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The Hidden Writer by Alexandra Johnson
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The Hidden Writer by Alexandra Johnson
Paperback $16.00
Apr 13, 1998 | ISBN 9780385478304

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  • Apr 13, 1998 | ISBN 9780385478304

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  • Jul 07, 2010 | ISBN 9780307755988

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Product Details

Author Q&A

Alexandra Johnson won the PEN/Jerard Fund Award Special Citation for The Hidden Writer. The award is given to a nonfiction work-in-progress. Her writing has been published in The New Yorker, the New York Times Book Review, The Nation, Ms. Magazine, The Christian Science Monitor and the Boston Review, among other national publications. She teaches memoir at both Harvard and Wellesley College.

Author Essay

A Note from the Author

Dear Reader,

When I was in my midtwenties and just starting out as a writer I copied this passage from Virginia Woolf’s diary into the first page of a new black notebook. It expressed exactly what I imagined for the diaries I’d kept for years: "Whom do I tell when I tell a blank page?"

I was twenty-four, living a stone’s throw from Woolf’s London home, supposedly studying literature. Instead I sat in a cramped basement flat copying inspiring quotes like this one to get through future dry seasons. I’d quit graduate studies, using the year left on my grant to begin that long journey of finding out if I could write. Hungry for information about creative life, I poured over writer’s diaries–Woolf’s, Gide’s, Mansfield’s, Kafka’s. I loved eavesdropping on these narrated lives, writers deep in private conversation with themselves. Confidence, voice, envy, success, false starts–this was the information I needed, intimate glimpses of writers inventing themselves. Early in their careers each burned with what I secretly recognized in myself: silence and ambition.

It was a relief to discover how many of these diarists wrote not daily but in odd scraps of time–Woolf on her lap, Mansfield in trains, Nin in between lovers. I was reassured how Katherine Mansfield jotted story ideas next to grocery lists, stashed unsent letters, doodled, imagined character names in her journal’s margins. I was grateful for the endless practical information about work habits. Keeping her internal censor at bay Woolf wrote "at haphazard gallop," not worrying about style or grammar. "If I stopped and took thought, it would never be written at all." Instead she practiced craft–lightning quick portraits or sketches–as dinner simmered.

Over the years as I shifted from reviewing others’ books to writing my own, I returned again and again to these diaries. Nothing showed me better how a writer moves from notes to novels, from private to public voice. And while I loved Tolstoy or F. Scott Fitzgerald, it was diaries kept by writing women–still the top bestsellers–that charted every stage of a writing life. From Marjory Fleming at seven to May Sarton at seventy, they offered great working records of creativity: not if to work but how.

In my thirties, I hungered for new information from diaries–marriage, children, career. Like so many fragmented, caregiving lives, I needed to know how others had tried balancing creative and daily life.

Whether chronicling first novels or shaky marriages, diaries gave me enormous inspiration in how to live. How, as Mansfield vowed in her journal, "to become a conscious direct human being" against all the odds. I loved how writers grappled with the same questions over a lifetime: Who is the self in a diary? Can a diary ever be completely truthful? Does a diarist ever just write for oneself?

Why I love diaries is their deep capacity for naming, for imagining a self into existence. A diary is the imaginative link between who we are and who we might become. I love being part of centuries of recording lives seeking to transform silence into voice, secrets into stories. I’m still haunted, though, by all the lost voices; by abandoned diaries stuck in deep drawers. I know this firsthand. My mother hid her diaries and stories in the linen closet. Her sister kept copious notebooks and drafted novels while supporting three children.

A writer, Saul Bellow observed, is a reader moved to emulation. I am one of them. Perhaps you are too. I wrote The Hidden Writer simply because I hadn’t found the book I needed to read. I hope these portraits of creative lives will inspire you, whatever your reasons for keeping a journal.

Best wishes,

Alexandra Johnson


Some Thoughts on Keeping a Journal
Whether you’re a fitful or lifelong diarist, choosing a journal is a private, almost ceremonial act, its rules as intricate as the art of Japanese tea making. Ruled or blank pages? Elegant, hand-crafted journals patterned with ancient maps or drug store spiral notebooks? Katherine Mansfield wrote in ordinary exercise books; Virginia Woolf in hardspined journals, their marbleized covers designed by her artist sister.

Ideally, diaries should be small and easily slipped into a pocket. They’re there to help you record the immediate world. You can use small, spiral notebooks to write vivid details and overheard dialogue, then copy the best into permanent journals at home.

Using a Diary to Spark Creative Work
The following are highly effective exercises all done in ten minutes.

* Think of a single room from childhood–say, a kitchen. List two details for each of the five senses. What were the room’s smells, for example? (bacon and lemon; roses and mildew?) Brainstorm ten things a stranger would notice: faded striped wallpaper or rust stains near the tap.
* The next day, organize the details and write a one-page description of the room.
* Observe a stranger in a busy place. For ten minutes, take concrete notes–color of socks, hair balding from crown, etc. The next day begin a two-page sketch imagining that person in a fictional story.

Giving a Diary a Purpose
Using diaries just as dumping ground for anger or depression is why many people can’t keep steady diaries. Give a diary a clear purpose. For a new parent, keep a detailed diary of a child’s first year. For anyone in a life transition, keep a dream journal. For writers, keep a notebook devoted exclusively to quotations about writing; another one for copying favorite passages from books, noting stylistic techniques.

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