work & days: a lifetime journal project 
This site will be in progress indefinitely. The journal begins in 1958. I started transcribing in 2003 and am now (in 2015) almost caught up, but formating and cross-linking will go on for years more. Some section introductions are still to write.


 

 

 

 

 

 

  
Project introduction

There is first the craft of being and seeing, and then the craft of writing from that attention.

The Work and days web project is a way of publishing a lifetime's collection of journals. They began when I was twelve. The first entry was a complaint about my father. Two volumes have been lost. The first was in a bag stolen from a cellar in Paris when I was twenty-one, the second forgotten on a phone kiosk in LAX between flights when I was fifty-four. I have all the rest, and so they span forty-some years nearly unbroken.

I am wondering whether these journals have been the real work of my life. I hesitate to say so, but the evidence is that writing them is what I have been most loyal to. There have been long stretches when I've done nothing else. I have had to write in a journal. I don't know how anyone can live hand-to-mouth without that perfectly intimate support.

Like many people, I have used them to sort myself when I was confused or in pain, to store happiness I didn't trust to last, to make reading notes, and to think my way through questions in work, but they have always also been something more impersonal. I've been aware that I was studying and recording something shared by anyone, a finite life and its sense of being; and I've wanted to be clear and accurate for the sake of that shared study.

They aren't secret journals. I have always wanted someone to want to read them. At the same time I have tried to write them as if no one were looking, because losing the naturalness of the private voice would have been losing my ability to be.

The naturalness of the journal's voice - voices - is partly learned. I discovered there were such things as journals in LM Montgomery's Emily of New Moon when I was ten. Emily also taught me a use of personal writing to sustain a loving self that wasn't supported in the family or community. In my twenties there was Doris Lessing's The golden notebook, which showed me how to think in a sharp, sustained way about sex, friendship and politics. In my thirties I kept rereading Dorothy Richardson's Pilgrimage for its breath-taking closeness as a phenomenology of being. I had been put off by Woolf, maybe by her brittleness, probably by her confessions of anxiety and envy, but in my forties I leapt into her diaries with delight in any particle of her virtuosity in malice, envy and every other bad thing. I have also adored Coleridge's notebooks - the physical observation, the anguish, the philosophical pondering, and these things being muddled together in whatever way they came.

My long dilemma has been that the journals have seemed unpublishable. Since they are the center of my writing work, and since work that hasn't been given is in a way work that has never been done, that conclusion has been a misery.

The journals have seemed unpublishable because they are too long, because they are about too many kinds of things in too many kinds of voice, because they talk about living people in too candid a way, because the person revealed in them is too nonpleasant, and because I am not well-positioned enough to make them interesting to a large audience.

Web self-publishing solves these difficulties. Their length doesn't matter because they can be posted in bulk but read in sips. Stories, voices and topics can be internally linked as separate paths through a large matrix. No publisher has to take care not to be sued. There is no need to recover costs and so the fewness of readers matters less.

I do have misgivings about talking about myself in public for so many thousands of pages. I understand, though, that wherever those pages are well written, readers will in some sense be reading about themselves rather than about me.

I also have misgivings about posting stories about other people, since doing so can betray what was private when it happened. This is an unsolvable problem. Writers fictionalize to avoid this betrayal, and when they do I am frustrated and irritated by the inaccuracy and blur that result. I try to read between the lines to what actually happened, and to whom. I am grateful to writers who don't fictionalize, or who only pretend to, because what they say is more reliable. I want that reliability from others, and also want to give it.

The best stories in these journals are stories about loves and friendships, and it's not possible to tell those stories without telling stories about the friend. Leaving out what might embarrass people with more sense of privacy than I have or leaving out unflattering descriptions would falsify the friendship and spoil the story. So I am not leaving these things out, but I am trying otherwise to be careful. I am not changing my friends' names, because their names are central to who they are and cannot be faked. Anyone who knows me will know who they are in any case. But I am not giving their last names, so stories about them cannot come up in a web search by outsiders. Though parts of the story do not flatter, others show how wonderful these friends particularly are. Hopefully the story of the friend can float over bad and good times the way the friendship itself does. I try to make sure I don't say worse things about my friends than I do about myself. If they show me I've said anything about them that isn't true, I will remove it.

There are a few exceptions to this rule of reliability. I have given my children a veto on any passage in which I describe them, and will sometimes change names where I say unflattering things about people who aren't close to me, since in those instances there is no overriding affection. Where my friends have a professional web presence that could be damaged by my disclosures I leave out last names. Outright elisions are noted in square brackets.

The project's over-all title is Work and days. Hesiod's The works and days was written in Boeotia in central Greece in a dialect similar to the Homeric, probably at the end of the 8th or beginning of the 7th century BCE. It has been described as the first work in Greek literature to offer us a glimpse into the life of the common people, and especially of the farmers. Hesiod and I both had fathers who were farmers and both made our way into more cosmopolitan communities. He was born a pagan and I became one. His book describes qualities of weather and season, and is interested in practical skills. Apart from those points, the parallel is not strong. I liked his title and took a version of it.