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12:38 p.m. - Sunday, Feb. 01, 2004
Why This Diary Is Crap
An astute bilingual reader pointed out that, compared to my French diary, my English diary is crap. I had to agree with him. By comparison, this diary is cold, unemotional, superficial and petty. I don't do much in here but rant about little things that annoy me and exult over the fact that I'm about to get off work. Every time I open up Diaryland and get ready to write, I can almost feel this mask descending over me, this plastic mask, concealing and containing the emotional me. Part of the problem is that I usually write in here while I'm at work, and my boss is the kind of guy who reads over people's shoulders, so naturally I feel inhibited. But right now I'm at home, heh-heh.

The other part of the problem is that English is my native language. There is something oddly liberating about writing in a foreign tongue, even though it's also difficult, awkward and time-consuming. Nef has reported the same experience from the other side: a native French speaker, she finds herself feeling freer in her English blog, in spite of having to struggle with grammar and idiom.

There are purely technical considerations that influence the content of either diary. For example, right now I have a great desire to say, "I just bought a 12-quart saucepan at Meijer's — for $19.97! I wonder how long it will last? The sticker SAYS the non-stick finish is durable, but stickers lie all the time." In which diary am I going to say something so trivial? Well, the amount of time I would have to spend in dictionaries and grammar books and on Le Conjugueur just to compose those three sentences in semi-correct French seems to render the whole plan ridiculous, in light of the near-zero content of the message. So naturally, I come in here to say it. On the other hand, I already know all the French words for the great human experiences: life, death, joy, fear, grief, love, chocolate.

But (as I just demonstrated) I also know those words in English, so the technical aspect doesn't fully explain why all the soul-baring goes on over there. I come back to the fact that French is not my native tongue. Writing in French, I feel almost as if it is someone else doing the talking, but expressing my thoughts and feeling.

This expression of oneself through the words of another is, if you think about it, a common phenomenon in our society, and moreover tends to occur on the occasions of the greatest emotion, or the expectation of the greatest emotion. For example, wedding vows: the moment of bride and groom pledging themselves to each other for life is presumably a highly emotional moment, but they almost always use someone else's words. And if they do write their own wedding vows, frankly, it's squirm-inducing. Aside from the beautiful simplicity of the traditional vows and their (in our day) refreshing absence of psychobabble, I think the fact that they are someone else's words enters into the sincerity of the moment. A year after the wedding, the husband and wife will exchange anniversary cards — again, someone else's words. Why is it that people will spend hours in Hallmark stores, searching for the perfect card, in order to find someone else to say for them what is already there for the saying in their own hearts?

Perhaps during the courtship, one of them wrote a poem to the other. Now, we cannot suppose that he* did it out of aesthetic considerations: most amateur poetry is awful.** But it is, in a sense, a different language, a cadenced and rhyming language that he never speaks in the ordinary situations of daily life, so, again, there is that distance from his ordinary identity, from himself, that allows him the freedom to express openly his deepest and most sincere emotions.

Or take people who write diary entries consisting of song lyrics. I've spoken before about the added, mystical dimension of meaning conferred on the words by the music, but there is also the fact that those song lyrics were written by someone else. Yet the diarist takes the trouble to type them out to express his/her immediate emotional experience. It's less intelligible to the reader, of course, but presumably more intensely meaningful for the diarist than simply typing: "I just love X" or "I am SO glad that bastard's gone."

I can observe this phenomenon, but I can't explain it. I can't explain why I feel freer in French. I can't explain why self-written wedding vows always seem so inadequate. I can't explain why typing out three verses and a chorus written by someone who doesn't even know you seems a more appropriate self-expression than one line of self-generated prose.

I guess this whole screed can be summarized as: go figure.


*Yes, it could be she, but women tend to write poetry to their journals, not a man.

**Most modern professional poetry these days is awful, too, but that's another story.


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