Anaïs Nin played many roles in her life. She was a dancer, an artist’s model, a confidant to some of the 20th century’s greatest artists, and to many others who never found their way out of the back alleys of Paris and into the spotlight. But, most essentially, she was a writer—a diarist. She kept a journal from the aowge of 11 until her death in 1977 at age 73. Her diaries—the edited ones published during her lifetime and the complete, controversial versions that surfaced after her passing—are awe-inspiring in their sheer volume, and supreme in their portrayal of a woman writer, working.
Unlike Anaïs, I am not a compulsive writer. My attempts at journaling usually dissolve into a kind of garbled note-taking: lists, song lyrics, doodles, the work of someone bored in class. I’ve always had trouble with the diary form: a daily chore, a record of each thing that happened to you—it felt like homework! I used mine as a place to store questions and quotes I wanted to come back to, but there was no narrative. If you opened it at any page you wouldn’t know who this fragmented person was, who’d copied out poems on one page and pasted in a lollipop wrapper on another. I resisted writing out my days like stories because I felt they weren’t interesting. I didn’t want to spend a listless day at school, only to come home and relive it on paper. And then when something big did happen to me, I was too afraid to write it down. First of all, someone might find and read it and know what was important to me, which sounded terrifying at the time. Secondly, I didn’t feel my writing could do those big things justice. I wanted to have a beautiful diary, but it was overwhelming trying to keep pace with life, and then organize and analyze it in ornate sentences.
This is what Anaïs was best at. Reading her diaries, you feel that her writing is anything but a chore, that it comes from a true impulse to record the world, be it Paris, New York, or the Cuba and Spain of her girlhood. In the diary, she writes:
It is what I do with the journal, carrying it everywhere, writing on café tables while waiting for friends, on the train, on the bus, in waiting rooms at the station, while my hair is washed, at the Sorbonne when the lectures get tedious, on journeys, trips, almost while people are talking.
I say to people that I am not writing, but I keep writing the diary, subterraneously, secretly, a writing which is not writing but breathing.
It is because Anaïs was up to the task of recording almost every breath that we know so much about her. Outside of her circle of friends, her reputation as a writer was mixed until late in her life. Many critics saw her as a wannabe, the wife of a rich man who spent his money on artist types—men she often had affairs with, like writer Henry Miller. Her frank writing about sex, her bohemian lifestyle, and her flamboyance attracted some but caused many more to mock or ignore her. If she hadn’t kept her diary, that might still be how we see her, but because she kept a record of her own, she is not so easy to write off.
Sure, Anaïs was the friend and admirer of many artists—poet Antonin Artaud, sculptor Constantin Brâncuși, and writer John Steinbeck to name a few—but they admired her in return. “We have a real woman artist in front of us, the first one,” Henry Miller says, incorrectly but sincerely, of Anaïs. Henry, especially, was jealous of her talent, stole whole characters from her, and hated that perpetual notebook, which took first place over him. He spoke of running a nail through it, pinning it up on the wall, shutting it up forever. Never mind that all the while Anaïs was writing to editors on his behalf and working tirelessly to get his work published. Apparently the diary hit a nerve, the scope of her project intimidating even for a guy with piles of manuscripts on his kitchen table.
Anaïs also wrote fiction, criticism, and erotic stories, but it’s reading the diaries that you become hyper aware of her successes and failures, and her attempts to escape the roles of lover, muse, and cheerleader for her male friends. She was a tireless supporter, going broke to pay someone else’s rent, or spending hours correcting manuscripts. But her loyalty was not always repaid. She writes of buying a printing press with Henry and some friends, only to have them speak of publishing their own work, but not hers. Instead, they wanted to name the press after her, in her honor. That was not the kind of honor Anaïs wanted, she wanted their kind of honor—the honor of the published book, the celebrated poem, or the exhibited masterpiece. “I do feel I have something to accomplish, a destiny to fulfill,” she writes. But her moments of confidence are juxtaposed by moments of doubt, “I begin to imagine that I am also a fake—that maybe all my journals, books, and personality are fakes.”
In some ways, it’s comforting to know that this accomplished writer struggled with some of the same questions as my teenage self, but her work offers more than comfort. Her diaries are a work of self-creation, as a woman among men, an artist, and a writer. Between the covers of a notebook she makes her life as fascinating and rich as any fiction, creating herself in her own glorious image. Anaïs by Anaïs. She writes of showing up to appointments dressed in velvet like an exiled princess, or dressing in rags after giving away her last pair of silk stockings. She retouches her unhappy childhood, recasting herself as hero:
In the mirror there was never a child. […] In it there was no Anaïs Nin, but Marie Antoinette with a white lace cap, a long black dress, standing on a pile of chairs, the chariot, riding to her beheading. No Anaïs Nin. An actress playing all the parts of characters in French history. I am Charlotte Corday plunging a knife into the tyrant Marat. I am, of course, Joan of Arc.
Anaïs as sinner. Anaïs as saint. It’s no wonder that she writes that her diary is her greatest vice. It’s hard to rip yourself away from those pages. Everything is painted in royal colors: friendship, art, writing, even poverty. In its darkest moments, reading the diary is like looking at life through a kaleidoscope—you see Anaïs’s world fragmenting, reforming as she changes her mind, then coming together again in unreal visions. Her diary is not concerned with the facts, like mine was as I struggled to get down one non-boring thought. She shapes the world and her place in it, something I was too timid to do as a teen.
Anaïs shared her diary with her friends, and then recorded their impressions of it in subsequent pages (who said journals have to be secret, like those dinky, little lock and key ones imply?). In a way, Anaïs edited her life all the way through, writing and revising as she went along. So in the end, the diary forms a narrative, of how a younger, and then older, woman makes her way through life.
Now I understand that diary writing has no set rules: It’s an opportunity to invent yourself and to frame your worldview. Perhaps the way I do this is just different from Anaïs. Where she waxes lyrical, I write little lists, notes on how I’d like to present myself to the world. These are more than just items to own, they are snapshots of the person I’d like to be at a given time. In the past this was: the girl who wears a black bikini, the girl who owns a rare 1997 concert recording of Elliott Smith, or the girl who collects vintage paperbacks. Each of these versions of myself became crystallized, clear, as I wrote up a list of the tangible things that could transform me into a girl prettier, smarter, or more concrete than the one I felt I was.
Of course, identity is about so much more than what you own, but noting what things were symbolically important made me feel like my identity could be fixed instead of in flux. This has yet to become true. Yet I remember the scariest thing about being between the ages of 12 and 18 was not knowing exactly who I might become. Imagining what this girl might own, how she might be, was a way of creating a future for myself in writing. The fragments, the items that appeared—continue to appear—in my diaries, gave me an ideal version of myself to work toward, a vision of adulthood I have yet to crack.
My own journals are slim, modest things compared to Anaïs bank vault of volumes. But now I am reassessing their value, even though the pages are often illegible or written in something weird like chalk pastel?! I find strange diagrams and half-abandoned stories. I am less in control of my private world than Anaïs. Yet the concerns of my life and work do emerge over and over again—a fascination with languages, an obsessive love for one writer or another, and that penchant for “ideals” (the simple wardrobe, the complete pantry, the impeccable travel log). In the jumbled world of my journal—like in Anaïs’ lyrical one—you’ll find the narrative of a girl, writing. ♦
All quotes unless otherwise noted are taken from The Diary of Anais Nin Vol. I (1931-1934) and Vol. II (1934-1939) published in 1966 and 1967 respectively by Harcourt, Brace and World, Inc.