When I did my English degree, way back in the late ‘80s, Literary Theory was all the rage. I don’t know if they even study it now, but it was the thing then. Literary theory is the place where literary criticism, philosophy and linguistics meet. Throw in a good handful of politics, sexual politics and psychology and you have a seething mass of academic pretentiousness that no one with a reasonable sense of humour should be subjected to. Literary Theory goes in fashions like everything else, and the Next Big Thing then was Postmodernism, which leant heavily on Poststructuralism and the work of theorists like Jacques Derrida and Roland Barthes. We read Thomas Pynchon and Paul Auster and pretended to know what they were on about. We were encouraged to use words like signifier (word), signified (meaning), and problematize (make something difficult). I find it deeply satisfying that Roland Barthes’s death resulted from being run over by a milk float. It couldn’t be more pedestrian (sorry for the pun), or ironic, could it?
Now why am I ranting on about all this pretentious bollocks when I should be talking about journaling? Well, let me explain the one phrase that poststructuralism gave me which I still cherish today:
The Structuring or Signifying Absence
This is actually another way of saying ‘The Elephant in the Room’. It is the thing that is never spoken of, yet which underlies and give shape to everything that happens around it. It is the empty space which is significant, which speaks of something profound.
It is ‘that which is left unsaid.’
Take a very simple example. In Daphne du Maurier’s novel ‘Rebecca’, the character of Rebecca de Winter and her untimely death are the signifying absence. Rebecca structures the whole novel, and the behaviour of all the characters revolves around her, even to the extent that we never learn the heroine’s name, because Rebecca is more important in everyone’s mind, including her own. Rebecca is a tangible presence, even though she no longer exists.
Actually, this isn’t strictly a good example because its too overt. Take the Wooster novels of P G Wodehouse. Set in the 1920’s and ‘30’s England, they almost never mention the Great Depression or the First or Second World Wars, and yet the fact that as readers we know that the ridiculous events are going on against this backdrop makes them all the more ludicrous. Wodehouse does lampoon the figure of fascist leader Oswald Moseley at one point, but basically, his choice is to exclude politics.
The point of the structuring absence is this: that what the writer chooses to exclude is just, if not more, significant than what is left in.
How does this relate to writing a diary?
I am thinking right now of gaps. I have been keeping a journal for nearly 40 years now (ouch!), but there are plenty of gaps. And I am sure those gaps say as much about my life as the parts where I was writing. They usually happened for two reasons:
- I was having a brilliant time and was too busy living life to bother writing everything, or anything, down. My honeymoon is a great example of this. I was determined I was going to record every detail of our tour across the south of England, but when it came to it, I was having too much fun! So all I have is the photos we took. And I think that is very significant.
- I was in a state of such terrible depression that I was incapable of writing. This is far more common. There are several gaps of months in my diary during my early 20s, when I was struggling with clinical depression so profound that it threatened my life, and it was impossible for me to write at that time. So I didn’t.
What we don’t write about in our diaries is just as significant as what we do. Every diary entry is an act of self-censorship, whether we know it or not. By choosing what we write about, even if the choice is unconscious, we are in fact editing, fashioning a narrative of our lives structured by our choices and the responses we have to our life events. Just as Wodehouse chose, out of what I believe was sheer political naiveté, not to write about politics (to his great cost as it turned out), we may choose not to write about our cancer, our son coming out as gay, our struggles with debt, even though these are massive issues which shape our lives in profound ways. We may even choose at times simply not to write at all.
When I don’t write in my diary, I am always aware that something is going on for me. I may be in denial about some issue that is obsessing me, or I am too sick to write, which is an issue in itself. Either way, the gaps between dates in my journal are a red flag.
But they are not a reason for self-flagellation.
When I was a kid, I thought that you had to write a diary every single day. A lot of people believe this, but very few manage it, and most give up because of this misconception. Don’t beat yourself up when you have non-writing periods. Accept these empty spaces as significant, as structuring absences, and consider what they might mean for you. Above all:
Write when you need to write.
At the moment a big gap is developing between today’s date, and the last one I wrote in my journal. I know why this is. I am ill. Staring into space or lying on the sofa watching Harry Potter yet again is about as profound as I can manage right now, and I’m okay with that. I will go back to it when I am ready, and because I don’t make a big deal about it, I won’t be creating any blocks, so the gap will be much smaller than it would have been otherwise.
Are you creating a journal gap, a structuring absence, consciously or not? Take some time to contemplate why this might be happening for you – you don’t have to write about it in your journal, just allow it some kind and accepting thought. It may because you are hung up on ‘doing it right’. It may be because there is a HUGE elephant in your life that you are simply not ready to address yet. It may just be because you are present in your life, too busy or, what a delight, having too much fun!
Whatever is going on for you with this, make peace with it. Be accepting of yourself. You might even want to write something in your journal to that effect:
‘I am not writing much here at the moment and I’m okay with that. I’ll get to it when I need to.’
You may not want to write in the ‘why’. Perhaps that is better left until you are ready to write again.
And if you are writing regularly, and getting lots out of it, make sure you relax into it and don’t make it an OUGHT.