Clare Sestanovich on Keeping a Diary

    In “Different People,” your story in this week’s issue of the magazine, Gilly, who’s twelve years old, starts keeping a diary. She finds her life uneventful, so she makes up stories about conflict between her parents, who have a very peaceful relationship. Obviously, she does this because she has met the first problem that anyone who keeps a diary encounters: Who is the diary’s audience? Are you a diary keeper, and, if so, who is its audience?

    I’ve tried keeping a diary at various points in my life, because it seems like something writers are supposed to do, or at least are supposed to be able to do. But I really can’t! The expectation of immediacy is unbearable. Maybe it is for most people, to greater and lesser degrees, and the first step to successful diary-keeping is finding the form of mediation that works for you. When I was roughly Gilly’s age, my preferred form was affectation. The first page of a journal I kept as a thirteen-year-old reads, “I am completely and utterly exhausted however, for the sake of my grandchildren who, for whatever reason, may find some interest in these accounts, I will begin the fascinating (I hope?) tale of”—well, I’ll leave you in suspense.

    Seen most generously, affectation is an attempt at what we might call style. As a character in one of Elizabeth Bowen’s novels says about diarists, “Style is the thing that’s always a bit phony, and at the same time you cannot write without style. . . . a diary, after all, is written to please oneself—therefore it’s bound to be enormously written up.” (In other words, all that teen-age windup of mine wasn’t for my hypothetical grandchildren; it was for me.) “Different People” is interested in what Bowen describes as phoniness: Gilly takes dissembling style to the next level—outright deceit. This makes her diary sound like pure fraud, but I’m not sure it’s so straightforward. If style is something that “you cannot write without,” something fundamental and inextricable, might it also express your truest voice?

    As if in a malign fairy tale, Gilly basically conjures disaster. Her parents, who in fact avoid conflict to an extreme measure, eventually decide to separate. Obviously, in fiction and in life, it’s hard to blame a divorce on a child. But is there a way in which Gilly is the contested object over which her parents, Peter and Lisa, part ways?

    Your question about the audience of a diary has me wondering about the audience of a marriage. In both cases, what’s at stake is a manufactured narrative—made up of intensely private experiences yet profoundly shaped by public convention and perception. Much of this story is about the audience experience: Gilly is almost surely the closest observer of her parents’ relationship. But, as a result, the story is also about the experience of being observed. It’s not always pleasant, is it? There are certain things we can avoid seeing about ourselves until we see someone else see them. If Peter and Lisa seem, in their very different ways, to be vying for Gilly’s loyalty, perhaps they’re also responding to her scrutiny. After all, it’s the critic in the front row, scribbling away in a notebook, who reminds us what we might otherwise be able to forget: it’s all just a show.

    After the divorce, the narrator tells us that Lisa changes—becomes a different person—while Peter stays the same. Gilly seems to seek stability, but she finds herself more drawn to Lisa’s evolution, and in particular to a man she thinks might be courting her mother. What, beyond danger, attracts Gilly here?

    One of the classics, I think: the unknown! According to Gilly, among the greatest “injustices of being a child” is that her parents have known her for her entire life but she has witnessed only a fraction of theirs. Unjust, destabilizing, but—pretty intriguing! If we’re all both attracted and repelled by what we don’t (and can’t) know about other people, maybe it’s because of the way this mirrors what we don’t and can’t know about ourselves.

    Writing about children and teen-agers from their vantage is full of hazards. Which are you most wary of? Do you find yourself writing defensively when adopting the perspective of a young person?

    An early version of this story featured Gilly the grownup, too. That didn’t work at all, in part because it turned Gilly the kid into a kind of prequel, and the story itself into a game of connect the dots: How did this girl become that woman? This is an interesting question, but it can be kind of annoying when adults ask it. Now that you mention it, I wonder if it’s a defensive question. It makes a kid pure potential—someone who’s going to become someone else. It lets us get lost in the puzzle of deconstructing identity, reverse-engineering destiny . . . the kind of stuff that Gilly’s mom, a philosopher with a fondness for the abstruse, could talk about for days. But what does potential feel like? Does it feel good—to wonder who you’re going to become, and how, and why? If suggesting that these questions are at the heart of this story makes Gilly sound precocious—another unfortunate fate of many children in fiction—well, she is and she isn’t. In the end, her predicament strikes me as an ageless one: she doesn’t have any of the answers. ♦

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