I’m sure there’s a parable about a man who visits a spectacular art gallery and finds the artwork he’s most enamoured with to be a mirror. The lesson is something about self-absorption and it’s territory I feel I’m straying dangerously close to when I say I’ve spent a lot of time lately reading my own journals. In my defence, I’ve done it with a purpose in mind.
For the last year or so, I’ve been preparing my debut novel Denizen for publication. I wrote Denizen’s first draft in 2016 when I was twenty-two. Much of its exploration of mental health in the bush was a raw and caustic attempt to process my own adolescence by forcing my confused, unsorted emotions upon readers I didn’t yet have. When it won the 2021 Penguin Literary Prize, I’d already revised it beyond recognition from that first draft—however, illuminated by the impending glow of an actual audience, I saw that it still bore the fingerprints of that violently upset twenty-two-year-old. I don’t think this is a bad thing in and of itself; my goal with Denizen was to confront the reader with the realities of rural Australia, even if it was difficult to read. But I felt vulnerable knowing a story I no longer wholly related to would soon be out in the world with my name on it.
This led me to a fascinating realisation. Something had changed and there now was a gulf between me and what I’d written. When had that happened? What exactly was different? Some people might have asked these rhetorical questions with interest and moved on, but I’ve got too much time on my hands for that. I’ve also got the resources to answer them. I’ve journalled at least a few hundred words every day for the last seven years. It’s a habit I’m glad I’ve developed for many reasons: it’s therapeutic, it’s excellent writing practice, it’s a record of my life, it’s a scrapbook for fiction. It also paints a picture over time: it highlights the peaks and troughs and patterns of life, allowing me to track and pinpoint changes.
I began sifting through my old journals in search of key moments where I’d shed the acidity and cynicism that stained that first draft of Denizen. I’m intrigued by the role journaling plays in fiction writing—the magpie-like way authors pluck from their diaries for prose, mining nuggets of honesty and insight from the literal and mundane. If other people’s journals are like mine, then they consist of pages and pages of rambling, florid text with the occasional useful flash of insight or honesty. These bursts can be transplanted into prose, but usually not well—the seams still show. In thinking about this, it suddenly occurred to me that many of my most beloved writers seem to bypass this process and do their journaling in their fiction, if not in ‘literal truths,’ then in ‘emotional ones.’
Two of my all-time favourite novels by my all-time favourite authors explore this distinction. I was eighteen when I first read David Vann’s Dirt, a book that kicked open a door in my head with such force it’s still reverberating eleven years later. I hadn’t realised novels like that were even possible. In Hemingway-esque prose, Vann describes a family falling apart on a drought-stricken walnut farm in California, fearlessly exploring taboo, high emotion, morality and mental illness. Reading that novel was a revelation: suddenly, a whole new kind of book was possible, one that distilled thoughts and feelings I’d previously thought impossible to convey. It was the first time I envisioned the sort of novel Denizen could be.
Part of me was unsurprised when I saw Vann speak at the 2019 Sydney Writers Festival and heard him describe his writing process. His novels are first drafts with minimal revision. They deal with whatever distress Vann is himself facing at the time. Writing them is an act of therapy. They are, in essence, journals. This made sense—how could a novel as devastating and raw and emotionally complete as Dirt be anything else? The narrative itself is fiction but tells a deeper truth—an emotional truth—and that is where the journaling occurred. Vann played an imagined scenario to its most extreme possible outcome, forcing himself to answer difficult questions and confront uncomfortable truths about his own life and behaviour.
He exemplified this in an anecdote he told at that same event, in which he described arguing with his sister about his habit of weaving their family tragedies through his fiction. The argument was heated and distressing; his sister was sick of him exposing their lives. Vann grinned sheepishly and recalled that in his upset, he’d found himself thinking, ‘this would make a great novel…’
Similarly, much of the power of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s The End, the sixth and final volume of his epic My Struggle cycle, comes from emotional authenticity. Knausgaard’s books exist in a slightly different realm to Vann’s by virtue of the fact that they are autofiction, and therefore, depict a more literal truth as well as an emotional one. However, just because Knausgaard’s subject matter has more grounding in reality, this doesn’t mean his achievement is any less considerable. If anything, it bolsters my argument—the fact that the emotional thread running through The End is so taught and devastating speaks to the almost magical efficacy of leaning into the true, the honest and the real when writing prose. Knausgaard himself addresses the distinction between ‘literal truth’ and ‘emotional truth’ late in the book:
That’s what writing a novel is: all the wishes, desires, possibilities and impossibilities crystalise in one point—an image, an act—where everything that is inherent and hidden reveals itself. Once I’d done that it became a novel and I became a novelist, because there, through an act that never took place, I expressed something that was true. This truth is the novel’s truth.
Like Vann, he pushes Hemingway’s method of describing emotion—imagining the pain in incremental steps so that the reader is lead there without being told what to feel—to an extreme. He hurts so we can hurt (and hopefully heal).
(A counterpoint: there are, of course, authors who don’t hide behind the scaffold of fiction in their published journal writing, such as the incomparable Helen Garner. Garner’s masterpiece diaries are not strung together by a narrative beyond the shape of her own life, and the emotion is all the more striking for being so baldly exposed. But then, there are many reasons why absolute honesty might not be desirable, appropriate, or even safe for other writers. For those of us who can only dream of writing anything as honest and beautiful as Helen Garner’s worst sentence, that’s comforting.)
I’m not Vann or Knausgaard. I’m a debut author getting way above their station with all this lofty talk of truth and art and reality. But I recognise their impulses, because I too write for therapy. I flipped back through seven years of diaries, comparing entries I’d made in 2016 in the fugue of mental illness, against the coherent, optimistic, forward-thinking entries of recent years, this was the conclusion I reached: I, too, journal in my fiction. There is just as much emotional truth in the pages of Denizen as there is in my diaries.
And this suggests that my initial question was the wrong one to ask. In looking for the change my journaling and fiction writing reflected, I’d overlooked a key constant of the time it depicted: the writing itself. My conclusion, in my very limited experience, is that writing emotionally true fiction can bring about the change it depicts. It’s almost akin to the observer effect in physics. You can’t write that honestly about yourself without learning, which alters your perception, your actions, or both. It’s impossible to look back at what you’ve written and still relate to it wholly. You’ve changed, just by the act of writing about who you were.
So perhaps there’s not quite as much pretentiousness in the parable of the man in the art gallery after all. Perhaps he isn’t admiring the mirror because of what he sees, but because he knows that just by observing himself, his perception of his world and his behaviour will change—hopefully for the better.
And while I’ve spent a lot of time lately reading my own journals, I’ve also read a lot of fiction. So there’s a good chance I’ve been reading other people’s journals as well.
James McKenzie Watson writes fiction with a focus on health and rural Australia. His novel Denizen won the 2021 Penguin Literary Prize and was published by Penguin Random House in July 2022. He co-hosts the writing and health podcast James and Ashley Stay at Home and works as a nurse in regional New South Wales. Find him online at jamesmckenziewatson.com