Zadie Smith, Madeleine L’Engle, and the Artifice of Diary Keeping

I’ve been keeping a diary, off and on, from the time I was fourteen. As with all habits, there have been periods of intense focus and dedication and periods where my attention strayed, but—for better or for worse—I have a record, collected in fraying notebooks of varying shapes, sizes, and designs, of my life from adolescence to the present day. It’s a strange practice, and a strangely revelatory one. Through it I have learned a lot: about the art of writing, about the craft of analysis, and about the practice of storytelling—in particular the storytelling that we conduct on our own behalves.

I’ve been toying with an idea recently. I’m the sort of person who bookmarks pages and pages of articles and essays, eternally planning to get to them very soon and eternally leaving them to molder in the drafts folder of my Tumblr, or the saved pages of my Feedly, or the contents table of my Pocket. A while back I had the brainstorm to pick one languishing essay a week to read and then respond to in a blog post. The responses could be of any length I deemed appropriate, and they would be published every week as part of a series that I cheekily dubbed “From the Depths Fridays.” I had that brainstorm, and I even got so far as to read a suitable essay and make some comments on it in my diary. And then I got distracted.

Unread essays are not the only things in my life that I have a tendency to leave moldering, you see. I sometimes remind myself of that fact when writing in my diary.

I sometimes sweep that fact under the rug.

In her 1972 memoir, A Circle of Quiet, author Madeleine L’Engle relates an event that took place during her early married life in rural Connecticut. In vivid detail, L’Engle recounts the story of how a new neighbor from a big city, who had alienated every member of the small-town community in every conceivable way, were nonetheless helped by that community during a time of crisis. She then admits that the entire story was a fabrication, drawn from the bits and pieces of her life at that time (1). It’s a fascinating device, meant to illustrate the ability of fiction to be a truth inside a lie (2), but at the same time it hints at the susceptibility of the human mind—and particularly the artist’s mind—to the delights of the unreal. In an offhand comment in the course of the anecdote (and its deconstruction), L’Engle notes, “We do live, all of us, on many different levels, and for most artists the world of imagination is more real than the world of the kitchen sink.” (3)

I have often had cause to remember those words.

The essay I chose to read for my first-ever installment of “From the Depths Fridays” is a piece by Zadie Smith on her personal inability to keep a diary (4). As a habitual diary keeper myself, I was deeply curious to read Smith’s—who is an author I admire—thoughts on the subject. For Smith, the problem with diary keeping is not so much that it douses the creative spark or otherwise inhibits her ability to express herself. Instead, the problem with diary keeping is that it is fundamentally an act of pretense—of storytelling that we conduct only on our own behalves:

“The dishonesty of diary writing—this voice you put on for supposedly no one but yourself—I found that idea so depressing. I feel that life has too much artifice in it anyway without making a pretty pattern of your own most intimate thoughts. Or maybe it’s the other way ’round: Some people are able to write frankly, simply, of how they feel, whereas I can’t stop myself turning it into a pretty pattern.”

Smith’s benefit of doubt is generous. Is it possible to write frankly and simply, without “turning it into a pretty pattern”? Or is it only possible to come to grips with the inevitable pretenses that slip and slide their way into even the most private of musings?

A few years before her death, The New Yorker published a profile of Madeleine L’Engle’s life, in which they exposed the artifice of her beloved “non-fiction” memoirs (5). Through a series of interviews with family members and friends, a portrait of the complex embellishment that L’Engle’s memoirs were subject to emerges. Her relationship with her children was often strained. Her husband cheated on her at least twice. Her son died of alcoholism, supposedly brought on by an inability to deal with having been assigned the role of Rob Austin/Charles Wallace Murray and never being allowed to grow up in his mother’s mind. L’Engle seems quite clearly to have imagined a world for herself—a world that she faithfully narrated in her diaries but that did not quite exist outside of her own mind.

On this subject, I am in no position to throw stones. My own early diaries involve considerable fantasy recorded as fact. The major difference, as far as I can tell, is that my fantasies were structured around almost-science-fictional ideas—outlandish in their audacity—which made it easier for me to ultimately remember that they were not true (both at the time and later on). L’Engle, on the other hand, by designing so carefully from what she knew of the players in her own life, may not have been able to hold onto the distinction as well. Or perhaps she didn’t want to. We all have stories that we tell ourselves for one reason or another.

In the early days of diary keeping, I told myself stories because nothing ever really happened to me on a day-to-day basis. This is a roadblock that Smith also acknowledges, describing adolescent attempts to keep a diary as inevitably devolving into “a banal account of fake crushes and imagined romance.” My high school diaries were complete and utter fabrications, a record of the fantasy world that I lived my teenage life in the midst of, because my everyday life was so typically uninteresting. It was a coping mechanism. For boredom. For loneliness. But like so many coping mechanisms, it outlived its usefulness and had ultimately to be discarded.

At the heart of the practice of diary writing keeping is the primary question that Smith raises in her essay: “Who is it for?” And a follow-up question: What is it for?

In her New Yorker profile, L’Engle ultimately concedes her idealization of the people and incidents that appear in her non-fiction works, arguing that non-fiction itself is a false construct. “When people read your books,” she says. “They think they know everything, but they don’t. Writing is like a fairy tale. It happens elsewhere… the story creeps up whether we want it to or not.”

Keeping a diary is, at its most basic level, preserving the story of one’s own life. For me, it serves as the ultimate record of self, past and present. At various points in my life, I have gone back and reread my high school diaries, my college diaries, the diaries I kept when I lived abroad, and become again the person I was when I first wrote the words—or found myself completely incapable of becoming them again because I am at last too removed from my past self’s sphere of experience to identify with it any longer. In the course of such a process, you have a chance to look at the dreams and goals that were important to your earlier self and to determine who you are now—how true (or untrue) to your old ideals you have been and how happy (or unhappy) that has consequently made you. I suppose, then, that I would say in answer to the questions posed above, diary keeping is for the person keeping the diary, and it is undertaken for the purposes of someday reading, and thereby learning, one’s own story.

In the years since the days of my fantastical narratives, I have endeavored to be scrupulously honest in my diary—even going so far as to record things that I would not ever tell anyone of my acquaintance. (Often in parenthetical asides—as addendums to the story that are recorded for the sake of transparency but not meant to be included in any telling of the tale.) In this manner, my diary has come to serve as a place where I work out my emotional responses, analyzing and understanding them, before I share them with the people in my life. Consequently, diary keeping might be said to function for me in exactly the opposite manner to what Smith describes: as a place where I use my self to hone a public persona, rather than as a place where a persona eclipses that self.

Or perhaps I’m just telling myself another kind of story: not as bombastic as the epics of yore but a story nonetheless. Perhaps Smith is right, and the only way to avoid falling prey to the stories we tell ourselves is simply not to begin them in the first place.

But where’s the fun in that?


1) Madeleine L’Engle, A Circle of Quiet (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1972), 71-92.
2) This turn of phrase is adapted from Stephen King’s dedication to his 1985 novel, IT, in which he writes: “Fiction is the truth inside the lie, and the truth of this fiction is simple—the magic exists.” I’ve always loved it.
3) L’Engle, 89.
4) Zadie Smith, “Life Writing,” Rookie (February 16, 2015).
5) Cynthia Zarin, “The Storyteller: Fact, Fiction, and the Books of Madeleine L’Engle,” The New Yorker (April 12, 2004).


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