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Lithium The Illusion of private worlds

Nov. 30, 2018
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In my childhood bedroom there are notebooks stacked on my desk, underneath my bed, and in my closet. There are pages filled with scribbled handwriting, ideas, thoughts, secrets, disasters I could not otherwise explain to other people. They gather dust. 

I wonder if Sylvia Plath knew her dusty journals would be sold in bookstores on multiple continents someday. Perhaps she knew, had some premonition about her poetry. She was brilliant, after all. But the words she scrawled to herself, the time she took to capture her every fleeting emotion—did she know their permanence? 

We live in a culture of personality, they say. We care about charisma, wit, and charm, and we crave to know how deeply these characteristics run. We hope, secretly, that they fade and falter in privacy. We are voyeuristic. We hunger to know the secret plagues of others, their tragedies, their sadness, their beliefs about themselves. We enjoy the prophetic; we revel in the ultimate celebrity of those who believed they would fade. We take work that was never meant for us, that was not curated for another soul in the world, and we analyze their words until the journals reflect new lives altogether. We build new beings to inhabit those private worlds, beings that we can better understand, that help us conceptualize ourselves. And still we hunger. 

When I sit down and open my journal, I tend to think that the only audience I am writing for is my future self, perhaps. And even then, only if she has the time. For me, as journal writing is for so many, writing is cathartic. Yet, sometimes when I do have the time and I read over the pages, there are sentences among the silly and melodramatic that someone else might take comfort in. We all, I think, have moments of brilliance. They are tucked in mundanity and concealed by routine but sometimes we can capture them, and they are revelatory. And I think this is what we hunger for in the journals of people who never would have wanted their journals to be read. 

“Perhaps some day I'll crawl back home, beaten, defeated.” Wrote Sylvia in her journal, “But not as long as I can make stories out of my heartbreak, beauty out of sorrow.” 

This is one of the most beautiful lines of prose I have ever read, and it was never meant for an audience. I was sitting on an airplane when I read it. I was flying home from London where I myself had kept a meticulous record of the sights I saw, the food I ate, the people I glimpsed. I was sitting in my tiny window seat, legs cramped, volume of her journals thick between my hands. And I cried. This was not Sylvia filtered through her own curation—it was to the best of our knowledge not ever meant to be found, and yet it is a line that could keep every contemporary writer awake with their poems and novels. Perhaps someday. 

Sylvia Plath is not alone in having her letters and journals posthumously published. Virginia Woolf, Frida Kahlo, Susan Sontag… Their journals and unfiltered thoughts are accessible to us. 

Anne Frank, too: the representative of a tragedy. She never lived to make a career or a portfolio for people to admire. Yet in her suffering, there is revelation. 

“In spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart. I simply can’t build up my hopes on a foundation consisting of confusion, misery, and death. I see the world gradually being turned into a wilderness, I hear the ever approaching thunder, which will destroy us too, I can feel the sufferings of millions and yet, if I look up into the heavens, I think that it will all come right, that this cruelty too will end, and that peace and tranquility will return again.” 

The battle cry of forgiveness and the song of innocence. Again, these words never meant to be read are now imposed on the memory of so many. 

Even when we write for ourselves, we know perhaps that we are writing for someone else too. Maybe it will be a person who we loved or knew; maybe it will be a stranger. But some audience, any audience, seems better to write for than the void where most human endeavor will inevitably go. Is it wrong to fight against that oppressive darkness in privacy? My hope, my only hope, is that I will write something, someday, perhaps intentionally or in my private ramblings, that will mean something to someone. I want to extend beyond my life and when I write, it is not only for myself—that would be a lie. It is for some other person too. A person who I cannot see through the fog, the darkening of light, but who comes closer still. Hungry. Even in the weaving of my private world I am performing and waiting, hoping to be seen, hoping to be loved, to be missed, to be mourned.