Tuesday, July 04, 2006

In the Footsteps of Pepys

I up betimes this morn (well, I’ve been re-reading Samuel Pepys diary and the style’s catching) and sitting here with my coffee, watching the sun come up over the vineyards, I get to thinking over this diary business.

Samuel, of course, wrote his in shorthand, not for the purposes of secrecy ( he used a standard shorthand system of the day) but because it was easier for him. The “naughty bits” he coded in an arcane mixture of French and Italian that would hardly fool anybody. And he was obviously quite proud of his efforts as he had them bound carefully and preserved them throughout his life.

To me they are a fascinating glimpse of the times and all the more so because they are transparently honest – a quality shared by few other diarists or even people, come to think of it!

The diary form has become popular with authors recently but I think it is a difficult format to pull off successfully. Bridget Jones has, I suppose, been the spur here, not Samuel, and the problem is that day to day existence is a bit on the boring side. Keeping it up for 300 pages without your reader falling asleep requires a touch of genius.

The answer is, of course, to skip the non-event days and concentrate on the juicy bits but here there is a problem of continuity. The work becomes, not a continuous flow of narrative, but a jerky, episodic recounting of events, which is fine as a historical record, but, to me, unsettling as a work of literary fiction.

Recently I was tempted to try the diary form for an auto-biography I was “ghosting.” The subject had provided me with an immaculately kept and detailed daily record, a great temptation since it would make life so much easier, I thought. After 50,000 words or so of the diary, I realised that it did not work as a book – it remained a diary. So I scrapped the lot and rewrote it as a straight narrative.

Perhaps a redeeming feature of “blogs” such as this, is that they are unlikely to come back to haunt us or even be read in the future. Sooner or later, a hard drive or server will crash somewhere and consign it to the happy hunting ground in cyberspace. Anyway, I won’t have to bother with having them bound up and carting them around with me. And there aren’t any bits that need putting into French or Italian!


Many thanks to those of you who passed me the information on finding this venerable word processing programme. It was good to find that so many agreed with me on its merits and that it is still alive, if in retirement.

It did have a pretty steep learning curve – but then, so did my first bike!


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