First published in Daily Life April 8, 2015
There are few more satisfying payoffs in the Internet age than the practice of judging the self-obsessed. As intolerable as it is to witness a Facebook update narrating a friend’s new promotion when your career is flatlining or a real-time Instagram montage of your classmate’s wedding when you’re freshly heartbroken, the idea that those narcissistic enough to recount their lives in minute detail are stuck in an extended adolescence can quell even the worst case of online anxiety. The great crime of digital culture isn’t that it invites oversharing, it’s that it risks turning grown-ups into 16-year-old girls. The one-liners that tumble down our social media dashboards might as well be fugitives madly fleeing the diaries that we kept as teenagers.
The Internet may have alerted us to the mind-numbing lows of first-person observation, but the urge to diarise one’s experiences has always been fraught. In her February 2015Rookie essay ‘Life Writing’, Zadie Smith describes her attempts to channel literary idols like Joe Orton and Virginia Woolf by keeping a journal, only to find that the diary “devolved into a banal account of fake crushes and imagined romance”. Disgusted, she put it aside. “The dishonesty of diary writing—this voice you put on for supposedly no one but yourself—I found that idea so depressing,” Smith writes. “I feel that life has too much artifice in it anyway without making a pretty pattern of your own most intimate thoughts.”
But Smith is just echoing a widely-held cultural belief. The act of frenetically jotting down your hopes, dreams and feelings is often considered the height of solipsism, the province of teenage girls who may have once papered the inside of their locker with Luke Perry posters, anointed binders with boys’ initials and seen no problem with skipping homework to conduct wildly unnecessary hair dying experiments at their best friend’s place. The notion that girls are casualties of their own impulses and emotions does more than discredit their perspective as silly, frivolous and self-interested and their adolescent diaries as proof of an artless inability to separate dross from substance; it casts women as pathologically introspective, unable even to serve as reliable narrators of their own lives.
“Of course, there’s a very good argument to be made that there are too many people, young women especially, writing about their personal experiences these days and not enough willing to report from the battle lines that exist outside their own heads,” writes the confessional essayist Meghan Daum, in her deliciously meta profile of Lena Dunham, published in The New York Times in September 2014. For famous diarists like Woolf and Sylvia Plath, a teenage journaling habit is part of a fatal chain reaction that ends in sinking, coat laden with stones, too deep into the ocean of the self.
My own old diaries are shoved in the back of a drawer at my parents’ house across the country, sparing me the shame of accidentally stumbling across my former self. When I summoned the courage to rifle through them, I was struck less by the lengthy analyses of adolescent mood swings, references to ill-fated relationships or stock-standard high school dramas but how my endlessly optimistic rhapsodising hadn’t caught up with the fact that the life I dreamed of living wasn’t designed for me. In a March 2015 essay in Buzzfeed, Durga Chew-Bose describes watching a scene in the movie Girlhood and feeling a longing for her own adolescence: “I was young and, in my naive construction of self, felt invincible,” she writes. I might have been a teenage narcissist but it may also be the freest that I’ve felt.