The Hidden Writer


"Whom do I tell when I tell a blank page?" Virginia Woolf's question is one that generations of readers and writers searching to map a creative life have asked of their own diaries. No other document quite compares with the intimacies and yearnings, the confessions and desires, revealed in the pages of a diary. Presenting seven portraits of literary and creative lives, Alexandra Johnson illuminates the secret world of writers and their diaries, and shows how over generations these writers have used the diary to solve a common set of creative and

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The Hidden Writer

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"Whom do I tell when I tell a blank page?" Virginia Woolf's question is one that generations of readers and writers searching to map a creative life have asked of their own diaries. No other document quite compares with the intimacies and yearnings, the confessions and desires, revealed in the pages of a diary. Presenting seven portraits of literary and creative lives, Alexandra Johnson illuminates the secret world of writers and their diaries, and shows how over generations these writers have used the diary to solve a common set of creative and life questions.

In Sonya Tolstoy's diary, we witness the conflict between love and vocation; in Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf's friendship, the nettle of rivalry among writing equals is revealed; and in
Alice James's diary, begun at age forty, the feelings of competition within a creative family are explored.

The Hidden Writer shows how the diaries of Marjory Fleming, Sonya Tolstoy, Alice James, Katherine Mansfield, Virginia Woolf, Anaïs Nin, and May Sarton negotiated the obstacle course of silence, ambition, envy, and fame. Destined to become a classic on writing and the diary as literary form, this is an essential book for anyone interested in the evolution of creative life.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
This is an engaging study of seven female writers whose diaries offer distinct clues to the relationships between life and work, creativity and blockage, ambition and anguish. Johnson's prologue reminds us that contemporary female novelists (Toni Morrison, Alice Munro) have mined the diary's interior life in fiction, but her chapters stand alone as stories of the elusive muse. Edinburgh's Marjory Fleming began her diary at age six in 1810, two years before her death. A half century later, those plucky diaries would surface into great popularity, a forerunner, the author suggests, of Anne Frank's hidden journal. Sonya Tolstoy and husband, Leo, agreed to exchange diaries and read them in a "suicidal intimacy" that diminished Sonya. Among the literary Jameses, Alice was the "hidden writer," her diary a voice that was otherwise silenced. The diaries of Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf reflected and refracted their public friendship and rivalry. Other subjects in this intriguing study are Anas Nin, inscribing lovers, and May Sarton, chronicling solitude and aging. Johnson, who teaches creative and nonfiction writing at Harvard University and Wellesley College, concludes with a diaristic meditation on the value and pedagogy of diaries. Photos. (May)
Library Journal
Johnson, who teaches memoir writing at Harvard and Wellesley colleges, provides an engrossing examination of the relationship between diary writing and creativity, between writers' lives and diary writings, and the evolution of private to public writing. She presents seven narrative portraits chronologically, beginning with six-year-old diarist Marjory Fleming from the early 19th century to accomplished writer May Sarton, who began diary writing at age 60 in the 1970s. Other portraits are of Sonya Tolstoy; Alice James; Virginia Woolf; Katherine Mansfield, who evolved as literary figures through diary writing; and Anas Nin, who, intertwining passionate sex with diary writing, became a "professionally private writer." These portraits reflect Johnson's skill at interweaving biography with diaries. Fittingly, she concludes the book with an epilog written as diary entries. For public libraries.Jeris Cassel, Rutgers Univ. Libs., New Brunswick, N.J.
Kirkus Reviews
Focusing primarily on seven female writers, this insightful study examines a form that retains its uniquely personal quality, whether or not the work is ever meant to be published.

To exemplify the "silent creative underground" of diary keepers, Johnson, who teaches writing at Harvard, gives a capsule sketch of Marjory Fleming, who died a month before her ninth birthday in 1811 and whose diary extracts, embellished with "a sentimental and utterly false story" of her life, made her the posthumous toast of childhood- and death- adoring Victorians. Alice James is seen turning thwarted ambition and intelligence into long- term invalidism, finally, at age 40, embarking on a diary that begins as a record of loneliness but becomes a vehicle for observation and introspection. Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf, friends and rivals, entrust a part of their ongoing conversation on creativity not to each other but to their respective journals. As a "professionally private writer," Anaïs Nin explores the differences between truth and accuracy in her infamous multivolume, multiversion "Liary." Although Johnson says her object is "showing how a creative mind makes its passage into and through the world," she appeals at least as much to the emotions as to the intellect, as when she determinedly elicits sympathy for the hard-working and embattled Sonya Tolstoy, while also making it clear that such a simple response is inadequate for the complex, forceful woman who was scribe, editor, publisher, wife, estate manager, and diarist. Even crusty May Sarton, depicted as as a woman observing "the bittersweet autumn of the body, the wintry silences of old age," takes on a mildly sentimental sheen.

An elegant introduction to some interesting women, although the revealing voices of the diarists themselves are filtered through the studied, self-conscious voice of the academic.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780385478304
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 4/28/1998
  • Pages: 288
  • Sales rank: 1,027,270
  • Product dimensions: 5.23 (w) x 7.99 (h) x 0.77 (d)

Table of Contents

Prologue: From Eye to I 1
Ch. 1 The Shadow Writers 19
Ch. 2 The Married Muse 51
Ch. 3 The Hidden Writer in a Writing Family 87
Ch. 4 A Public of Two 123
Ch. 5 The Professionally Private Writer 161
Ch. 6 A Writer in the Uncertain Seasons 193
Epilogue: First Person Singular 225
Notes 249
Diaries and Autobiographical Writings 265
Select Bibliography 269
Permissions 273
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Reading Group Guide

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?

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