Unconventional Diaries

Who can resist a diary? They promise intimate revelations—the confidences that let us glimpse the human condition, which we turn to literature for but don’t always find—alongside the rhythms and texture of life as we live it, day by day. And each diary is unique; each represents a specific set of circumstances met by a specific mind. It’s fun to dip into John Cheever’s and then Franz Kafka’s, like moving between an icy pool and a hot tub—a pleasant shock.

 At its worst, of course, a diary can be a dutiful recording that fails to come alive. What memoirists and fiction writers do is considerable work: knotting the slack line of daily life into a compelling story isn’t easy. Some of my favorite diaries avoid this problem by eschewing any sense of duty, which makes for exciting reading. Conventional diaries are often best sampled; here are seven unconventional ones that are pleasurable to read straight through to the end. They share the attractions of being a little wild and relatively brief.

Simson Petrol/Wikimedia Commons
Simson Petrol/Wikimedia Commons

I Await the Devil’s Coming by Mary MacLane (1902)
Mary MacLane was nineteen and possessed of the idea that she was a genius and destined for greatness when she began her diary in 1901. She is ambitious, provocative, acid-tongued (sometimes amusingly, other times movingly), and desperate to leave behind the “sand and barrenness” and “dry, warped people” of Butte, Montana, that desolate mining town at the foot of the Rockies. Like a prototypical Ottessa Moshfegh character, she warns us, “I am charmingly original. I am delightfully refreshing. I am startlingly Bohemian. I am quaintly interesting—the while in my sleeve I may be smiling and smiling—and a villain.” But despite her confidence and brashness, she suffers: “To be a woman, young and all alone, is hard—hard!—is to want things, is to carry a heavy, heavy weight.” Who will save her from this life? The Devil, she feels sure: “But with me Virtue and Honor are nothing. I long unspeakably for Happiness. And so I await the Devil’s coming.” When she describes the life they will share, it does sound pretty great: “Think of living with the Devil in a bare little house, in the midst of green wetness and sweetness and yellow light—for days!” I wish them every happiness.  

The Folded Clock: A Diary by Heidi Julavits (2015)
One of my favorite books (diary or otherwise) of recent years. Julavits opens by confessing that as a girl, she wrote dutiful daily entries in a diary her father gave her, each beginning “Today I.” As an adult, she believed that her childhood diligence was an early sign of literary talent, even fatedness—but upon revisiting the entries, she found that they revealed not the mind of a writer but of a “paranoid tax auditor” whose desire for approval is paramount. She begins the task again, keeping a diary for two years and striving to capture something more vital. Prompted by a desire to “figure out a new way to move through a story space,” Julavits uses her younger self’s habit as a formal constraint—each entry opens “Today I”—and presents the dated results in nonchronological order. It works! A coherent and multilayered narrative emerges. Time seems to fold—it speeds up, turns in on itself—as Julavits reveals how different moments can speak to each other across months and years.

A Diary in Alphabetical Order by Sheila Heti (2022)
Reading Sheila Heti’s diary this summer felt like pure indulgence. Published as a work of serialized fiction in the New York Times, it began as an alphabetized journal. Of her process, Heti says, “A little more than 10 years ago, I began looking back at the diaries I had kept over the previous decade. I wondered if I’d changed. So I loaded all 500,000 words of my journals into Excel to order the sentences alphabetically.” She wanted to see what “patterns and repetitions” might emerge, what might be revealed about the self when the spell of narrative was broken. From there, she condensed and fictionalized. It’s a swift work that captures both life’s daily rhythms and its broader movements: “After he left, I lay in bed, hung over, and the sun was shining into my room for the day,” she writes. “After that, I got in a cab and came home. After that, we all walked by the river. Alice Munro’s first book appeared when she was 37. All I am ambitious for is to publish this piece. All I ever wanted was to be an adult. All I ever wanted when I was younger was to be a writer, to be able to sit in one place and write things forever, and not feel like I had to do anything else.” Time seems to pass in a blink—she is in bed; she is in the cab coming home—and simultaneously, not to pass at all. The effect is of a life flashing before the reader’s eyes. I feel it could be my life I’m reading about, the workings of my mind, but of course that’s testament to Heti’s skill.

Blind Spot by Teju Cole (2017)
This visual diary consists of travel photographs paired with essayistic fragments that reference the images, sometimes obliquely. Its title recalls an essay in Cole’s collection Known and Strange Things about temporarily losing sight in one eye while at an artist’s residency. In it, I hear, too, these opening lines from W. G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, in which the narrator recounts being hospitalized after walking the English countryside: “I can remember precisely how, upon being admitted to that room on the eighth floor, I became overwhelmed by the feeling that the Suffolk expanses I had walked the previous summer had now shrunk once and for all to a single, blind, insensate spot. Indeed, all that could be seen of the world from my bed was the colourless patch of sky framed in the window.” The walking tour, the interest in the mundane, the sense of an undertow: all are echoed here. We venture inside the blind spot—Cole’s photos are often of ordinary scenes of the sort Sebald’s narrator feels he has lost access to. Also present are images like the one framed by the narrator’s window: the world, made anonymous or indistinct. By joining the two, Cole offers a reminder of how much always lies beyond our immediate apprehension, and that looking longer, changing the frame, will reward us.

In the Land of Pain by Alphonse Daudet, translated from French by Julian Barnes (1930; transl. 2002)
A set of jottings by a wealthy French writer of the nineteenth century—once renowned, now largely forgotten—about having syphilis and his stays at healing baths. Daudet intended for this undated diary on his body’s rebellion to become a novel, but died before he was able to make it one. Evocative and sharp on suffering and sufferers, Daudet’s writing awakens me to the strangeness of possessing a body and to the (temporary, rare) luxury of a pain-free existence. It’s also a salutary reminder of the dangers of having affairs with friends’ mistresses! Joking aside, this is a very beautiful book: Daudet’s mind is philosophical and poetic, at once attuned to amusing social relations and alive to the evocative image. Julian Barnes gives readers a taste of this when he writes in his introduction: “Daudet . . . recounted to [Edmond de] Goncourt a dream he had once had, in which he was walking through a field of broom. All around him there was the soft background noise of seed-pods exploding. Our lives, he had concluded, amount to no more than this: just a quiet crackle of popping pods.”

“Days” by Dorthe Nors, translated from Danish by Misha Hoekstra (2010; transl. 2016)
Published as a novella in So Much for That Winter, “Days” defies genre: it is lineated fiction (So . . . poetry?) that began as a diary. Each entry—each day—is a numbered list full of humor, despair, pathos, and beauty. The first begins:

1.     So much for that winter

2.     I thought, looking at the last crocuses of spring;

3.     they lay down on the ground

4.     and I was in doubt.

In an interview in Bomb, Nors remembers: “Days was a strange project. For 100 days I would write a list every night, and I would post it directly on the Internet. I didn’t allow myself to use more than an hour on each text, and then zap, into the world it went. The project got a lot of readers. Then after 100 days I stopped, printed out the lists, and locked myself up with them in a little cottage in a forest far away from Copenhagen. I edited, rewrote, twisted and turned the lists, and ended up with these 39 days that together make a fictional story about spring, heartbreak, and fighting for visibility.” The result feels like a diary, but more so. In Nors’s hands, the small becomes immense. She demonstrates the form’s power to turn our days and thus our lives—unremarkable, inchoate, with flashes of intensity and meaning all too easily lost or distorted by memory—into an alternate structure for others, and for our future selves, to step inside. 

Aug 9—Fog by Kathryn Scanlan (2019)
Mary MacLane is the youngest diarist on the list; the unnamed diarist who provided Kathryn Scanlan with the source text for Aug 9—Fog is the oldest. She began her diary, a gift from her daughter and son-in-law, at eighty-six. Decades after her death, Scanlan discovered her journal at an estate auction. Scanlan then worked with the text over many years, cutting and rearranging. What emerges is both the original diarist’s record and Scanlan’s recognition of herself within the diary, a double portrait of the authors through their shared work. The mundane tasks of an elderly person’s life in Illinois fifty years ago—“Cut some dandelions, cleaned up back porch”—are punctuated with moments of poetry: “Big snow flakes like little parasols upside down” and, later, about the wind, “Everything loose is traveling.” The effect is cumulative and thus lifelike: story emerges with the passage of time. A cactus blooms; death enters the picture. Just when you are convinced the diary is boring, it catches you—again like life—by surprise.


Cara Blue Adams is the author of the story collection You Never Get It Back (University of Iowa Press), a New York Times Editors’ Choice book.