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a man sits on a bench, looking at his phone, in a busy city street. in the background there are a tram and a woman passingby

Image: Ben Bouvier-Farrell via Unsplash

There’s a YouTube exercise by the creativity genius Lynda Barry that I used to show to students as a way to write the easiest diary they would ever keep. I borrowed it from another teacher but brought it into my classes because I’d read a respected writer, who had published something like ten books, say that they regretted not having kept a proper diary as a normal part of their life and practice. I also really liked that it was a material practice that would hopefully draw students away from the Notes app, which is something I am always trying to get away from myself.

The exercise is called the four-minute diary—what Barry has you do is draw a line down the middle of a page, write REMEMBERED on the left side, SAW on the right side, and those are your two columns, which you fill out in four minutes with reference to the day before. You spend two minutes listing things you remember from the previous day in the left column, and then two minutes listing things from the previous day that you saw.

I would couch this for students by detailing my own failed commitments to keeping diaries, but also how easy it was to find four minutes in every day to keep this one. I said you could do it while waiting for common situations drawn from reality, like waiting for a friend to come over, or waiting for a tram.

I did this at a time when I was teaching heavily and organising my own goals around the teaching semesters, which is an odd but practical condition felt by students and teachers alike. Because of this, and because a class about notebooks and diaries generally comes at the start of semester, I would often think ‘This is the semester when I, too, will keep the diary.’ I would then keep the four-minute diary for a few weeks or more, before stopping—for reasons that are, I’m afraid, more personal than the truth that a life contains more hurdles than waiting for friends and trams.

I also really liked that it was a material practice that would hopefully draw students away from the Notes app.

I’ve been thinking about this exercise because I’ve just started reading 7 ½, a novel published by Christos Tsiolkas in 2021. In the main thread of this novel, a novelist (who is not not Tsiolkas) leaves the city and rents a house on a beach with the intention of writing about beauty.

‘You can’t write about beauty,’ says a friend of the narrator, after he’s broken his fortnight of solitude to go to her place for dinner. ‘You have a particular skill: to take the contemporary world and create characters that articulate the thoughts and fears we don’t dare speak aloud. That’s the most powerful aspect of your writing, that emotional and unrepentant honesty. It’s truly exhilarating, and even though you’ve been doing it for years, that rawness doesn’t feel diluted.’

But to the friend, that rawness is also the novelist’s greatest weakness: ‘You’re shit at metaphor, and there’s nothing elegiac in your sentences and in your rhythms. Reflect the world back at us, Christo, that’s your talent. Leave beauty to the poets.’

This friend is the kind of person who probably should keep a four-minute diary, because she must spend a lot of time waiting for friends who run late for her dinners as they steel themselves for the rude and discouraging things she is likely to say. But that is my opinion; ‘Christo’, who trusts the friend’s judgement, spends large parts of the novel writing prose that seeks to evoke and encompass beauty—sometimes in bodies, sometimes in art and love, often in the natural world. And while it succeeds in that aim—the novel is often bluntly beautiful—it draws some of its meaning from the idea that this descriptive mission is both something the protagonist of 7 ½ wants quite deeply, and something that works against the talent he’s expressed in his novels so far. What, the reader wonders, is this narrator’s true inner nature: is it attuned to beauty, or is it attuned to something else? And if that is the tension that partly powers the novel’s descriptions of setting—a tide that is out, mangroves that rise craggy and knitted from a muddy embankment, and then, under a jade surface of water, the shadows of beds of oysters—then what is more likely to tell us something about a person’s inner character, the things they have always written about, or the things they want to write about now?

Writers’ opinions differ on whether insiderness or outsiderness is more beneficial when describing setting.

The real inner reason that I never manage to keep even a four-minute diary is that I am an inveterate burner of records: a trasher of notebooks, deleter of emails, and abandoner of WhatsApp threads—partly because I don’t trust what companies do with this data, but largely because I enjoy the feeling of being a bit unstuck from myself. A less-inner reason (but one that is still real) is that each time I start the practice afresh, I fill the first column, REMEMBERED, incredibly quickly and then am stumped by the second, SAW, until the two minutes devoted to that column end and I’ve barely thought of anything.

After I’ve been doing it for about a week, of course, something quite magical happens; I start to fill the second column easily, because even in such a short time, my memory has started to become the kind of memory that actually logs things I SAW, preparing for the two minutes it knows the next day I am going to spend noting them down. But what I gain in ability to think and remember more visually—something that is undeniably useful for a writer—I lose in the also-useful, slightly painful but mostly desirable feeling of remembering that I can train myself to think in different terms. Part of the list’s value is that it trains the writer to come up with short lists of things that are SEEN, and you can imagine the ways these visual lists might be used in your writing, balanced against all of the different things that might be REMEMBERED—the catalogue of moods and feelings and ideas that are also of interest to writers. But for the first few days, the act of listing is alive with some of the tension that comes with forcing my brain to do something it does not want to do. Incidentally, this may be part of why writers’ hard-won routines intermittently stop being helpful; it’s the world reminding them to pay more attention to what works for them and what doesn’t.

At the end of the four-minute diary video, Barry tells her audience that one of the benefits of keeping the diary is that you ‘start to notice what it is you notice’. In fact, this is the exact type of knowledge that I’m frequently trying to avoid; I recently read a book of great geopolitical importance (but which shall remain nameless) and when I went hunting through it to find pages I’d dog-eared to copy down later, I found I’d only bookmarked the one containing blithe advice about how to tell a real friend from a false one.

Writing has a documentary role that sits alongside its expressive, imaginative and critical functions.

One thing I’ve taken care to do with both my novels is to ground them in a specific part of inner-northern Melbourne, which is a place that I know and understand to some degree because I’ve lived nearby for a long time, but which I also find endlessly strange and fascinating because I am not really part of the same social world as my characters and I grew up in places that are very different. Writers’ opinions differ on whether insiderness or outsiderness is more beneficial when describing setting, but what interests me is the mix of affection, detachment, and even graspingness I feel when I think about writing the places I do, which I don’t think has very much to do with the reality of setting and has much more to do with the stance of the observer.

Writing has a documentary role that sits alongside its expressive, imaginative and critical functions. I think it’s true that in writing about place, we preserve some version of it, so long as we remember that the ability to see some things from a particular position is always contingent on a more total form of blindness. But I like to think it’s also respectable to write your inner weather ever more deeply, perhaps so much that you even forget what caused it.

Bonus writing prompt from Ronnie Scott:

  1. Go to a place that’s interesting to you without taking electronics—somewhere that’s peopled but not too busy and familiar but not too familiar. Take a notebook.
  2. Close your eyes for a few minutes, breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth.
  3. When you open your eyes, start freewriting, paying attention to what you thought about while your eyes were closed, your mood, and the place around you.
  4. When you get stuck, start describing things you see, smell, and hear.
  5. Move between these two kinds of writing, and you may start to notice interesting connections between perspective and setting.

Happy writing!

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