My lovely sister-in-law-to-be is currently studying at UCLA, and she recently had access to their archives for research. She chose to look at the diaries and correspondence of Anais Nin and was extremely excited about having the chance to look at these documents, to touch the pages Anais had touched, to see her words as they were written. As I sat here in gloomy grey England she sent me a quick snapshot of one of the pages – the writing was neat and stretched long, but it was the words that amazed me:
‘There was a bottle on the floor and talk which did not climb like a Gothic spire, but broke and splashed like a kaleidoscope in the febrile hands of Fred whose moods are like a string orchestra playing Debussy…
From the diary of Anais Nin
Such a glorious use of simile, and this was just one part of one page in her diaries. I think I would have been stuck in the archive room for weeks, immersed in the beauty of her words. And this was no significant event, just a diary entry noting an evening spent with Henry and Fred (Henry Miller and Fred Perles, his roommate). They drank together and talked, and at one point made a salad. She describes Fred preparing ‘the savouries for the salad with ritualistic fervour.’ I mean, it’s just making salad, but she imbues it with so much more. You can almost hear the knife chopping down, staccato beat on wood.
For me this was fascinating. Here is a woman known mainly for her erotic stories, but whose everyday diary entries prove the fact that she was also a damn good writer. These days, diary keeping is a largely forgotten art. Instead we have Facebook and Twitter in which to record our hours, short phrases dashed out in the few moments we may have between one thing and another, hardly conducive to creating great prose. Yet writing every day is the best way to improve our craft, so perhaps those diary keepers of yore had an advantage that we do not, something that explains why some of today’s popular novels seems to lack a richness of language, erotica dumbed down to repeated exclamations and muddy inner monologues, style sacrificed to pace.
I hope one day I can learn to write about making salad like she did.