Columnist Drew Zeiba considers the risks of leaving a record through the journals of Sheila Heti, Virginia Woolf, and Tina Brown

Over dinner, a friend admitted to me she’d gone through her girlfriend’s journal. “I know it was wrong, but I wanted to know if I was going crazy, or if she really had feelings for X,” my friend said, chopsticks midair. What she found wasn’t incriminating, per se. It was far worse: ambivalence. “I regret ever doing it.”

The journal, diary, daybook, whatever you want to call it, is the archetypal image of privacy, and thus of violation: bulbous children’s plastic toy journals demand a voice password to answer; and who hasn’t seen a movie with a fine leather notebook latched by a heart-shaped lock? But in setting words down, leaving a record, there seems to be some imagined other: the page, the self, the future. Who, in the end, is the audience?

If you’re a notable figure—writers and artists included—the audience may wind up being everyone. Last year, Kafka’s diaries got rereleased in English. Now you can read all his homosexual anxieties Max Brod previously edited out. It was published in 2014, but with the more recent translation of several of his novels, Hervé Guibert’s journals, collected as The Mausoleum of Lovers, have also made the rounds—though as Wayne Koestenbaum detailed, the late author’s “svelte books” already “straddled the line between memoir and novel…[and] every project took root in his notebooks, a hive of errant record-keeping.” If you read Koestenbaum’s original you’ll see my deployment of the quotation is a bit self-serving, but I’ll try it another way: Guibert wrote about shit, sex, and death in his romans à clef, and he typed most of the diaries himself. Everyone knew Muzil in To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life was Michel Foucault, and though Nathanaël, the diaries’ translator, claims that “against a scholarly exercise of exposure, this translation does not elucidate dynamics or relationships embedded in the text; in this sense, there is no demystifying key to the initialed names,” I’ll give you three guesses as to who “M.F.” is.

Take a tour of the general non-fiction section of your local bookstore or library and you’ll see any number of previously private thoughts from dead literary figures—Susan Sontag, Roland Barthes, Flannery O’Connor, John Cheever, Vladimir Nabakov. Talk about a mausoleum.

Sensibly, some authors preempt this posthumous process. Tina Brown said she’d turned to her old diaries as materials to write a book about the Crazy Eighties. “But the more I read the more I realized I already had.” Ta-da! She released The Vanity Fair Diaries in 2017, which after some upfront autobiography, chronicles the famed editor’s rise at the eponymous magazine. If you’ve subscribed to The Paris Review or Noon over the past years, you may have noticed an onslaught of Lydia Davis’s notebooks. And released this spring, Sheila Heti’s Alphabetical Diaries pulled upon a decade of its author’s journals. Heti copied their half million words, alphabetized their sentences in Excel, and then deleted about 90 percent of them.

“If anything, the post-oulipo artistry has made Heti’s life more opaque, not less.”

The result is variously hallucinatory and hilarious and (appropriately) banal. Micro-stories nearly eddy but are quickly impinged upon by thoughts unconstrained by linear time or semantic space. Across chapters, organized by letter, “characters” (Lemons, Hanif, Pavel, Zadie Smith) reappear, but in no clarified relationship to their previous selves; their multiple timelines exist on the page at once. In prose, a conjunction is typically a connective sense-making apparatus, and when encountering them in Alphabetical Diaries I had to keep reminding myself to give up on the direct grammatical coordination sentence to sentence: “But I mostly don’t feel like I can spend much time with Pavel anymore, for he irritates me on a very deep level. But love can endure. But love is not enough.” Here is something that reads like an argument, but I know also that what brings these together is not time, but procedure. Still I sense myself making narrative, especially as different names dance across chapters, unhinged from multi-sentence scenes.

Other disjunctures pointillize like consciousness. “A person’s loyalty should always be to their partner, but I talked more than I wanted to or intended to about Pavel. A phone call from him yesterday—a surprise. A place I partly crave to settle into, but don’t.” I feel as if I can make a narrative of some kind, but by the time I arrive a few sentences later to “A quiche and then an apple pie for dessert? A radical sympathy with all people based on their integrity as becomings, not beings…,” I realize I’m somewhere else entirely. “…as people who experience the potential freedom of their own souls, so to radically know that people experience themselves from the inside, and not one person alive has ever experienced themselves from the outside,” the sentence continues.

Heti’s book could require all the focus of ambient TV, but I’m a grouch, not a cynic, so I believe that some readers will slow down and be affected by its deformation of narrative. In a Bookforum review, novelist Catherine Lacey writes of Heti’s deletions: “Did she do so to remove the embarrassing bits? To save face, to come off as cool? Absolutely not. Vulnerability has long been Heti’s compass as a writer.” Unless Lacey’s privy to some info I’m not, how can she argue for this non-redaction in a book created mostly by erasure? Besides, the modulation and mediation of vulnerability is precisely the task of the writer. So while Lacey warns readers “embarrassed” by Heti’s other work to “proceed with caution,” I am not sure transparency is what’s at stake. Alphabetical Diaries’ colophon puts “Diaries” third in the Library of Congress categories after “Literature, experimental—Canada” and “Creative nonfiction.” If anything, the post-oulipo artistry has made Heti’s life more opaque, not less.

Lacey almost gets at Alphabetical Diaries’ craftedness when she writes that “[t]he paradox of the resulting text is that its randomness gradually layers itself into a weightless transcendence,” but I am troubled by the idea that this is “random.” Did Heti not choose these sentences? Procedure is not the same as chance, even if coincidence plays a part in how the sentences abut one another.

I think the “randomness” Lacey points towards is an alphabetic, and consequently grammatic, imbrication that disrupts normative prose reading: “Now my whole body is cold, very cold. Now that my book is done, I must starve the part of my brain that thinks about the book. Now that the book is done, I can commit to him, I think. Now that the book is done, I need not panic about anything. Now the idea spins into hubris. Now the sky is the color of computers.” What nows are these? What are these books to each other? Or is it a book? Where is this sky? “Now you are believing another cultural myth, which has no basis in the facts of life as you have seen them. One of the only things we learn with certainty is that Heti likes to shop at APC.

But in some regards, Alphabetical Diaries’ effect is not unlike a “real” diary: In our journals, we pick and choose, follow impulse and follow imagined expectations. We later cannibalize our words for our projects. We take the step to pick up a pen and embark on the impossible task of rendering ourselves and our lives, and hope to inhabit time despite writing’s negation of the present.

A memoirist I know insists to me he can’t read journals: “There’s no plot. You know where they go, but they still feel like they’re going nowhere.” Because, of course, literature doesn’t take the shape of life—far from it. Whether fiction or nonfiction or Alphabetical Diaries, most books are shaped.

Perhaps shapelessness can be interesting: “While a novel is a piece of work an author has pondered over extensively, and subjected to presumably several rounds of edits, a diary, by its very nature, is a page where the mind is allowed to freely associate, stray beyond conventions of narrative and structure and therefore where a truly intimate portrait of the author can be appreciated,” Arcadia Molinas, who translated Virginia Woolf’s diaries from 1897–1909 into Spanish, told me over email. “Diaries are where someone is at their most vulnerable, at their most human, and viewing authors who have transcended into the canon or been named ‘geniuses’ in this light is a humbling experience for an admirer of their work that can bring them to have a newfound appreciation.” This, she says, can open us inwardly: shown the “rough edges” of someone whose oeuvre is so refined can make us “see our own imperfect selves in them too.”

Unedited diaries may still serve literary purposes: “An author’s diaries often serve the function a sketchbook does for an artist—it’s a space to practice and hone the craft,” says Molinas. “This is interesting too from an artistic point of view as it gives you insight into an author’s stylistic development, or the ways they trained their eye and observational tools to perceive the world in their own unique way.” In Kafka’s diaries, Frances Wilson writes, “stories grew spontaneously out of the notebooks, and the restoration of ‘The Judgment’ allows us to be present at what Kafka described on February 11, 1913, as a ‘veritable birth covered with filth and slime.’” Emerging from this slime, Wilson claims, “We witness not only the birth of his story, but the birth of Franz Kafka himself.”

Michael Bullock, who with Cesar Padilla co-edited the teenage journals of the late Sean DeLear, explained to me that it was not only cultural but aesthetic value that drove him to publish the collection: “For such a minimal amount of words, it’s such a huge personality that shines through. In the writing style, there’s something excellent about the book beyond the life and ideas and period it captures. The writing makes it a joy.”

“Denied omniscience, only anticipating what hasn’t happened and misremembering what has, diaries are, as Koestenbaum says of Guibert’s, ‘accidental.’”

By detourning her diaries into literature, Heti teases the possibility for narrative to be divorced from causality. While journals are ostensibly cause-and-effect (like life, allegedly), their depictions are scattershot, sketches from a busy day or across erratic moods, in truth more gaps than salient information. You can edit a book, full-ish vision in mind, and understand which details are relevant for getting to point B from point A. Day-to-day, who knows what bit of gossip or fit of rage or choice of what to eat for dinner will remain meaningful tomorrow?

Still, sometimes a journal may propulse with forward motion. “The diarist doesn’t have a clue what’s around the corner,” writes Brown, whose diaries possess an impression of “plot” despite themselves: career growth, the playing out of gossip, and a pregnancy catalyze a sort of teleological force; my own journaling practice, begun June 6, 2021, took on a novelesque thrust when my father died on June 19, providing me with a convenient “inciting incident.” But this is all a matter of luck (if you want to call it that). Denied omniscience, only anticipating what hasn’t happened and misremembering what has, diaries are, as Koestenbaum says of Guibert’s, “accidental.”

To a degree.

The more I read diaries, or hear tales of people reading their lovers’, the more I find myself in a tense relationship with my own. (My current journal is 5.7 x 8 in. and wrapped in blue pleather.) I’ve become self-conscious and morbid and delusional. My boyfriend and I don’t really fight (go figure), but when we do I hesitate to scribble much about it because what if I die first? Ditto my mother. Or, worse, what if I—through some twists of fate—become…famous. Will Nightboat or Picador publish my diaries so the world can see my paranoia and inconsistent punctuation?

Molinas says “the idea of ‘privacy’ was something I mulled over a lot,” especially given that the first journals she included came just after Woolf’s mother’s death, but “one of the things that put this intrusion into perspective was knowing that everyone’s writing draws from their own experience, and in Virginia Woolf’s case this is undeniably true as she often explores familial themes in her books.” Readers of Woolf already know the broad strokes. “Exploring the ‘source material’ of her novels earns you a fresh insight into her well-read books. Also, I guess, there is an emancipatory tale there of turning your trauma into art.” For Bullock, DeLear’s diaries remind us of a radically open form of queer identity, as well as offer a rarely published perspective from Black queer adolescence. “I think that we all think Sean would have loved it,” Bullock laughs, adding that he never would’ve embarked on the project for someone who would be hurt by the publication if alive today. “I mean, there’s a portion of the book where he’s like, ‘I’m so popular, I can’t believe how popular I am at school, everyone who’s anyone knows me,’” he notes.

Some people enjoy notoriety in life to such an extent that their friends are certain they’d like to keep it in death. Others, like Kafka, would have preferred their diaries burned. When I enter the headspace of unlikely future-reader-paranoia, I sit each morning staring at the pages and jotting the most perfunctory lists of what happened the day before. Or, if I’m working on a longer project—a book, say—sometimes I’m tempted to focus the journaling onto its universe, which seems a bit disrespectful to my unconscious. As you can probably sense, I’m a neurotic with tendencies of self-aggrandizement, but nevertheless even the least narcissistic of tweens writes “Dear Diary” before they begin. To herself, Heti is sometimes “I,” sometimes subjectless, sometimes “you,” sometimes the victim of the imperative mood. DeLear addressed his diaries to “Ty,” a name derived from a bowling alley crush, personifying the pages by direct address. The writing extends thought beyond the self, to an object or other. An impossible audience is always there, we hope, not reading a word we write.