Sunday, October 11, 2009

The Journals of Andre Gide

"Too many projects in my head. And desire to work on all of them at once." ~Andre Gide, Journals, March 6, 1927

A literary critic once observed that in a mountain range composed of the great Nobel Prize winning authors of the first half of the 20th century, the three highest peaks would be Thomas Mann, James Joyce and Andre Gide. How quickly people fall into the shadows of history and become forgotten. The influential French writer of more than 80 books of fiction and non-fiction, who sat at the center of French literary circles for decades one hundred years ago, is today pretty much an unknown in most circles.

Several things stood out for me regarding Gide's work were that his writing was beautiful, his themes profound and his range as vast as the landscapes of this world. A complicated and gifted man, Gide was to literature as Dylan today is to music. Neither would be happy to get tagged in a specific category or style. Both were perpetually exploring. Each continued to produce original, honest work over long, significant careers.

If you are a writer, of any stripe, I commend to you The Journals of Andre Gide.

I myself have kept journals for more than three decades, beginning in 1974. (I do not count here the dream diaries I kept in junior high and high school.) It wasn't till I discovered Gide's journals that my own began to deepen.

Of special value are all the ways in which we glimpse the inner workings of the mind of a great writer. We often see only the finished work, and seldom see the great inner battles that preceded the final presentation.

Here are a few quotes from these pages.

"Get in the habit of gathering the idea as soon as it is formed; and cease to let it ripen too long on the branch. Some of them, under this treatment, have become soft. When the brain that bears them is itself ripe, all its fruits are ready to be gathered." 2 October 1927

"This morning, as soon as I awake (much too early) my brain, despite me, begins to construct sentence. Some of them are quite well turned out but mean nothing. There are some that I should not like to lose, that I try to learn by heart, to remember; and it's all up with sleep.

"Good God, how complicated everything is becoming! Lines in all directions; and no guidance. No way of knowing what to believe, what to think!" 3 July 1927

"I have never produced anything good except by a long succession of slight efforts." 24 October 1915

We all have different purposes in our journaling. For some it is just keeping a record of one's days. For others it might be a tool for self-analysis. In 1990, when I came across the following statement in Gide's journal, I found it so liberating that I put it inside the front cover of my own: "It is a mistake to intend to write only very important things in a journal." This mistake leads to paralysis.

Journal writing is a great way to prime your pump, and to produce fodder for future projects. The journals of great writers also offer great rewards. Gide, in this writer's opinion, is perhaps as good as it gets.

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