Forum home
Spacer Gif
logo book group corner

Reader's Companion to The Hidden Writer by Alexandra Johnson

Anchor/Doubleday trade paperback, ISBN 0-385-47830-5, $12.00 US/$16.95 CAN

Reader's Companion to The Hidden Writer© 1997 Doubleday.


1. Introduction
2. Some Thoughts on Keeping a Journal
3. Questions for Discussion


"What sort of diary should I like mine to be? Something loose knit and yet not slovenly, so elastic that it will embrace any thing, solemn, slight or beautiful that comes into my mind. I should like it to resemble some deep old desk, or capacious hold-all, in which one flings a mass of odds and ends without looking. I should like to come back, after a year or two, and find that the collection had sorted itself...into a mould, transparent enough to reflect the light of our life."
--Virginia Woolf, A Writer's Diary
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.

virginia woolf 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.

Sonya TolstoyOver 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?

Katherine MansfieldWhy 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

"This habit of mine..nothing affords the same relief. What happens as a rule is if I go on long enough I break through."
--Katherine Mansfield, Journal
Some Thoughts on Keeping a Journal

Anais NinJournals
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.

Questions for Discussion

  1. If writing, as Kafka notes in his journal, is "the ax that breaks the frozen sea within," how do diaries help further the creative process?
  2. To what extent do we, as journal writers, invent a self to "perform" in our diaries?
  3. Whom do we tell, in Virginia Woolf's words, when we tell "a blank page?" Who is the audience--ourselves, others, or our future selves?
  4. What are you looking for when you read a published diary? Discuss which of the seven writers in The Hidden Writer most fulfills your notion of what a diary can best illuminate.
  5. What are the most common obstacles to a writing life that each diarist explores? Discuss the different solutions the seven writers found to overcoming stumbling blocks ranging from self-censorship to professional envy.
  6. How do the diarists in The Hidden Writer manage to use their journals as far more than a dumping ground for anger or depression? How did they transform raw emotion into actual stories or novels?
  7. How did the Tolstoys' "open" diary policy--letting each other read their diaries--affect both their marriage and their subsequent diary writing?
  8. What do you think prompted Leo Tolstoy's gift of his bachelor diaries to his future wife?
  9. Katherine Mansfield struck out on her own at 19; Virginia Woolf broke free of family constraints at
  10. Was rebellion a necessary spur to their creative lives? To creative lives generally?
  11. Privacy and solitude were apparently indispensable conditions for both Mansfield and Woolf as writers. How did they balance this need with other demands on their time and energy?
  12. How did each woman's marriage affect her creativity?
  13. Although close friends, Mansfield and Woolf often felt they were competing with each other. Did their unspoken rivalry stimulate or hinder their imaginative productivity as writers?
  14. Eventually Mansfield and Woolf each found her own voice. How did they help each other in their individual quests?
  15. Alice James used her diary as a way to compete within a creative family. In what ways did the diary serve her ambition; in what ways did it limit her artistic range?
  16. What circumstances allowed writers such as Louisa May Alcott or Charlotte Brontë to authorize themselves to earn a living through writing?
  17. The 19th-century "cure" for a woman's "creative split in mind and body" was often bed rest and the removal of all intellectual stimulation. What are some of the sources of that creative split in modern writers or diarists?
  18. Had they both lived, what might have been the creative fate of Marjory Fleming or Anne Frank? What is the shift in how a child's creativity is now fostered by diary keeping?
  19. May Sarton kept her diaries with publication in mind. How might this affect the diary? Discuss the merits and drawbacks of such a practice.
  20. For many readers, May Sarton's journals continue to provide important life lessons around solitude, illness, fame, and creativity. Who are other "elders" who inspire by passing on their lived insights?
  21. Can a diary lie, as in the case of Anaïs Nin, and still have a larger life truth about it?
  22. What psychological forces were at work within Nin so she felt it necessary to hide her original diaries and invent decoy ones? Is Nin an isolated case of the untruthful diarist?
  23. Discuss how diaries serve as a refuge of privacy in a world wired for global connection. How, if any, will diaries change in an age of e-mail and the Internet?

Thanks to Alex Johnson for her work on this Reader's Companion.

Photos: Virginia Woolf, an undated and rarely seen photograph (credit: Hogarth Press, London); Sonya Tolstoy on the eve of her wedding (credit: Tolstoy State Museum); Katherine Mansfield in 1913 just after the publication of her first book (credit: Alexander Turnbull Library); Anaïs Nin peering over a mountain of diaries stacked in the letter "A" (credit: Marlis Schwieger).