The text that follows is drawn from a stranger’s diary. I acquired the diary fifteen years ago, at a public estate auction. It was among the unsold items. I removed it from a box on its way to the garbage. It looks like garbage — I am surprised it made it to the auction house at all.
These are the first sentences of the introductory note I wrote for my book Aug 9—Fog, but I’m here to tell you they might not be entirely true. It’s true I acquired the diary in 2004 and it’s true I made a book-length text from it. It’s true the diary looked—looks, still—like garbage, and it’s true it ended up unwanted when its previous owner died. But when it comes to the actual landing of the diary in my hands, I can’t say with certainty how it happened.
It might have been as I say in the note—I picked it up at the end of an auction when, unsold, it was headed for a dumpster, where a lot of unsold items go. But scavenging the leftovers at the end of a sale is a tacky thing to do, discouraged by auctioneers—if you wanted it, you should’ve bid on it (you likely could’ve gotten it for a dollar)—and taking something in this context can be like stealing. It’s possible I didn’t know the etiquette—or didn’t care—and did it anyway.
But I also remember a day my father came home with a box of things and asked me if I wanted any of them. He and my mother were friendly with some local auctioneers. My father would help them clear out a house in preparation for a sale and, in thanks, the auctioneers would give him things. They’d also let him take things they didn’t want to bother with trying to sell, things they planned to throw out. My father doesn’t like to see things thrown out. I remember him presenting a box to me, and I remember taking items of interest from it—including, maybe, a battered, bandaged, water-damaged diary.
My parents remember an onsite auction the three of us went to, where an unusual number of personal items were on offer, including hundreds of family photographs spanning multiple generations. They recall looking through the cardboard flats of photographs on a hayrack in the backyard of the deceased’s house, and they remember an old woman—another bidder—picking up a portrait of a young woman and asking, Who do you belong to?
It’s possible I spotted, bid on, paid for the diary, at this auction or another one, but in my memory, it came to me more slantwise, by dumb luck or accident, as a discarded thing—a narrow miss with oblivion.
At first I loved only the physicality of the diary — the author’s cramped hand, the awkward, artful way she filled the page. I liked its miserable condition. Its position was tenuous — yet here it was. I didn’t try to read it. I kept it in a drawer. I assumed it illegible.
Like a lot of things I collected then, I liked the way the diary looked. I filled my desk drawers and closets with old photographs, postcards, nature guides, children’s primers, fabric, broken or unidentifiable objects. I made collages and assemblages. I intended to do something visual with the diary—make poster-sized prints of its pages or remove them from their binding to frame in neat groups—but it never felt right, so I didn’t.
Then, when I started to read it, the freedom I’d felt to use it as a found object carried through. But instead of collaging or reassembling it physically, I used the words and sentences as the material with which to work. As I read the diary, I typed out the phrases that seemed important and compiled them into a long word document on my laptop.
I was reading Lydia Davis at this time. I’d been introduced to her writing by the journal NOON, another recent discovery. I had in my head some things she said in a 2008 Believer interview with Sarah Manguso:
I came to [Samuel] Beckett very early on and was startled by his pared-down style. As I practiced writing (in my early twenties), I actively studied his way of putting sentences together. I copied out favorite sentences of his. What I liked was the plain, Anglo-Saxon vocabulary; the intelligence; the challenge to my intelligence; the humor that undercut what might have been a heavy message; and the self-consciousness about language.
The diarist’s prose is of course very different than Beckett’s, yet I think “plain, Anglo-Saxon vocabulary” is applicable, and I—like Davis—was startled by her pared-down style and humor, which felt deeply familiar. I was raised fifty miles from where the diarist lived. Her plain, direct speech, which I view as Midwestern vernacular, compelled me in the way of what Gordon Lish calls the “Ur-language”—that is, our earliest, pre-lingual encounter with language, the formation of our original or native speech, our “mother tongue,” learned at a time when we do not differentiate our person from the person of our mother or caregiver, or from our surroundings.
At this point — as you might expect — the diarist’s voice, her particular use of language, is firmly, intractably lodged in my head…In fact, I have possessed this work so thoroughly that the diarist has ceased to be an entirely unique, autonomous other to me. I don’t picture her. I am her. The diary has become something like kin — a relation who is also me, myself.
If you believe, as I do, that connecting with one’s original speech is central to the ability to write fiction, you’ll understand how—during the 10 or 15 years I struggled to learn to write stories—the diary served as a kind of textbook, something I could turn to when frustrated or lost. It taught me other things, too—how to select, cut, and edit, how to construct a narrative from scraps, how to trust the intuition that certain sentences or arrangements of words are better or more meaningful than others. Another passage from Davis’s Believer interview:
Manguso: Do you believe artistic creation to be a process of selection?
Davis: Of course it is much more than that. What I mean is that when you take from “real life,” you select and thereby misrepresent, in a way—you distort your material, or, in fact, fictionalize it.
It seems simple, but there came the gradual realization that what one chooses to exclude from a piece of writing is as—or more—important than what is included. The original diary is almost four hundred (very dense) pages long. A full, faithful transcription of it would be interesting in a different way, but to my mind even the long original word document of selections I typed dulled what I perceived to be the diary’s magic. To strip, to pare, to compress—it’s what I do to my fiction and it’s what I did to the diary, for better or worse. By selecting and shaping the material in this way I’ve distorted, misrepresented the “real life” of the diary to suit my purposes—or, as Davis says, I’ve made it into a fiction.
This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly and also appeared on publishersweekly.com.