As the so-called Digital Age begins to pick up speed, the private art of putting pen to paper seems almost antiquated.
Sharing your thoughts on the latest political development is as easy as sending out a mass tweet, and real-time Facebook status updates add a dimension of unparalleled accuracy to the chronicling of daily events. Slower forms of reflection, such as keeping a written diary or writing letters to ourselves, simply aren’t staples of our everyday lives anymore. Instead, we’ve traded personal intimacy for full disclosure, and privacy is almost a foreign concept — except when it comes to literary culture.
Books have long made use of “diary-entry” formats to entice readers with full-bodied narratives. Classics such as Alice Walker’s The Color Purple and Bram Stoker’s Dracula entertained with characters who turned to epistolary methods as a means of self-expression. Most recently, Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being A Wallflower earned a name for itself as a modern take on The Catcher in the Rye, and a successful movie adaptation starring Emma Watson and Logan Lerman hit theaters last fall.
But despite the varied subject matter in each of these literary works, all share common themes of self-exploration. Dracula’s Jonathan Harker slowly unravels the mystery of his otherworldly host as he pauses to write about each of his dastardly experiences in Dracula’s castle; by recording the details of Dracula’s appearance and unusual habits (and later by reading the entries in his fiancée’s diary), Jonathan draws larger connections that help him defeat his foe.
On a more contemporary take on the diary form, The Perks of Being A Wallflower’s Charlie writes to an unknown individual named “Friend,” but eventually, his letters become a journal of sorts; he begins to use the one-sided correspondence to understand his reaction to the suicide of his friend Michael and to record his interactions with newfound friends Sam and Patrick. Readers watch Charlie achieve a startling level of maturity as the novel progresses, and Chbosky’s fresh approach to epistolary methodologies creates a narrative that never falters in its complexity and entertainment value.
Despite the allure of public social networking, it’s hardly surprising that we still find ourselves intrigued by these journalistic texts. We are, after all, still just as obsessed with ourselves as we were in the 1600s, when diary writing exploded in the mainstream culture of Western Europe. Though these 17th-century individuals also kept journals to record wages or keep track of purchases, writing down their thoughts provided a straightforward means of introspection and a way to assign some significance to even the most mundane activities.
Today, however, that intimate climate has shifted to the public eye. Popular publishing platforms such as WordPress or Blogspot allow users to reflect on their inner musings, but now that information is privy to anyone with Internet access. Instead of concentrating their efforts on personal growth and development, social media users project an image, one formed from carefully selected videos, photographs and sentence fragments, of how they want to be seen by others — not necessarily of how they truly are. What was once an authentic method of self-exploration has become an artificial mode of false expression, and many broadcasted contemplations seem devoid of any larger significance.
But perhaps this is why we continuously return to texts like The Color Purple or The Perks of Being A Wallflower. Honesty intrigues us, and we are constantly drawn to human expressions that prove relatable in their sincerity. As he moves through adolescence, Charlie remains refreshingly genuine, connecting with the reader at a level that is beyond the superficial. His quirky inner monologue portrays confidence even as he describes emotions that are far from comfortable.
“I just know that another kid has felt this,” Charlie writes. “This one time when it’s peaceful outside, and you’re seeing things move, and you don’t want to, and everyone is asleep. And all the books you’ve read have been read by other people. And all the songs you’ve loved have been heard by other people. And that girl that’s pretty to you is pretty to other people. And you know that if you looked at these facts when you were happy, you would feel great because you are describing ‘unity.’”
Here, privacy affords Charlie an authenticity unparalleled by any other public medium. Yet Chbosky even adds another layer to notions of journalistic privacy. At the novel’s end, Charlie thanks the unknown “Friend” for listening to his letters and writes that “they were better than a diary because there is communion and a diary can be found.”
So, technically, Charlie is confiding in someone, even though he still understands the mechanics of honest self-expression. He also recognizes that there is something unifying about sharing personal experiences with others, though he remains cautious of strangers stumbling upon his private musings.
With Charlie’s mindset, it seems possible to have both personal and shared intimacy. As a final New Year’s resolution, try taking a dual approach to publicizing self-discoveries. I enjoy spending my evenings organizing my frazzled thoughts into a private diary, basking in the simple art of personal reflection without the pressure of an added audience. When I’m writing this way, jotting down the day’s events lends an extra level of spontaneity to undergraduate life, which can easily seem dull and repetitive with formulaic class structures and extracurriculars. Even if it’s just for my eyes alone, my life takes on a greater significance.
But on the other hand, I also need to share my epiphanies with a few close friends and, yes, sometimes on my Facebook page. I’m best at this, however, only when I’ve taken the time for complete introspection: Saying anything meaningful while worrying about the perspectives of others is nearly impossible.
So when you write, do so honestly and unflinchingly and adopt a Wallflower mentality. Curl up with a notebook splayed across your lap and “let the quiet put things where they are supposed to be.”
Carrie Ruth Moore is a sophomore majoring in English. Her column “Cover to Cover” runs Thursdays.