A Little History of Whatever: On Writing “For Yourself”
To catch up on what you may have missed, read the introduction to this series here.
“Lustrous reader, read me—
light the lamp of your likeness over the stamp of mine” —Lightsey Darst
“When I dance, it’s for a single person, and it’s for the whole world.” —Hervé Guibert
“You aren’t ever a solitary voice.” —Joanne Kyger
If you've ever been in a writing workshop, it's likely, probably after a less-than glowing critique, you’ve heard someone say, “Well, I only write for myself anyway.” It’s entirely possible that’s true, though it does come off as defensive more often than not. Even so, being so widespread a claim, we tend to gloss over it as purely defensive, when, perhaps, we could learn something about why we write by examining it. And there can be no better form in argument for writing for oneself than the journal, right? Ostensibly the most intimate form, the form least concerned with audience.
Joanne Kyger would likely side with those defending their writing as something they do for themselves. She says, “You’re writing some kind of un-self conscious open utterance, being as clear as you can, or as muddled as you want. You’re not writing for anybody. It’s spontaneous.” This impulse for the spontaneous shows in some of her notebook pages, many of which are just the briefest notations about bird sightings or the weather. We learn that when Kyger was traveling she kept two notebooks, this smaller one for little details, and a larger version she used as a kind of home base to “ground” herself. It was this second type of notebook that led to many of Kyger’s journal-based projects. Perhaps that second journal makes sense of the answer Kyger gives when asked if she writes for anyone in particular in the same interview. "There’s a kind of address that goes on all the time, especially to your peers in poetry. Once you've published, you do realize someone is hopefully going to read your words."
Is that what we give up when the journal is intentionally made a public document? Can this un-self-consciousness be maintained or regained? Should it be our goal? Is the difference between the two notebooks that one is un-self conscious and the other is very conscious of the self as a spectacle for others? Is that second notebook a kind of performance?
Perhaps we find an example of un-self conscious writing in Guibert's Mausoleum of Lovers, his lyric autofiction acting as a mess of thoughts, lively in its unshapeliness. Then again, the whole project of the journals began as a kind of exhibitionism, a private performance for his lover. Additionally, by the end, with his death imminent, there is a turn where Guibert begins to realize (or perhaps he’s known all along) that the “novel” he was working towards writing with the journals as a frame, has simply collapsed into the frame, the artifice and structure irreversibly melded together by the crush of time.
Can we turn to Kyger, then, even in the face of her contradictions? She had no hand in editing There You Are. But someone did: Kyger’s student and friend Cedar Sigo says he was tasked with cutting all the interviews and ephemera, "into a shape." What’s more, much of the material is in interview format, a setting in which most anyone would feel conscious of oneself and fully aware of that fact that one is speaking to someone else.
And what of Darst? Well she, too, holds some of Kyger’s contradictions saying, “I’m only trying / to communicate something to myself—some cause or weather.” And later, “I don’t even want / to talk about it with myself.” Perhaps these are not mutually exclusive categories. There are things we try to communicate to ourselves that we do not want to communicate, hard truths, and Thousands is full of moments when hard truths suddenly crystallize into prisms refracting the quotidian light that passes through them. There is something of the theater in Darst I think, where a table in the middle of the stage is not a table, a line of direct address is somehow for no one and everyone.
We see in these writers, quite often, even an active pushing against the idea of the private made public. Darst says she doesn’t “believe a public private life is a revolutionary act.” Kyger tells us, “You are writing for yourself and if you can’t read your own writing back, it’s time to find out what or how you want to write things. ‘Confessional’ writing can be a very unburdening act, and is useful for clarifying confusing emotional situations. But if that is all you write down, it can be repetitious and tiresome.” And even Guibert acknowledges he “know[s] that these are all notes, tritely amorous . . .”
So why publish journals? To get right down to it, it seems to me that, even within a journal, writing is an art of twin witness—there is the writer as witness of the world and the reader as witness of the writing. The writer as witness is always aware of this second onlooker, even if that onlooker, as is sometimes assumed to be the case for journals, is simply a future version of the writer themself. Writing for oneself, then is always a kind of contradiction, one having written for no one except the infinite auditorium of your future selves who, in many cases, seats going as far back as the eye can see, might as well be complete strangers to the person writing.
Guibert sees writing as a kind of universal project to be entered into, publication acting as the recognition of one’s being what he calls a “favorable body.” “Writing might be a single force that distributes itself, over the centuries, while inserting itself into several favorable bodies, which would only be relays to the general project of writing, of this monumental trace, infinitely constituted.” It is as if we are following the outline of the historical saga, both grounded and pulled forward by it, even in the smallness of our everyday lives. Though to be clear, Guibert also states, “Returning to myself, to this journal. Being more and more alone.” So whatever connection one attains through writing, it is perhaps beyond the scale of everyday usefulness in fighting feelings of isolation.
“You talk to yourself to hear yourself talk, or to hear your typewriter talk or something like that. I mean who are you really talking to? You’re just a voice, a voice out there talking to itself about itself, going through its changes, gymnastics, watch-my-mind gymnastics,” says Kyger, further noting that this can become a “terrible preoccupation.” But this becomes at least one balm for loneliness perhaps, a way of building a scaffolding of correspondence, even if it is only with oneself. Even if it is only playing at interaction.
And maybe that’s all a journal is, a kind of play, a performance, a drama, a soliloquy, an aside, a monologue.
While Kyger is fairly silent on this point, Guibert adores it. “People applaud frenetically, because they need the performance. They are in need of astonishment.” And, after all, he says, “a book is a request for love.” Guibert steps into his role as the tragic figure, a clown or a hero it becomes difficult to tell, but the audience is rapt, ready to watch him put on the production of kidnapping himself, “since no one wants to kidnap [him].” The drama of it all is integral to the project, the journals nothing but a tiny stage projected in real color and bigger than life onto the mind.
Darst, too, with her many salutations to “dear” this-or-that, her deft and entrancing use of the second person, gives us some breakage in the fourth wall, some culpability in the dissolution of a romance through an affair (some interesting overlap with Guibert on this front), the difficulties of feeling grounded in a new place. This inclusion comes not only in the direct address of the reader, but also in the usage of small marginal notes indicating, days, times, locations. The reader is instantly forced to understand the work in a wider context. As someone who lived in Minneapolis for a few years, the evocation of specific cafes or bars around the city made me nostalgic and instantly aware of an entire world within and beyond the poem. But for those unfamiliar with the specifics of these notations, they evoke a certainty in the “thereness” of something, the presentness, the sustained now or nearly-now, the just-then, just earlier, just there.
Ultimately, while all these journals are dramatic histories, autobiographical museums of the self, we see in them three different relationships to time. Darst writes into the past, reflecting, shaping, using the distance afforded her to gain clear perspectives—we are with Darst in that we too hear the echo, almost ancient because it requires, far off back in some before-time some elsewhere-place, something off which the current utterance can bounce, some solid thing that isn't ours, isn't us. Guibert’s journals smack of the present, most entries written the day they occurred—he has a sort of maximalism of detail and scene, a glut of sensory detail and passing thoughts, an instant simulacrum of the moment. And finally, Kyger’s interviews and ephemera seem to have premonitions of the future, perhaps because they were curated by someone in that future—they all point in one direction, they seem to know something of what is to come.
For me the power of a journal is that it is always a correspondence, which is to say, in a basic sense, two points in relationship to each other. There is no vacuum in which one writes, even when writing for oneself. One comes from a heritage of writing. There is the legacy left after one has written. Journals are always love letters from the past to the future, from the dead to the living. They wish the best. They assume the best. They try to make what was bad lead to good and keep what is good alive by passing it along, by sending it forward as a gift.
In that spirit, a gift from Guibert for all of us heading into this new year:
“And you, reader . . . of these lines, if you have no hope left either, believe me, you can recover it, even if you feel alone know that from my grave I want to comfort you just as has just been done for me.”
Trevor Ketner holds an MFA from the University of Minnesota. They have been or will be published in Best New Poets, Day One, Ninth Letter, West Branch, Pleiades, The Offing, Lambda Literary, Devil’s Lake, Boxcar Poetry Review, Memorious, and elsewhere. Their essays and reviews can be found in The Kenyon Review, Boston Review, The Rumpus, and The Bind. Their chapbook Major Arcana: Minneapolis won the 2017 Burnside Review Chapbook Contest judged by Diane Seuss and will be published in 2018. They live in Manhattan with their husband Cormac.