Diaries and Fiction

Diary PicFiction Pic

Photo Credit: One of the most famous diaries of all time – Anne Frank’s diary. Pp. 92-93 of Anne Frank’s Diary (original page numbers of Anne Frank: Diary of a Young Girl), Anne Frank House, Amsterdam, The Netherlands. Taken on April 5, 2009 by Heather Cowper: Flickr upload bot/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 2.0

Photo Credit: Books 6, taken on March 9, 2010 by Brenda Clarke: ~Brenda Starr~/Flickr/CC BY 2.0


“One thing is very clear – that both diary and fiction [tend] towards the same goal: intimacy with people, with experience, with life itself.” (Nin, location 2831)

Last week, I wrote about the challenges Anais Nin faced when transposing diary observations into her fiction. It got me thinking about diary-writing and fiction. In Nin’s book on writing, The Novel of the Future, she admits “[i]n my own mind, taking notes from reality and recording daily life faithfully seemed the opposite of inventing… stories” (Nin, location 1972). But diary or journal writing and fiction are not as mutually exclusive as we might think.

On the face of it, diaries or journals and fiction seem very different, almost at opposite ends of the writing spectrum. Diaries are about real life, fiction is about made-up worlds. Diary is about recording reality faithfully, fiction is about altering it. But the comparison is more complex.

A diary is a personal document, uncensored and unedited, free of judgment. Fiction, on the other hand, is meant to be shown to an audience (even if a limited audience) and therefore is open to judgment and censorship. In the above mentioned blog post, I discussed how being censored by the world if her authentic self of the diary is exposed in fiction was one of Nin’s main psychological blocks when trying to transpose the keen observations she made about herself and those around her into her fiction. The fear of judgment was what also made me keep a journal simultaneously to writing fiction when at the age of fourteen and it took me a long time to venture my authentic writing voice and style into the world because of this fear of censorship.

Fiction is also less personal by nature because emotions are filtered through characters, story, and setting that don’t belong to the real person of the diary or journal. I talk a little bit about this in my post about the freedom of fiction. Nin often used the people in her world as characters in her fiction, as many writers do, but they were never a true reflection of the personalities:

“A character in the novel is always someone I had known and recorded in the diary. But the art of fiction makes composites, expands, extends, alters such a character.” (Nin, location 1986)

Elsewhere, I mention that my short story “A Birthday Gift” was based partly on a real incident that happened on one of my mother’s birthday celebrations but that the in the story, I transported the complex relationship between my parents into a fictional world, which made it easier to grapple with and explore.

One interesting aspect of a diary or journal is it often times records life in real time. That is, we record observations in a diary or journal over a time span of years, we see the evolution of those we observe through time. In fiction, however, the space is more limited, so observations about people and incidents are condensed. Nin writes:

“In the diary [you] follow the development, growth, and ultimate climax, the life of a character develops more slowly in time… [In fiction,] time is accelerated. So a new concept of time takes over, and it becomes a different story.” (Nin, location 3946)

This is another element of transforming character from diary to fiction – writers cherry pick what elements are right for the story rather than record everything automatically. Nin admitted that this was one of the reasons she found fiction writing so challenging:

“The diary made me aware of the organic and perpetual motion, perpetual change in character. When you write a novel or a short story, you are arresting motion for a period of that story, a span of time. There is something static about that.” (Nin, location 2938-2954)

As I discussed in last week’s blog post, Henry Miller felt a diary or journal is only a means to an end. That is, it is a place to record observations, people’s characters, and incidents but it’s up to fiction to turn them into something delightful and meaningful. One of the beauties of keeping a diary is it documents real time but Miller felt strongly this hindered fiction writing. In a letter to Anais Nin, included in A Literate Passion: Letters of Anais Nin & Henry Miller, 1932-1953, he wrote:

“I [feel] that perhaps this is one of the great failings of writing a diary instantly after a thing happens— it frustrates the needed accumulation of drag and slag, of flesh and blood, of obscurities and obstacles and obfuscations, which because they must be tackled and offer one resistance produce inevitably the quality of art.” (Miller, to Anais Nin, pg. 218)

The “drag and slag” is necessary for writers to create three-dimensional characters because characters are not frozen in the present. They are informed by their past actions and by what they might do in the future. Writers have to see the bigger picture of their characters in order to tell about them authentically and accurately for the story.

But it’s the details that make fiction worthwhile and a diary or journal forces you to notice things you wouldn’t normally notice. This was true for Nin, as she writes, “[i]f the diary had not given me almost meteorological interest in each new day, I might not have noticed each day anew…” (Nin, location 1227). I have found this to be true as well. I’ve mentioned in several posts about the elderly couple I observed at Starbuck’s who reminded me of my grandparents and who will find their way into my novella The Claustrophobic Heart (Waxwood Series: Book 2), one of my works in progress. I don’t think they would have caught my attention as more than just people in line at Starbuck’s if I hadn’t had my journal with me. It was having a place to write about them at the moment I observed them that made me realize how similar their relationship seemed to my grandparents and how they were ripe as characters in a future book. This demonstrates how diary observations and contemplations are valuable but have no meaning until they are fed into fiction.

I am not trying to advocate that every writer keep a diary or journal (although many do). But seeing it as a complete opposite of fiction and therefore a waste of time isn’t quite correct. As Nin observes “[t]he people who turn to the diary are seeking themselves, the tracing of a route towards expansion and awareness, the road to creativity” (Nin, location 1375).

Works Cited

Nin, Anais. The Novel of the Future. Sky Blue Press. The Anais Nin Trust, 2014 (original publication date 1968). Kindle digital file.

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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