Diary as Workbench as Archive as Net

Journal with pencil

Diary as Workbench as Archive as Net
by Stephanie Sauer


On Taking Note

There is a diary, which is to say a daily, in which I take note of the goings on in my work. Did I write today? How did it come? Did the words hide away? Did I edit? Was I surprised? Did I discover something new? Did this catalyze delight? Did an ending weave itself in a way I wasn’t expecting? Did I trudge through the hours unrewarded? Did the thing I tried fall flat upon the page? Did it crawl into the waste bin and evaporate? Did I give up early and go for a walk? Did the walk unearth something buried? Did I return to the work afterward?
I began to keep this record because I marveled at how works were coming together and I wanted to see their scaffolding. I continue to keep this record because the making of the marks has become its own way of working. It grows ritual around the writing and allows me to move beyond discipline and into experiment. I play alchemist testing ideas, combining elements until a fertile chemistry emerges. The process causes wonder and, in turn, engenders my devotion. The diary, the daily practice of it, records this becoming.

There is much speak in contemporary art of making as practice. Practice in the way a yogi might practice: the act itself, the coming back to it as its own end. The presence of self this requires. Making has taken on a kind of holy occupation in our secular lives and, while the practice takes on its own meaning in the life of each maker, the taking down of the details after, the keeping of this structure-optional archive, is the meditative space between us and our making that allows it to remain sacred, enshrined. We can claim that we are always making –and we are: the perceived spacey-ness that is really the work constructing itself inside us as we go about procuring groceries, changing the oil, folding laundry. We are always making. My practice of notetaking has now extended to documenting these more random bursts of process, the unscheduled ones. But there is something to the ritual of finishing a work session by noting down its occurrences that carves out space for it in more generative ways throughout the day. The act of observing, I have found, strengthens my ability to be in and of the work when I am working. Observing creates a container for all the straggly thoughts and doubt and side-tracking details so that my time making can be just that. 

Other writers—Joan Didion, Lydia Davis, José Montoya, Susan Sontag, and Virginia Woolf among them—use their notebooks and journals and diaries to capture loose strands of conversations they overhear, ideas that arrive at random, details that catch their attention, casual descriptions of unusual things and unusual descriptions of casual happenings. Their notebooks are workspaces. Lydia Davis jots down bits of overheard conversations and works out shards of stories before committing them to type. In José Montoya’s, the diary-as-workspace and as site for observation come together. On the upper parts of any given page are the observations and notes-as-draft that he composed throughout the day, while along the bottom of each page he sketched two recurring “derelict dawgs,” as he called them, whose job it is to poke fun at or otherwise interact with what he’d composed above. Each page becomes an interplay between generative working, observation, and critique. The dawgs who observe the constellations above them, he told me, kept him grounded. They also acted as buffers between making and all the distractions that keep us from it. Susan Sontag, meanwhile, described her own diary as the space where she created and recreated herself. In the published volumes, we see her coming to her journal with personal dilemmas, with lists of books she has read and her ideas about them, with observations of people she had met, and the rough beginnings of theories she was testing. We see discrepancies between her public presentation and her inner turmoil. We see diary as workbench on which she fashions different masks. Virginia Woolf describes her diary in that very diary as having “a slapdash & vigor, & sometimes hits an unexpected bulls eye.” She revels in its informality and the constancy of it: “But what is more to the point is my belief that the habit of writing thus for my own eye only is good practise. It loosens the ligaments. Never mind the misses & the stumbles.” Later in this same passage, she consciously considers “what sort of diary” hers should be. “Something loose knit, & yet not slovenly, so elastic that it will embrace anything,” she decides. Diary here is not entirely a slapdash practice nor is it only observation. It is its very own facet of her work. 


Diary as Interlude

By now, you may have noticed that I use the words diary and notebook and journal interchangeably, even as these words carry very different connotations. Let us pause to consider the differences between diary and journal as one upper division class of undergraduate students at the San Francisco Art Institute in 2015 saw them. On the chalkboard, we began with the words diary and journal. Then, I transcribed the images, descriptions, and mandates my students associated with each. Their responses grew heated and my transcription grew messy, and this was the result: 

A diary, by definition, is simply a space for daily writing. It has, though, long been denigrated by the larger culture precisely because it was the writing medium most accessible to and associated with women. I am of the mind, like many women writers before me, that the diary deserves my appreciation and embrace. I have even come to love the term precisely because it brings to mind pillowy pink plastic covers and mini locks and keys, an endearing kitsch that also signals my first truly safe place in this world. But clearly not everyone is so comfortable with valuing this legacy of heavily gendered cheese. I am asking you, dear reader, to momentarily suspend any inherited gender bias against the diary you may carry, even if only until you reach the end of this essay.


Diary as Archive

How artists curate their diaries and notebooks and journals may differ, but what remains consistent is the fact of them as spaces for work that is not approached consciously as The Work. The diary functions much like looking out from the corner of the eye: the lack of direct gaze allows the making to come alive. It holds space for us to open without risk of rubbing up against the wicked edge of the world. The diary as space for drafting and catching ideas does this. The diary as archive does this, also.

In 2016, Chicago-based artist Magalie Guérin published her diary as a book, called Notes On, with The Green Lantern Press. In her introduction, which she titles, “This Book Is a Painting,” Guérin describes the creation of this book by treating her notebooks from 2009-2015 as ready-mades with a “list of transcription rules”: ignoring the chronology, she hand-copied all of them into a single book. The result is an intimate glimpse of the making of an artist and of their work. In it, we watch a budding artist sculpt herself and her work from a web of influences, experiences in the studio, conversations with friends and mentors, critique panels and classes (she attends graduate school from 2009-2011), the contemplation of definitions and theories, the daily living. We are gifted a rare view of all that goes into the making of a work of art. Editor Caroline Picard writes in the preface that, “through this intricate map of figures and instants, Guérin unlocks the painted, public surface of painting to reveal a subterranean flow of friendship and effort.” Guérin’s diary becomes a record, an archive of self and art with sinewy tethers stretched between the world, our making, and us. But this is not to say, of course, that this diary, nor any diary, and especially not an archive, is an “accurate factual record,” as Joan Didion puts it. The point is something else altogether. Or, as in Didion’s case, many somethings. For Guérin, it becomes an exquisitely sculpted interplay between the making of artist, work, community, and culture. Here, diary becomes archive becomes a web.

If an archive is a fiction constructed out of material facts, what exactly is a diary-as-archive? While questions about ordering and categorizing may be irrelevant to the diarist, what resonates with archivists are the choices about what to keep. If the archive belongs to a community center that also houses a bookstore, the daily tallies of bookstore sales may not seem particularly relevant or necessary. But the archivist knows that these inventories might tell a researcher some important things about the kinds of books patrons were interested in reading in a particular community at a particular time. They give a sense of how the selection was curated. Were the presses producing those books overwhelmingly independent or minority-owned, for example? Was the content of the books explicitly political or identity-based? These sales tallies also show how the place was surviving financially. Was it solvent, in fact? Did it rely on outside funding streams and simply provide a curated collection as a public service? Was the bookstore component mission driven? If so, what do the incarnations of mission statements and the paper stock on which they were drafted tell us about the growth of the organization or the people who made it? The archivist, like the diarist, must be discerning but open, for the smallest details can reveal the most. 

I began keeping a studio diary as a kind of archive while at work on a fiber installation whose technique was both new and old to me. Because I felt so out of place reentering the familiar mediums—sewing, quilting, embroidery—years after I had forgotten their particulars, writing diary entries became a way to survive the pain of remembering and to figure out why I felt compelled to make the piece at all. This diary had all the markings of the denigrated feminized one: emotional outpourings, stabbing observations, practical instruction, interruptions, pasted-in mementos that recall scrapbooking. But it also held a studious kind of distance that I needed. I channeled the historian-as-stenographer and the chemist-as-observer, kept my critiquing impulse busy so that I could become raw inside the making of The Work. I recorded smells (a plaid shirt upon ironing) and sounds (roosters crowing outside and the 90s Reba I played on repeat) and thoughts and failed attempts and surprising discoveries and serendipities and interruptions and conversations with neighbors. And I worked. I worked steadily throughout the days on the way toward exhibition, and the keeping of notes became a way to break down and digest the somatic memories as they arose so that I could continue working. The diary became the archive of making an installation and also a way to keep myself alive. The entries turned into crumbs I could use to navigate the many times I got lost. 

Then, something unexpected happened: the notes on the working became The Work itself. It was as if I had anticipated Susan Mitchell’s question before I ever read her essay: “What if the work of art came down and the scaffold stayed up?” My scaffolding was published as a book while the finished installation has only been shown during an open studio tour, only as draft. For this piece, it was the unfinishing, the backside of a stitch that was to be shared. The scaffolding itself was The Work.

I do not write this to say that every diary-as-archive will have a similar or even utilitarian fate. It is first the practice it elicits and the space it creates for the deeper working. Without that, there would be no notes to take. The archive is detritus and ephemera as sculpture or as fiction, even if it sometimes also becomes the making. 


Stephanie Sauer is an interdisciplinary artist and the author of Almonds Are Members of the Peach Family (Noemi Press) and The Accidental Archives of the Royal Chicano Air Force (University of Texas Press). Her work has been awarded fellowships from Yaddo, Sacatar, and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, as well as a Barbara Deming Memorial Award for Nonfiction. She teaches prose writing in Stetson University’s MFA of the Americas program and develops Lólmen Publications for the Shingle Springs Band of Miwok Indians.

Image source: Jan Kahánek/Unsplash

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