In defense of the expression of mundane life

history of diary writing importance
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When I look back on these years of college, I seem to remember most vividly the explosions of feelings: the incredible successes and the even more spectacular failures. However, if I’m more discerning, I know that most of my time was not spent in these peaks or troughs, but instead in steady moments of content or discontent, not noticing that time was passing at all. 

I sometimes think of my Instagram profile as a documentation of college’s highs. Taking a critical look at my pictures, I see my wide smile dotting canvases of blue walls, red lights in flashy bars, crashing waves and wild destinations. And I see that smile everywhere, in all my friends’ photos too. We’re posting from an outpouring of effusive joy (and normally, at that moment of posting, we are absolutely that joyous). The life I lead on Instagram is real, but it’s not complete. 

Neither, however, is the life I lead at 2 a.m., staring at the ceiling and questioning my life choices, or the life I lead after a midterm gone wrong, sitting on the steps outside UC Berkeley School of Law and listening to old Chinese music while lamenting the end of the world as I know it. 

There are sometimes months-long absences between posts, a waiting period for euphoria. Thankfully, there are also months-long absences between finding new places on campus to feel sorry for myself, a reliable slog between my personal downturns. 

I wish I could tell you more about those middling times too.  

In seventh grade, I wrote in my diary, “Today, we ate at Fresh Choice. Should I be attracted to the wild dogs in our school? They are REPULSIVE, except a couple I can tolerate. According to Dr. Davies, in 10th grade I will be attracted to boys like mosquitos on a cow.”  

I also wrote, “I love how we had to drive all the way to Berkeley to see one building for 15 minutes and then drive all the way back. At least we had a yummy lunch at LeBoulanger.” 

When I write now, I feel myself skating over the less-than-exciting parts of life, thinking, “Well, that doesn’t matter,” or “Who could possibly care about this?” I seem to consider a potential reader’s desires before my own desires and my own lived experience. In my youth, I wrote for an audience of one (myself) as a way to regurgitate my day; I don’t think I wrote with much intention beyond simply inking words on a page. Although, I did ask myself in the first entry, “Is this a diary? A documentary? A journal?” Perhaps in that question, we can seek to understand my youthful mind. I said it was a diary. 

It’s not a childish enterprise to be reflecting and thinking through our everyday, simple, mundane existences, especially not now.

I wonder if we associate an openness to letting the day flow from mind to pen to paper as childish or naive, harking back to youthful fears of having our most intimate thoughts read out loud in class, of exposing the way we see ourselves to everyone else. 

It’s not a childish enterprise to be reflecting and thinking through our everyday, simple, mundane existences, especially not now. 

Since we’re all sheltering in place away from one another, everything has felt muted. I can palm the edges of excitement and distress, but mostly, I live in a solid feeling of “acceptable.” Measuring life by the tumultuous waves of college seems much less relevant, and I think we need new ways to consider the passing of time. 

In eighth grade, I dedicated two pages to a bee attack: “A bee flew into my flour sack baby. Nat and I were walking from Schmidt’s room to Her room when a Bee — a gigantic one — just decided to attack Scherbatsky. I panicked and dropped her and ran for my life. I’m now afraid that if a bee were to fly into my real baby, I would freak out. I hope not.”

If I search my memory of eighth grade, I remember winning prizes at our yearly fair with my friends, memorizing the Gettysburg Address, doing debate and many other things, but I certainly do not remember this incident with the bee to which I devoted two pages and clearly some existential thought about my future. 

These passages from my past feel like an echo from a life lived a long time ago. I know this girl is me, but at the same time, she has vastly different memories and goals. These writings are my connection of a fuller, less altered history of myself. Indeed, how else will we know who we were if we don’t write?

Karl Ove Knausgaard, author of the Norwegian epic My Struggle, writes plainly and openly about his life, documenting every detail, every insecurity, every infidelity and publishing it for the world to see. 

These writings are my connection of a fuller, less altered history of myself. Indeed, how else will we know who we were if we don’t write?

“If you write about your life, as it is to yourself, every mundane detail is somehow of interest — it doesn’t have to be motivated by plot or character,” Knausgaard noted to the New Yorker. 

 Simply the act of documenting life as it appears to you is sufficient. Our lives may have an overall plot and we may all be developing as characters, but perhaps plot and character actually define our lives less than a detailed description of our days. Furthermore, plot and character are interpretations of the progression of life; they exist with inherent bias and are changeable with our whims — it may be up to an older version of us to interpret from primary sources the plot of our life. 

I didn’t write a single diary entry in ninth grade. The next entry I found is from 10th grade, and it mentions, “As I came across my ninth grade journal, I found it empty. Freshman year was one of the best, but I didn’t document the ups or the downs.” 

I’ve made an effort to share my life during this crisis, no matter how repetitive some of it may be. As the days blend, I feel like I forget rapidly the happenings of any particular day. At least, when I look back through my writing, I’ll know a little more. 

Contact Shannon Hong at [email protected].