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Journals, Boswell, and R. Crumb

July 26, 2011

I began keeping a daily journal at the age of fourteen. At first, the subject matter was typical teenage stuff—who said what to whom in class, what happened after school with friends, predictable schoolgirl topics. But in the eleventh grade I discovered the London Journals of James Boswell, and was captivated. The way I kept my own journal changed forever.

It seems odd now in retrospect that a 16-year-old would enjoy reading journal entries written by a 22-year-old in the 1760s, but I loved the way that Boswell portrayed himself, warts and all. His journal reveals not only genuine talent and intelligence, but also obtuseness, lust, vanity and all the rest of the mixed bag of characteristics that we all share. What interested me was that he didn’t try to whitewash himself, erasing his less noble deeds from future history by simply not recording them. Instead, as a means of self-correction, he intentionally wrote down the occasions that display his own foolishness, as when he showed off in front of his companions, dallied with prostitutes or incurred a woeful hangover. For me, Boswell’s honesty is his most winning characteristic. Who can forget the scene in which the young and drunken Boswell goes to the theater and ends up diverting the audience during the performance by mooing like a cow from his balcony seat?

This same brutal lens of self-scrutiny is also employed by the artist R. Crumb, who detailed his own life in cartoon form, leaving nothing out, exposing his most personal thoughts and deeds, going far beyond the point at which most people would have stopped with embarrassment. (Crumb appreciates Boswell as well and did a wonderful job illustrating a selection of entries from the latter’s London Journals.) Crumb, for better or for worse, invented the autobiographical blog we are all now familiar with, albeit in cartoon form. One can argue that everyone who spills their guts about the minutia of daily life on WordPress today owes Crumb a debt, even if they have never read his comix.

Because the great man of letters Samuel Johnson had praised Boswell’s habit of daily journal-keeping, he found renewed motivation to continue recording his life in it. Because I found and read Boswell’s own journal when I was sixteen, I was inspired to move beyond teenage topics to examine my life and the things around me. The ripple effect of Johnson’s advice to Boswell reached all the way down through two hundred years to me, because Boswell had recorded it.

At this point I’ve been keeping a journal for nearly four-fifths of my lifetime. The journal has shaped me every bit as much as I have shaped it, despite any pretensions on my part to being the boss. The journal and I are now so entwined that’s it’s no longer clear who is running the show. I can’t leave for vacation without packing it; and whenever important events happen I schedule ample writing time the next day in order to have enough time to carefully set those events down on paper. I switched to acid-free paper when I found that the old notebooks were turning yellow, and I only use non-scratchy pens that leave the darkest lines. I put up with my journal’s demands because I feel protective and responsible toward it. I’m obliged by love and long habit to tend it, as if it were a child. If it were to be lost or destroyed, I’m honestly not certain whether I could ever reconcile myself to the loss.

I’ve written many genres of prose and fiction but none has seized my enthusiasm the way that journal-writing has. Some might shrug this off as simple megalomania on my part, in emphasizing my journal rather than practicing some other form of writing. What’s so great about The Marvelous Story of Me, anyway?

The short answer is that it’s not about me, but about how I respond as a writer to the world around me. I don’t invent the events that happen to me, I simply record them. Like Boswell, I include things that are personally embarrassing in order to gain insight afterwards. Like Crumb, I examine myself on the page and strive for complete honesty. I make an effort to write in an interesting way and to find quirky elements in what I record, because my journal deserves more than just humdrum entries repeated ad infinitum.

Because I have followed this formula for so many years, I have probably unintentionally thrust myself into situations which I might not otherwise have gotten involved in, purely for the reason of emerging afterward with a terrific journal entry. And isn’t that, after all, the true meaning of “journalist”?


From → books

  1. Robert Cherry permalink

    I enjoyed your comments. I went here looking for the advice Johnson gave to Boswell to keep a journal but stayed to read what you wrote. I, too, kept a journal, though in my case it is in the past tense. But, having read my father’s diary, which covered ages 20-22, and 34, when he served in the army during WWII, I’m inspired to resume keeping my diary/journal. Best and thanks, R. Cherry

    • Thank you very much for visiting, Robert! I whole-heartedly support you in resuming your own journal. A daily journal (even a quasi-daily one) is an aid to memory; a writer’s practice-ground, and a future source of entertainment and insight. All my best, Carrol

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