Desperately seeking a lost manuscript (remember those, handwritten in ink, possibly on lined paper?), I came across a stack of my journals from years in college, traveling, first years of courtship and marriage.
These journals – the diaries of old – have been replaced by digital explosions of shared communication in forms of blogs, tweets, posts, many of which have the same abandon that a private, locked diary once had for the diarist. I now tweet and blog and post, less frequently than some of my contemporaries, and with much less openness than I wrote in my journals.
My circumspection, even in private papers, has always been the result of my mother's stern warning: "Never put in writing anything you don't want someone else to read."
As it happens, that is also the advice of my current employer, an attorney at law. Similar advice has come to me from priests and academics. This same circumspection has afflicted women throughout history. Do you remember the saying: "A lady's name appears only thrice in publications: her birth, her marriage and her death." The same constraints kept me from even the thought of publishing my longer fiction until six years ago.
But here I am a writer, inviting people to read my words, willingly lashing myself to the mast of subjective taste. I want people to read – not my journals or random thoughts or insecurities – but my peculiar interpretation of what I see, hear and feel about this experience of living. Writers will put their best friends in their books, mothers, brothers, husbands. We can't help using the material living casts before us.
We are also dependent on the experience of others to inform our narrow view and that is why, in the last century, women's diaries, private pages, memoirs and autobiographical writing became the focus of academic study. When I edited three volumes of women's autobiographies, I was hopeful of the contribution their publication was making to the knowledge of 20th Century historians.
Where else will you find the eyewitness experience of a young Welsh nurse as she enters the gates of Belsen Concentration Camp? Who can tell you better about a little girl's journey from London on an evacuee train? Who knows better about a young mother's distress at the failure of her newborn to thrive during the Blitz? What cakes made without eggs or butter tasted like?
In this century, there is no dearth of such information. We are the most recorded, exposed and examined society of all time...so far. But I wonder what all this information has to offer our imaginations and our creativity.
If all is known, what is left to discover?