Helen Garner's diaries: a literary monument to writing for oneself

At age 80, Garner is a national treasure, and her diaries should be seen as her life's work.

Helen Garner's diaries: a literary monument to writing for oneself

Helen Garner (nee Ford, born 7 November 1942) is something close to a literary institution in Australia, and her Diaries series is binge-able, now that all three volumes have been released. Each instalment only takes a couple of hours to read, and they are absorbing hours—in fact, I found Garner’s Diaries as propulsive as the most addictive page-turner and as exquisitely rendered as her best fiction.

The first sentence of the first part—“Maybe it’d be a good idea to start another diary, just to cream it off”—throws us into the middle of a life in full swing and the muddle of a mind well used to conversing with itself. What follows is composed of fragments, organised chronologically but undated: snippets of conversation; brief evocative descriptions; vignettes about family, friends, and strangers; reflections on reading; notes on writing; excerpts from correspondence; snapshots of experiences; dialogues of conversations; reports of feelings and short quotations are all bundled together, forming an impressionist concatenation of Helen’s “self”. The entries do not privilege “extraordinary” over “ordinary” events, in terms of scope, space, or selection: Garner writes about suicides, bushfires and trips to Japan with the same gusto she uses to describe quotidian events, like grocery shopping and hair cuts.

Yellow Notebook: Diaries Volume 1: 1978-1987 (published in 2019), is the story of an author at the beginning of her career and the end of her second marriage. Garner is living in Paris with F, her husband and M, her daughter from her first marriage (Garner doesn’t name the people who populate her life, and it can be difficult, initially, to keep track of who’s who. There are friends, B, Y, J and T; there is a K, and there is an L, who may or may not be lovers, we can’t be sure. But much of the Diaries’ information is in the public realm, and it takes little effort to google keywords successfully—for example, F is Jean-Jacques Portail, and V is Murray Bail). We discover that Garner’s first novel, the famously autobiographical Monkey Grip (1977), has won the National Book Council Award. About this, she says: “I must disabuse myself of the illusion that I once sat down and wrote a novel. I am not good at constructing major pieces of work”. And a few pages later: “Divorce papers came today from Australia. I was sad, remembering that failure, afraid of another one…” She self-evaluates brutally, all the while questioning whether she will ever write again and whether she will ever love, or be loved, again.

One Day I’ll Remember This - Diaries Volume 2: 1987–1995 (published in 2020) starts as Garner embarks on a love affair with V and ends with her marriage to him, the publication of The First Stone and the furore that followed it. “Falling in love at this age is terrible,” she says, “because it makes you fear death”. About the writing: “I see its hideous over-writtenness. Strained, self-conscious, affected, over-ambitious, too complicated”. The Helen in these entries is more mature and established, but perhaps not as happy. She’s working for magazines and journals, invited to overseas festivals, and serving on the selection panel for the Literature Board. She buys her first house and a block of land in the bush. The entries are full of small occasions, glancing insights, and a slowly accumulating drift of action and consequence.

How To End a Story - Diaries Volume 3: 1995-1998 (published in 2021) is an account of a woman fighting, yet again, to hold on to a disintegrating marriage. This is a harrowing story, a portrait of the messy, painful, dark side of love lost, betrayal and sadness and the sheer force of anger. But it is also a story of resilience and strength, strewn with sharp insight, moments of joy and hope, and the immutable ties of motherhood. Major dramas remain slightly out of focus, but little images are sharp and wonderful—the smell of the rain in the middle of the night, the praying mantis in the twig of bottlebrush with three flowers on it, the morning sun carefully warming her back through the cyclone wire fence.

The thread which interweaves these patchwork pieces into a single narrative is, of course, their author’s firm commitment to the first person singular: the all-seeing “I”. Helen (or should I say H?) is, without doubt, the heroine of her own life, a figure at once twitchy and egotistical, an irascible over-sharer, by turns sympathetic because she is so distrait and a pain because she is so blind. I became angry at the terrible behaviour she endures, as well as some she is party to—H is no saint. She has an intimate resemblance to the "real" Garner but is also a literary construct executed with a piteous candour.

H is, above all, a savage self-scrutineer, and her exasperating dance with self-doubt is perhaps the strongest theme in the Diaries. “I have a lot of trouble with self-disgust” she declares. She hauls herself over the coals, unsparingly criticising her writing skills (“grief is not too strong a word for what one feels before one’s own weakness and mediocrity”); her personality (“a sack of different sadnesses being hauled around by a skeleton”); her love life (“no wonder he can’t stand me. I can hardly stand myself”); her mothering (“she reminds me of myself. Behaving with a queenly, detached selfishness that shocks and enrages people”). “Despair and sadness and fear are easier to write about than hope, happiness, confidence,” she says in self-defence.

It seems an almost universal symptom of diarists, especially women diarists, to feel, at some point, like frauds, impostors, people who will never amount to anything, who lifelessly trot out old themes because they have nothing new to say. Sylvia Plath and Virginia Woolf, for example, kept diaries, and, in both works, there is the same agonised self-censure. “Well, you see, I’m a failure as a writer,” declares Wolf. Being published doesn’t remove the feeling but only worsens it. “You stop in shock at the words you utter,” protests Plath “they are so rusty, so ugly, so meaningless and feeble from being kept inside the small, cramped dark inside you”. Only the process of rendering her experience into language seems to prompt the diarist to take herself, her life, her experience, and her written voice seriously—it certainly seems to have expanded H’s sense of identity.

“I don’t how the Nazis burnt those books; they must have thrown petrol on them because it’s really hard to burn books,” Garner says.

It may come as a surprise, then, to know that Garner burned all her early diaries. She was “bored” with her “younger self and her droning sentimental concerns”. The diaries were “just whingy,” she says, “that sort of girl’s whingy, He doesn’t love me, what have I done wrong? I know it must be my fault. And all that sort of crap.”

“I remember that movie in the ‘80s about that guy who had to climb up a waterfall. He had all these things on his back that were representing his sins, and he had to claw his way up with water cascading. That’s what it’s felt like to have kept a diary for 35 years,” Garner says about the scorched pages. Perhaps she felt that obliterating the diaries would somehow absolve her from decades of wickedness. Easier said than done: “I don’t how the Nazis burnt those books; they must have thrown petrol on them because it’s really hard to burn books,” Garner says, recalling her experience in an interview for the Literary Hub. “The way they’re bound and everything, they don’t catch for ages, and you have to tear them with strength, you have to pull them out of their bindings. So that was very strenuous”

The point at which Garner stopped incinerating - 1978, when she was 36 - is the point at which the Diaries series begins. “I’m not sure if it was a matter of a tonal shift in the writing or greater brevity, or because I’d stopped going on and on about ‘love’,” she says, “but reading what I’d written back then gradually ceased to embarrass me. It seemed that in 1978 I had sat up and taken a proper look around”.

Like the great serial autofiction writers of our time—Edward St. Aubyn, Elena Ferrante and Karl Ove Knausgaard—Helen Garner frequently disturbs attempts to summarise her works’ characteristics within formalised boundaries (In fact, Garner tapped into the vein of autofiction well before it became popular on a global scale). So much of Garner’s oeuvre (I’m thinking of Joe Cinque’s Consolation and This House of Grief) inhabits an uneasy genre, balanced between literary and historical writing, between the spontaneity of reportage and the reflectiveness of crafted text, between public, observable exteriors and private, subjective interiors (this list of dichotomies could be extended). The Diaries are no different, and, while reading them, it is difficult to hold firm the dividing line between fiction and creative nonfiction. This is not to say that Garner is a liar, but simply that her Diaries are rhetorically indistinguishable from fiction and demand the same kind of interpretation, the same scrutiny of a self that is ultimately a work in progress.

The diary as life-long literary experiment

I am an avid diarist and have been since I was 8 years old. Although I have always kept my diary on the computer, I used to print them out, and my childhood and adolescent years bulge sideways on bookshelves. Sheets of paper of different colours, textures, shapes, and sizes protrude beyond the covers, refusing to be neatly contained, and, on several, the binding, stretched beyond its limits, is threadbare, split and worn. This is because, besides storing daily accounts, my early diaries are a depository for photographs, pictures, drawings, doodles, lists, maps, newspaper cuttings and tear-outs, letters, greeting cards, invitations, and other mementos. These diaries I now think of essentially as archives, primary sources from which I can gather firsthand facts, data, and evidence about my own psychological development. Each entry is fixed in time, reflecting moods, feelings and insights at any given moment and together they preserve and reveal a reality, which cannot be changed but can be re-storied to provide guidance for tomorrow.

Lately, I’ve begun to see the text which composes my diary itself as a mere byproduct, or residue, of writing. Nowadays, I use my diaries, within the context of my private life, not so much as repositories, but as a process, a practice, that creates my private sphere of self-consciousness. The diary is a document, but it’s also an activity, which allows for cathartic expression without fear of censorship or recrimination; provides a safe testing ground for questions and half-formed thoughts and insights; stimulates creativity and the flow of ideas by removing the fear of premature critical judgment; and builds confidence through the gradual emergence and evolution of the written voice. Like religious self-examination, the diary can be seen as an account of one’s personal economy—financial, emotional, and spiritual. Thus, in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Puritans and Pietists used diaries to monitor the sinful self and (as far as the Pietists are concerned) to bring about an internal conversion that leads to salvation. Like those in therapy, diarists use introspection for the purposes of moral self-perfection and the cultivation of feeling.

Sometimes I think about my own diary as a life-long experiment, which tests the possibilities and constraints of my own ability to know, improve, and represent myself. It is a project with some real moral and philosophical significance. For instance, in the evening, I might make an account of today measured against the plan for tomorrow made yesterday, and make a plan for the next day, anticipating a tomorrow that will embody my moral ideal. I often discover that the plan (“tomorrow”) and its fulfilment (“today”) do not match. From this perspective, the “dull dailiness” - the mundane, routine, tasks of everyday life devoid of a sense of metaphysical significance—becomes a source of intense personal meaning and value.

The diary offers a unique template for tracking the self in time. As a serial text written continuously on a chronological grid, it mediates continually between the past, the present, and the future. Every entry exists in relation to the ones that proceed and follow it, and so the task of writing invites the speaking “I” to deal with the past while interacting with the present and the future. Each entry is meant to be read by its author at a later date, and there is hardly a diary that does not engage in recording the memories of the past or discussing plans for the future within the present day's entry. Thus the form represents the flow of the present life while anticipating the future and absorbing the past.

Self-surveillance and privacy

Garner’s Diaries, while intensely personal, are also highly self-conscious and consciously literary: she constantly reflects on what it means to write a diary, as a personal document and as a literary text. From 1987:

"What do you write in your diary?"

"Everything. I try to write all the worst things. That’s the hardest. The temptation to gloss it up. I force myself to put down the bad and stupid things I do, the idiotic fantasies I have."

"And do you read back over it?"

"All the time"

Helen Garner at Adelaide Writers' Week 2015. Photo: Flickr/Michael Coghlan

How should one read such a diary—caught, as it is, between personal confession and literary experimentation? First and foremost, the Diaries record Garner’s attempt to renegotiate her identity as a writer. Her writing discipline appears as a sort of self-surveillance, and this turns into the organising metaphor as well as the main structural principle of Diaries.

“Why the sneer in ‘All she’s done is publish her diaries’?”, Garner asks in her essay “I.” “It’s as if this were cheating. As if it were lazy. As if there were no work involved in keeping a diary in the first place: no thinking, no discipline, no creative energy, no focusing or directing of creative energy; no intelligent or artful ordering of material; no choosing of material, for God’s sake; no shaping of narrative… It’s as if a diary wrote itself, as if it poured out in a sludgy, involuntary, self-indulgent stream—and also, even more annoyingly, as if the writer of a diary were so entirely narcissistic, and in some absurd and untenable fashion believed herself to be so entirely unique, so hermetically enclosed in a bubble of self, that a rigorous account of her own experience could have no possible relevance to, or usefulness for, or offer any pleasure to, any other living person on the planet”.

A founding principle of the diary is a belief in its own privacy, but this principle does not reflect actual practice; in practice, the diary allows for a number of implied, and actual, addressees, from an intimate friend (or an intimate circle) to an unknown reader, who might read the diary in the future, in an archive or in print. But addressing implied readers and actually reading other people’s diaries does not necessarily change the presumption of privacy inherent in the genre. Reading other people’s diaries, even published diaries, involves a vestigial guilt that stems from the violation (albeit licensed) of the secrecy clause—a residue left over from the unpublished work. The success of the diaries of Samuel Pepys, Anaïs Nin, Franz Kafka, Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath and Anne Frank demonstrates the never-ending fascination diaries hold for readers. Reading others’ diaries is not simply a desire to fulfil some prurient, salacious, or concupiscent curiosity but also the performance of authentic witnessing - to revere the passion for truthfulness in another “I” that models for us this difficult virtue.

Garner’s original diary, kept over her whole lifetime, is bound to have been massive, and so the question of abridgement, with the inevitable exclusion of piquant personal details, comes in. Garner’s diaries, which she writes by hand, have been heavily redacted, but they are expertly paced and arranged. Hence the editorial purpose with which the diary has been prepared for publication influences our acceptance of the form. Garner set out a rule for publishing her diaries: “All I’m going to give myself permission to do is to cut, and fillet, and chop out bits”, she said. We don’t know what’s being left out and to what effect. So many details are erased, even from the entries that do appear, that there’s a blurring of the material that they present. Potentially the things which have been omitted are more important than the ones which have been kept in—we can never know. In so far as this is the case, these Diaries retain the genre’s special relationship to secrecy.

At age 80, Helen Garner is a national treasure, and the Diaries are her life’s work: they ought to be judged as such. They provide all the grit, guts, and goodness of the fiction that made her name, and their publication proves that the value of writing is firstly, for oneself.

Helen Garner writes novels, stories, screenplays and works of non-fiction. In 2006 she received the inaugural Melbourne Prize for Literature, and in 2016 she won the Windham-Campbell Literature Prize for non-fiction and the Western Australian Premier's Book Award. In 2019 she was honoured with the Australia Council Award for Lifetime Achievement in Literature. Her books include Monkey Grip, The Children's Bach, Cosmo Cosmolino, The Spare Room, The First Stone, This House of Grief, Everywhere I Look, Yellow Notebook, One Day I'll Remember This and How to End a Story.