“A diary of this kind is neither authentic nor satisfactory”: Millay’s journals

Champagne for breakfast!–no, I’m only kidding, but that’s what Edna St. Vincent Millay had on her birthday in 1933. I was asked to blurb an edition of her diaries, Rapture and Melancholy: The Diaries of Edna St. Vincent Millay, edited by Daniel Mark Epstein and forthcoming from Yale University Press. I’ve been reading the galleys for days. My head is full of her voice, which IS rapturous and melancholy sometimes, but also hilarious and chatty and occasionally wonderfully snarky. “The weather is frightful!” “Got the curse.” “I’ve just had my first gin-fizz. And it’s not going to be my last.” Millay records some mundane details–letters received, college grades, her weight when she was ill–and lots of meticulous observations about social and natural worlds, especially the flowers and birds at her Steepletop estate, where she gardened her heart out (sometimes in the buff) and occasionally hosted visitors, plenty of them distinguished.

Millay kept diaries on and off from the age of 15 forward, with big gaps. Some diaries could have been destroyed by family to conceal evidence of her wild adventures, but it’s just as likely that her diarizing was sporadic. She needed the money publication brought. Millay grew up in painful poverty, but even after she became famous, with funds for housecleaners and travel and scenic properties, she depended on her income from publishing and performances. I’m glad she wrote privately about asters and green snakes and bobolinks, but it wasn’t a practical way to spend her limited energy.

I don’t rely on income from my writing and a good thing, too. Yet her journals make me think about the calculus of blogging about poetry. There are plenty of people who can’t afford to give any writing away or who, at least, choose not to. I see the sense in that and sometimes wonder if diverting writing energy to this blog has dented my rusting jalopy of a career.

Blogging isn’t the same as keeping a diary, of course. Millay shared her journals with friends once in a while, and her husband even contributed occasional updates. She also constructed imaginary readerships, especially when younger, addressing entries to mother-substitutes and future lovers. But they were essentially private undertakings. Teenaged Millay gets quite fierce on the subject:

Firstly. That, henceforth, no one reads my diary.
Secondly. That whosoever, by stealth or any other underhand means, 
opens these pages to read, shall be subject to the rack, the guillotine, the
axe, the scaffold, or any other form of torture I may see fit to administer.

Blogs can be diary-like in their episodic reflections and informal voice, but even when the tone is intimate, they’re meant to be read. Further, they can be instruments for increasing an author’s visibility, and very occasionally they generate revenue. This platform has probably raised my profile a tiny bit, but not in proportion to the amount of effort it requires. In how they aim at small audiences, literary blogs seem more like letters–bids for connection among friends in the ether–but they do resemble private diaries in cultivating habits of attention that nourish a writer’s practice. They’re also zones of experiment for constructing a public self.

I like blogging because I like writing but publication is slow. It’s nice to have an immediate outlet for thoughts I’m not ready to cast as essays or poems. I’m not about to stop in favor of more strategic writing behavior, although one day I might. But I do regret a little having channeled time away from truly private writing. What’s really on my mind is often not mine to share–this week, “worrying about a friend in trouble” doesn’t even remotely cover it–so I end up misrepresenting aspects of my life in my blog, probably most often by projecting coherence I certainly do not feel. I don’t know if any entry is really better than a verbal selfie, in which I “show” my writing, reading self at a deceptively flattering angle. As Millay said at one of the many moments she castigates herself for not writing, “A diary of this kind is neither authentic nor satisfactory.”

Well, poets are experts at the simulacrum of presence, creating an illusion of voice through dry printed words. Millay certainly was. “What kind of beast would turn its life into words?” Adrienne Rich once wrote. Me, I guess, over and over again, trying to be authentic enough to satisfy myself.

9 responses to ““A diary of this kind is neither authentic nor satisfactory”: Millay’s journals”

  1. Diarizing. A great word. I’ve always found Millay and her circle interesting if not downright scandalously fascinating. How DO they do it? “Money,” my partner in crime says. Have a great holiday weekend if such a thing still exists…

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I completely understand your complicated feelings towards blogging. I feel similarly towards my instagram. Although I don’t blog in the traditional sense (which I think is a result in part of my generation’s fixation with social media platforms and my interest in the sexuality of instagram and its visuals), I love writing for instagram because it feels like short form, informal ways to explore my more “serious” academic interests without the pressure of turning them into poems and essays. But sometimes I wonder if I should maybe actually just be writing the essays and the poems. And sometimes I wonder too if my playing with social media is more giving into it than deconstructing it–I do post an awful lot of selfies after all. Although I do appreciate the community connection it makes and of course I don’t mind the compliments lol. I do think there is a strange disconnect in writing so publicly so personally, almost like a doubling. I often wonder if the process of intellectualizing my own desires and emotions for posts is actually just a way of avoiding feeling them. In sharing my feelings without the context of the situations that invoked them, I think I often come across as knowing what I’m doing more than I do, or worse, that I’m somehow performing vulnerability for social capital online.

    But to the point about personal writing, I find it really hard to do. I’ve just been obsessed with academia for too long at this point because I’m always thinking about the archive and cultural memory and questions of who/what “deserves” to be made immortal through writing. I had a small episode this past school year when I found out that my texts weren’t saved on some server somewhere in some government/phone company warehouse. Now how are future people supposed to know about my friendships, my awkward flirting, the feelings I share with those I care about? Oh well, I guess that’s why we write poems.

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    • Yes, poems make good time capsules, so keep making them, and essays, too! I keep meaning to find a month to get off social media entirely and think about how that feels–whether I’m calmer and more centered, how my self-expression and/or self-performance would change–but clearly I have to scale that down to a weekend or something so I might actually do it. A safe, small first date. And yes, this is what academic study does, and probably part of why it appeals to both of us: distance from feeling is comfortable. Yet all the schools of theory that bring affect back appeal to me so much. Finally, I think you use Instagram brilliantly, but it’s good to keep thinking about how it may be using you.


  3. “I like blogging because I like writing but publication is slow.” Yes. I also like the immediate connection with an audience. I guess I’ve had the luxury of not having a career tied to writing, though that’s also been a big reason I haven’t written more, or differently. Sometimes I think I use up my best stuff (when, honestly, it’s my only stuff) on my blog–which is definitely not a diary. But might seem like one to some readers. You’re reminding me of the diaries I did keep years and years ago, before the internet was a thing in my life. Thanks for writing this–you’ve taken me to something I’ve been meaning to think more deeply about.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. So many interesting questions in this post!

    I can’t form a short response to the question about the privilege to be able to write for free or without need for it to provide a main income, but it’s an interesting question.

    Oh my, do I resonate with your interjection about not being able to write about some things that are of great concern to me on a public blog, as even if it’s “my truth” I have no desire to invade the privacy of others with my take. My series on a daughter dealing with a mother’s Alzheimer’s is risky in that way, as it calls for coordination and collaboration with the daughter and the fact that the mother will never see much less understand it.

    I’m not sure that everyone (or anyone?) “uses up” a fixed store of creativity — or rather, like a gas, it expands to fill the need. Eventually, dissatisfaction with its repetitions is a risk, but that happens with the book-a-decade folks too. Full fledged burn-out may eventually come, but at my old age I figure I’m in a race with external endings and can easily risk self-exhaustion. I find myself that when does a lot of something creative you do produce more bad or mediocre work, but also more pretty good and better than one used to do work. But does it prevent “masterpieces?” That’s another question.

    Time and focus is a limited resource of course, but trying to do more tends to eke out at least some expansion in available time, and what a productivity expert would find wasteful inefficient focus in a factory or time-sensitive project is so often the serendipity of the artist. I am subject to procrastination, but that fault means that some of my poems that I judge better come about because I can’t get my head around composing or playing music today, or because I can’t write down what I think in a blog post — or any other combination of the flight of avoidance leading to the exile of alternate creativity.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I’m sorry about the Alzheimer’s situation–I have written about my mother-in-law’s decline but it’s very, very tricky. And I generally agree about creativity–writing more makes me write more–but I’ve recognized in myself some limits to that principle lately. Maybe it’s aging or my mother’s death, a temporary phase of grief, but I’m more easily tapped out than I used to be. Anyway, thanks so much for really engaging. It’s comments like these that make me feel more sure about the worth of the enterprise.

    Liked by 1 person

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