You've Never Seen a Diary Like This

by Laura I. Miller

I’ve always been infatuated with middle school diaries, their impossibly small gold-plated locks and fragile silver keys. You won’t find a lock on any other kind of book, since no other book is built with the goal of keeping its pages private. The diary is written for the self — definitely not for public consumption.

With The Folded Clock (Doubleday), Heidi Julavits has expanded my perception of the diary’s function and purpose. Combining the restraint of a personal essay with the economy a daily entry, Julavits offers a refreshing take on the diary-as-memoir genre. Unlike classic diaries you might find on the shelves (Virginia Woolf’s and Sylvia Plath’s come to mind), you won’t endure the melodrama or disheveled, incoherent thoughts that so often characterize the form. These entries, marked by date, could easily stand alone as works of flash essay, and could be read in any order, as valuable insights dwell on every page.

How does Julavits manage this? It helps that she leads anything but a boring or typical life. In the two years that span the diary, she spends time in Germany and Italy, splits her year between New York and Maine, and takes regular trips to psychics to have personal objects evaluated. Whether she’s reading obscure literary fiction or staking her claim on an antique iron bed at a yard sale, she probes deeply the reasoning behind the impulses that drive her. On refusing to give up the iron bed to another interested party, she says, “[M]y failure to give, in this instance, wasn’t a failure of generosity. It wasn’t a ‘cutthroat’ desire to beat someone, or a crazy quasi-erotic need for an object. The truth was I that I wouldn’t respect myself if I gave the woman this bed.” Julavits never misses an opportunity to examine her motives, thereby opening up a larger conversation.

Using “Today I…” to preface each entry, with lengths varying from a few paragraphs to several pages, Julavits investigates such topics as time, desire, motherhood, misogyny, identity, perception, and fairness through the lens of her everyday experience — all the while evading didactic or simple conclusions. Sometimes, we discover, there are no lessons at all, and the observations are the primary purpose in and of themselves. On writing the diary, she says, “I wanted to ‘live deliberately’ and worried that if I did not I might, ‘when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.’ Like Thoreau, I wanted to ‘live deep and suck out all the marrow of life.’”

Julavits’ diary stands in opposition of the shallow, daily accounts we’re so accustomed to viewing: the Instagram diary of meals and animal portraits; the Facebook narrative of “likes” and selfies. By probing deeply her interior and exterior environments, Julavits shows us our potential for expansion in all areas of our lives, even the most mundane. “I wanted to escape my head,” she says, “because my head is so stupid these days.” Though she may have felt this way, her diary portrays an intelligent, deliberate woman and author with myriad ways of being, not the least of which are strong, thoughtful, and feminine.

Composed in a traditional format that’s more relevant than ever, The Folded Clock has no lock and key, and in fact, isn’t about the particulars of Julavits’ life at all. It’s about cultivating a deeper existence. While reading, I often found myself asking: What if we considered our motives more carefully? What if we opened up our lives for serious investigation? We should be so lucky if our daily efforts culminated in a memoir as daring and inquisitive as Heidi Julavits’.

Images: Jill Goldman; Heidi Julavits/Facebook