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Life-writing

Zadie Smith

For a long time I’ve wanted to keep a diary. I tried throughout adolescence but always gave it up. I dreamed of being very frank, like Joe Orton, whose diaries I admired; I found them in the library when I was about fourteen. I read them half as literary interest and half as pornography, thrilled to follow Joe around the many corners of the city in which I had only walked but he had managed to have illicit sex. I thought: If you’re going to write a diary, it should be like this, it should be utterly free, honest. But I found I couldn’t write about sexual desires (too shy, too dishonest), nor could I describe any sexual activity – I wasn’t getting any – and so the diary devolved into a banal account of fake crushes and imagined romance and I was soon disgusted with it and put it aside. A bit later I tried again, this time concentrating only on school, like a Judy Blume character, detailing playground incidents and friendship drama, but I was never able to block from my mind a possible audience, and this ruined it for me: it felt like homework. I was always trying to frame things to my advantage in case so-and-so at school picked it up and showed it to everybody. 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.

As a young adult I read a lot of Virginia Woolf ’s diaries and again thought that I really should keep a diary. I knew enough about myself by then to know that the retelling of personal feelings in a diary was completely intolerable to me, I was too self-conscious, and too lazy for the daily workload. So I tried to copy the form and style of Woolf ’s single-volume Writer’s Diary and make entries only on days when something literary had happened to me, either something I wrote or something I read, or encounters with other writers. That diary lasted exactly one day. It covered an afternoon spent with Jeff Eugenides and took up twelve pages and half the night. Forget it! At that rate the writing of the life will take longer than the living of it. I think part of the problem was the necessity to write in the first person, a form I have, until recently, found laborious and stressful. I was not able to use it with any confidence except in short, essayistic bursts. When I was younger even the appearance of ‘I’ on the page made me feel a bit ill – that self-consciousness again – and I would always try to obscure it with ‘we ’. I notice that once I got to America this began to change, and then snowball; looking up the page right now I see more cases of ‘I’ than a stretch of Walt Whitman. But still I have some mental block when it comes to diaries and journals. The same childish questions get to me. Who is it for? What is this voice? Who am I trying to kid – myself?

I realize I don’t want any record of my days. I have the kind of brain that erases everything that passes, almost immediately, like that dustpan-and-brush dog in Disney’s Alice in Wonderland sweeping up the path as he progresses along it. I never know what I was doing on what date, or how old I was when this or that happened – and I like it that way. I feel when I am very old and my brain ‘goes’ it won’t feel so very different from the life I live now, in this miasma of non-memory, which, though it infuriates my nearest and dearest, must suit me somehow, as I can’t seem, even by acts of will, to change it. I wonder if it isn’t obliquely connected to the way I write my fiction, in which, say, a doormat in an apartment I lived in years ago will reappear, just as it once was, that exact doormat, same warp and weft, and yet I can’t say when exactly I lived there, who I was dating or even if my father was alive or dead at the time. Perhaps the first kind of non-memory system – the one that can’t retain dates or significant events – allows the other kind of memory system to operate, the absence of the first making space for the second, clearing a path for that whatever-it-is which seems to dart through my mind like a shy nocturnal animal, dragging back strange items like doormats, a single wilted peony, or a beloved strawberry sticker, not seen since 1986, but still shaped like a strawberry and scented like one, too.

When it comes to life-writing, the real, honest, diaristic, warts- and-all kind, the only thing I have to show for myself – before St. Peter and whomever else – is my Yahoo! email account, opened circa 1996 and still going. In there (though I would rather die than read it all over) is probably the closest thing to an honest account of my life, at least in writing. That’s me, for good and for bad, with all the kind deeds and dirty lies and domestic squabbles and bookish friendships and online fashion purchases. Like most people (I should think), a personal nightmare of mine is the idea of anybody wandering around inside that account, reading whatever they please, passing judgment. At the same time, when I am dead, if my children want to know what I was like in the daily sense, not as a writer, not as a more-or-less presentable person, but simply the foolish human being behind it all, they’d be wise to look there.