Words Behind The Words

In the journal I do not just express myself more openly than I could to any person; I create myself.
–Susan Sontag, Reborn: Journals and Notebooks, 1947-1963

Recently I have been rereading some journals of favorite authors and thinking about what intimate access they provide to their creative and emotional lives. So many well known authors kept journals and diaries that are now available to the public, and many of these provide a truly unique window into their works of fiction. Some writer’s journals become more popular than the rest of their body of work, as is the case perhaps with Anais Nin or May Sarton.

One of the pleasures of reading May Sarton’s many journals over the years has been the keen insight they provide into the evolution of her novels and poetry through the twenty-seven years that she published them, from the first journal in 1968, titled Plant Dreaming Deep, until her final journal, At Eighty-Two, she is forthright about her struggles as a writer along the way. It is a joy to stumble upon an entry in which she describes her writing process and mentions a specific poem she is composing or a novel for which she is hashing out characters.

“I find that keeping a journal again validates and clarifies. I am happy, at ease with myself and the world…” 

-May Sarton, At Seventy

Of F. Scott Fitzgerald, on the other hand, there is available only one slim diary that was finally released to the public in 2013 as The Thoughtbook of F. Scott Fitzgerald. Written when he was fourteen years old, it would seem not to serve much importance, but, according to some critics, he drew from it extensively later in life as the basis for some of the well-known fictional characters and events in The Great Gatsby and in his Short Stories. He also kept a notebook throughout his writing life in which he stored snippets and ideas he might use for his work. This was published in 1978 under the title The Notebooks of F. Scott Fitzgerald, but is currently out of print.

An idea ran back and forward in his head like a blind man knocking over the solid furniture.

-Scott Fitzgerald, The Notebooks

Gathering Blossoms Under Fire: The Journals of Alice Walker, 1965-2000 is a compilation of Alice Walker’s journals that was published in 2022. It provides among other things, the fascinating background to her writing and publishing the Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Color Purple, as well as revealing her development as a political activist, and both the rapture and disappointments in her personal life.

How incredible in some ways it is to thirst for pen and paper, to need them, as if they were water.

-Alice Walker, The Journals

In addition to general journals, John Steinbeck kept a journal specific to Grapes of Wrath called Working DaysAny fan of his work will find his source material and creative process fascinating.

“Since our race admires gallantry, the writer will deal with it where he finds it. He finds it in the struggling poor now.

-John Steinbeck, Working Days

Virginia Woolf’s five volume collection of diaries provides understanding into many aspects of both her writing life and the Bloomsbury culture—including Hogarth Press and a myriad of fellow writers. The diaries also open us to the political and cultural atmosphere of the pre-war and early war years in London, and especially the great impact the war had on Woolf personally and as a writer. There is a more accessible single volume of excerpts from her diaries called A Writer’s Diary. Drawn from the diaries and edited by her husband, Leonard Woolf, this wonderful condensation covers entries from 1918-1941. It is full of references to the origins of her own work such as Mrs. Dalloway, Orlando, and To The Lighthouse as well as books she was reading at the time.

“I am I: and I must follow that furrow, not copy another. That is the only justification for my writing, living.

-Virginia Woolf, A Writer’s Diary

Patricia Highsmith is probably best known for her top-selling mysteries like The Talented Mr. Ripley and Strangers on a Train. Her 1952 novel The Price of Salt was popularized by the 2015 release of the film Carol, and was notable as one of the first novels to give a lesbian couple a happy ending. Highsmith’s innovative literary life, her complicated, rollicking social life, as well as some of her darker interior struggles are revealed in her own words in Patricia Highsmith: Her Diaries and Notebooks: 1941-1995 released at the end of 2021.

Another fun twist to the pairing of novels and journals is reading novels that are based on journals by historical characters, as in Euphoria, by Lily King, inspired by anthropologist Margaret Mead’s account of her experiences in 1930s Papua New Guinea. Or my recent favorite, the new novel Followed by the Lark by Helen Humphreys, that is based on the journals of Henry Thoreau.

Though Thoreau wrote roughly 7,000 pages in his journals over his lifetime, there is a nicely done, single volume edition of The Journal of Henry David Thoreau, 1837-1861 that captures the essence of his observations regarding both his interior life and the natural world.

“The delicious soft, spring-suggesting air, how it fills my veins with life!

Henry David Thoreau, The Journal

“Henry David Thoreau’s words were my companions during the writing of this novel. I read through all of his journals and his voice guided mine. I appreciated his wise and witty counsel and hope that this book conveys some of his mercurial spirit. Thank you, Henry.

-Helen Humphreys, Followed By The Lark

I’ve included a few other notable writers below in hopes that one might spark some interest, either one of your favorites or just one you’ve been curious about. In the words of Samuel Johnson: Curiosity is, in great and generous minds, the first passion and the last.

Sylvia Plath
The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath | The Bell Jar

Franz Kafka
The Diaries of Franz Kafka, 1910-1923 | The Metamorphosis and Other Stories | The Trial

Leo Tolstoy
The Diaries of Leo Tolstoy  | War and Peace | Anna Karenina
(or also try The Diaries of Sofia Tolstoy if you’re curious what it was like to be married to one of the greatest writers of all times)

Susan Sontag
Reborn: Journals and Notebooks, 1947-1963 | In America | The Volcano Lover

Anais Nin
The Diary of Anais Nin, Vol. 1: 1931-1934 | Delta of Venus | Little Birds

Happy Reading!