Transposing Fiction

Woman Writing Letter Pic       Man Writing Letter Pic

Photo Credit: Young Girl Writing a Love Letter, Pietro Antonio Rotari, 1755, oil on canvas, Norton Simon Museum: Wmpearl/ Wikimedia Commons/CC PD Mark 1.0

Photo Credit: The Man Writing a Letter, Casper Netscher, 1665, oil on canvas, Gemaldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden, Germany: Mattes/Wikimedia Commons/PD Art (PD Old 100)


“Write immediately, yes! But as artist! Write with the task in mind— always trying to say the thing in the best way you can.” (Miller, to Anais Nin, pg. 218)

I’ve mentioned a few times here about my appreciation for diary or journal writing. For example, I talked about the way that diaries can help record random observations to use later in fiction in my blog post about ragpicking.

Anais Nin’s reliance on her dairy was both her gift and her challenge. I talked in this blog post about Nin’s inability to speak when she was a child so she used the diary as her voice. In A Literate Passion: Letters of Anais Nin & Henry Miller 1932-1953, Gunther Stuhlmann points out in his introduction, “[t]he diary had been her refuge, her workshop, and the act of writing her only stabilizer” (location 48). At the same time, she made such potent observations about her own life and those around her and she was anxious to transcribe them into fiction. Even though “she had … realized that to become a writer she had to emerge from the sheltering secrecy of her diary” (Stuhlmann, Introduction, location 56), this was difficult for her for several reasons.

In many ways, the diary Nin started when she was twelve years old was her crutch. It was a safe place for her to express her emotions and make her observations but it was also the place she could hide without having to deal with possible rejection from the outside world. Henry Miller realized this early on. In a letter dated April 20, 1933, Miller writes to Nin:

“I think again that one of the reasons you have lodged so firmly in the diary is because of a fear to test your tangible self with the world… You have gotten ingrown, more and more protected, more and more sensitive— and that produces poisons and gems, the clotted, spangled phantasmagoria of neurosis.” (Miller, to Anais Nin, pg. 147; emphasis added)

Diaries do become a safe place for many writers. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that, when I discovered writing at the age of fourteen, I didn’t just begin a work of fiction but I also simultaneously began a journal. Like Nin, I had no voice (though mine was more on a psychological level than a literal one) and my journal was my safe place to speak my mind, give my opinions, and make my observations about the world without the kind of criticism I was getting from those around me.

Another challenge Nin faced in transposing diary observations into fiction was more structural. Diaries or journals usually don’t follow a specific narrative path, as they record a person’s life in dated entries. One of the reasons writers are drawn to diaries or journals is because they are uncensored and unstructured, no editing and proofreading involved. Fiction, on the other hand, builds a story readers can follow with peaks and conflicts. In October of 1933, Nin sent Miller some of her first attempts at writing fiction in which she was trying to transform observations about him, his wife June Miller and Dr. Rene Allendy, a psychiatrist she was seeing that she had made in her diary. Miller’s critique came in the form of a long letter on October 12 where he makes clear that, while he is enthusiastic about the story, it isn’t quite a story. He observes, “[t]he story … will interest everybody in the world… A marvellous story. But a bad diary… the diary writing mars the story, strangles it” (Miller, to Anais Nin, pg. 215-216; emphasis original).

He further points out the story Nin is trying to write is missing basic structural elements that engage readers such as the highs and lows and purposes in a story:

“What you are trying to do is a piece of art that is perfect in itself as art and yet retains the imperfection, the human fragmented, chaotic characteristics of a diary written on the spot in white heat.” (Miller, to Anais Nin, pg. 216)

In other words, the “white heat” chaos that served Nin so well in her diary and liberated her voice wasn’t really working in the fictional piece. As Miller emphasizes, “the story is the more important thing— not your diary” (Miller, to Anais Nin, pg. 216; emphasis added).

Nin responded to Miller’s critiques a few days later in an understandably angry and defensive tone. She rightly pointed out that Miller “[had] it in for the diary” (Nin, to Henry Miller, pg. 219), as elsewhere in other letters, Miller expressed his disapproval of diary-writing. She also rightly pointed out that Miller’s critiques were, in a sense, trying to take over her own style and voice:

“A certain rewriting of another’s writing can be dangerous and go beyond criticism. You’re writing now as you would, changing things which are not wrong but different, sometimes.” (Nin, to Henry Miller, pg. 220)

One of the fascinating things about the friendship between Nin and Miller, that Nin herself observed and spoke of many times in her diary, is that they managed to maintain it for more than forty years even while their writing and their philosophies about writing were entirely different.

Nevertheless, Nin did take to heart Miller’s point that the story is the thing and continued to probe into her fiction, transposing her diary observations into her stories. And it paid off. In a letter dated ten years later, Miller writes Nin about a review of her book Winter of Artifice by poet William Carlos Williams. He writes:

“[Williams] pays you a high compliment… and says almost what you yourself say— what you told Rank— about woman as creator.” (Miller, to Anais Nin, pg. 353)

In other words, Nin had reached the level of creator with her fiction and had finally succeeded in breaking away from the diary and become the fiction writer she wanted to be.

Works Cited

Stuhlmann, Gunther. A Literate Passion: Letters Of Anais Nin And Henry Miller 1932-1953. Harcourt, Brace, & Company, 1987. Kindle digital file.



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