The Slow-Cooked Sentence

Anaïs Nin in defense of the diary and handwritten sentence

Rachael Conlin Levy

The writer and her subject.

This summer writing has been a practice, a meditation on words, through words, and in words. Past efforts to hold tight to a routine have been upended by a houseful of children. But this year, I’ve managed. With no goal beyond the act of writing, I’m making it through the heat-heavy, vacation-filled, guest-laden, dog-days of summer.

I write in the morning, in the stillness before the family wakes, sipping my first cup of coffee, watching the sunshine spill across the hardwood floor. I write at night, propped up in bed, feeling the occasional gurgle in my belly as it digests dinner, listening to the muffled laughter of my daughter’s phone conversation travel through duct work.

I write, presently, in a primary composition book. When I went to the shelf that held the year’s school supplies all that remained was this journal, two dried-out glue sticks, an opened package of index cards, and a three-ring binder. The comp book’s mottled black-and-white cover was overlaid with advertisements of its interior: 80 sheets of paper, the top half of each page blank for drawing, the bottom half ruled to help guide the early writer.

Nin used her pencil to discover herself; illustrator Wendy MacNaughton uses it to discover others. Here MacNaughton drew for Brain Pickings, a favorite site of mine.

Inside the journal’s cover were instructions on how to draw a dog. Red ink had bled onto the journal’s spine, and the first ten or fifteen pages were missing. The ragged remaining strips of paper attached to the notebook’s binding implied the work of an impatient child and a dull set of scissors, and I wondered what those pages held and why they’d been removed.

“Handwriting is a homely flavor, human, alive and expressive in itself,” wrote diarist Anaïs Nin. “It shows my calm moments and my nervousness. … Besides its own expressiveness, there is the silence I love while I write. No click of machinery, no stamping letters, none of the signs of the ‘professional.’ Quiet, intimacy, where all unites to express what my machine cannot.”

I flipped to the back, but there was no further evidence of ownership, only a sample alphabet offered to the early writer who might forget how to draw one of the 27 letters, as well as some story-writing tips. Write about something you like and know. Describe it in detail! Give facts, but also write about what you think.

MacNaughton for Brain Pickings, the website of Maria Popova, who often writes about Nin.

I ignore the comp book’s suggestions, writing the unknown indiscriminately across blank and lined sections. I write like I watch a hummingbird fly from spent lilac flower to dried lichen in search of insects: Expecting nothing, we’re both delighted by our discoveries. Words nourish, and it’s this understanding and self-awareness that sustained the diarist in her lifetime habit.

“I do not become fully conscious of events and places and people until I have ‘phrased’ them,” Nin wrote in “The Early Diary of Anaïs Nin, Vol. 3 1923-1927.” “This consciousness, sometimes so painful, is useful as a literary asset. It becomes a habit of observation which has this advantage: that it includes two processes generally separated and each demanding its own time. The moment I see a thing or feel it, I put it into a phrase, as I have to carry it to my journal in that form. I do it so swiftly now that it seems but one thing: Seeing and feeling in phrases.

Nin’s diary was her monumental life’s work–16 volumes and some 50 years. The diary’s existence had long been speculated about in literary circles, and contained the expected anecdotes about famous friends like Henry Miller, but its long, introspective passages about the nature of the self proved to be the diary’s biggest draw, according to The Guardian. The newspaper swiftly outlines the highs and lows of Nin’s life–from dismissed writer to feminist icon to shamed slut to social media’s patron saint–helping to explain her polarizing status and our recurrent fascination with her.

“The rehabilitation of Nin is taking place not because her work has changed, but because the world has changed to make room for her work,” Sady Doyle wrote in The Guardian in 2015. “Like many great and ‘mercilessly pretentious’ experimentalists, she wrote for a world that did not yet exist, and so helped to bring it into being.”

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