as a frankly strange code to anyone who may open them, peppered by swears in capital letters and aggressive underlining. There is no narrative within them. No stickers. No illustrations. Just language, feral and fresh. I write without beginning or ending. I start a fresh page and begin where my thought begins. I repeat myself. I write the same sentences over and over if they are stuck, to unstick them, or at least try. I stop when I am bored or when I have to write something useful. The taping of them shut afterwards feels ceremonial. Sometimes I look at the little stack of them and wonder will I burn them, or throw them into the ocean. You can’t burn the internet. You can’t throw that into the sea. There’s no ritual, there.
In my childhood failures to keep a diary, I found myself as a teenager keeping A4 pages bricked full of ink. I would write these notes to myself during classes in school, keep them folded up (tight, tiny, folded 8 times over) in my skirt pocket. When they were done I would put them in a shoebox. After reading Virginia Woolf for the first time, a published book of her letters, at the age of 19 I took all of these notes and destroyed them. They were put in a bag and taken to the bins. Six shoeboxes full of tiny folded paper notes that are now, just over a decade later, mush. Gone. And I went on, and I didn’t miss them, and I still don’t.
I want to reiterate, in writing this, that I am writing from a very specific location – a person who is Very Online. I am also a person who writes for a living. I am sure that my navigations with expressing myself in the digital world and the tactile, analogue world might sound surreal to readers who don’t use the internet in the same way as I do. But this is what this column is for: it is for perspective. In trying to use the internet with more intention and less passivity, I have to unpack how I speak to it, why I speak to it. Why I share photos of my life on an unlocked account. Why I write tweets at all. What is this doing to me? What will it do to me in future? I do not have answers, only more questions – and again, and again I am faced by them, as are we all – what’s happening? What’s on your mind?
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