Journals, by John Cheever

Last week I wrote about reading Cheever’s stories and journals at the same time. I’m always curious about how other writers use their journals. I’ve written in this blog about Elizabeth Smart’s journals and how she used them in creating her novels. Based on these extracts, Cheever seems to have used his journal occasionally as a sketchbook for his stories but primarily as a place to have a conversation with himself about himself. And while it was fun to see the original sketches that became characters and bits of plot in the stories, it was far more interesting to see him exploring his experiences and thoughts and emotions in ways that fed into the stories in a more subtle manner.

I was surprised that there not much about writing. Very rarely he would refer to another writer—a brief reference to Phillip Roth or John Updike—but not much beyond a note of praise for that author’s work, no recordings of discussions with any other writers. So it came as a surprise that, when a reporter falsely informs him of Updike’s death, he is shattered by the loss of this (now we find out) close friend.

And there is nothing about his own writing. Once or twice he cites his success at achieving his goal in writing, but never explains what that goal is. Of course, the journals were not written with an eye to publication, so perhaps he didn’t need to state it. I need to keep reminding myself of my goals and what I am trying to accomplish—it’s a method I use to stay on track and not get distracted by all the intriguing branches down which I could wander.

Nor does he, except in the last few months of his life when his mental and physical powers were waning, talk about the physical act of writing, the difficulties and satisfactions of getting words down on paper.

In the early years, he occasionally mentions financial difficulties, but I have to say that this is one area that completely baffled me. I was amazed that he could make a living, a good living, just from writing stories. Yes, it was a different era, and yes, the New Yorker bought a lot of his stories, but how in the world did he maintain a wealthy suburban lifestyle for himself and his family with just his writing? His wife didn’t have a job. Nor did he, apparently, other than writing.

His relationship with his wife dominates these journals, as he tries to puzzle her out or recounts the ways that he has betrayed her despite his best intentions. I was surprised by the consistency of his concerns. He came back again and again to the same preoccupations, fears, and laments year after year. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, because I’m well aware that my own journals circle back over the same ground repeatedly. I like to think that I’ve progressed, but often find that I am having to learn the same lesson over and over.

Beyond the content of these journals, the simple experience of reading Cheever’s prose is delightful. These sentences, presumably dashed off casually before beginning his real writing, are as exquisite as the finely crafted sentences in the stories. Between the journals and the collected stories, I had a sense of an oeuvre, a lifetime’s accomplishment. I thought, as I did walking through the rooms full of Turners at the Tate: This is a person’s life, this body of work.

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