There are pitfalls to writing a diary, the main pitfall being oneself. What seems to the writer a revelatory detail, or a fascinating personal anecdote, magisterially captured in precise, lapidary prose, might strike the reader in an altogether different way. Permit me to illustrate by presenting to you a beginning I discarded in a matutinal fit of frustration and despair. What I am doing now has never been done in the history of daily journalism.
I used to eat a very light breakfast, sometimes no breakfast at all. As a result, I would get hungry around 10 or 11 o’clock. At some point, I decided to eat more for breakfast. That way, I figured, I would not get hungry until 1 or 2 o’clock, which was perfect because by then it was lunchtime, at least in this country. So I began to toast crumpets. These small wafflelike muffins, smooth on one side and porous on the other, are originally from England. Samuel Pepys, the famous 17th-century diarist, mentions crumpets in his diaries. Crumpets are imported from England by Starck & Sons, a company based in tree-lined Garden City, Long Island. I would stand leaning on my off-white Formica counter and watch, bleary-eyed and depressed, as the large aluminum toaster glowed brighter and brighter like a sunrise in palm-tree-lined Sevilla, where I spent my junior year abroad, and met Carmencita, my first serious girlfriend, whom I have been reluctantly seeing in an addictive, destructive, co-dependent relationship, on and off, for 23 years. And then—zing!—the crumpets would pop up, ready to be eaten. But I ate so many crumpets while circling inaccuracies and plagiarized passages in the morning newspaper that around noon I would fall asleep, slumped over my keyboard, until 3 or 4 o’clock, which was way past lunch …
If you take the letter “I” and turn it on its side, you get the shape of a barbell. That’s a good, instructive visual metaphor for anyone trying to write well in the first person. It would be better to dispense with the nettlesome pronoun altogether, the way Buddhists wish to abolish the ego. But to convincingly dispense with the “I,” you really would have to abolish the ego, which is impossible, especially when you have to call your editor to ask for your check. Now that I think of it, some French nouveau roman-iste once tried to write a novel without using the first person. Let me give it a shot: Going to usual Japanese restaurant for lunch. Crossing busy Broadway. Menu handed over. Hmmm, what should a certain favorite person of this diarist order for lunch today? You-know-who is tired of eating the same California rolls, day in, day out. Oh, never mind.
Commercial society makes the acquisitive “I,” with its appetites, and its potential appetites, a constant target. As a result, we spend most of our leisure time engaged in two activities that provide total I-obliteration: watching television and watching movies. I’ve been thinking a lot about this because I recently started writing TV criticism for the New Republic.
This job, rich and pleasurable opportunity that it is, comes with its own pitfalls. The first is my absolute loyalty to my critical duties. When I was a boy, my parents forbade me to watch television and made me read for two hours every night. Now my obligations make me watch television for several hours every night and forbid me to read. But the more dangerous pitfall is the addictive nature of television itself. Searching for an antidote to this heroinlike habit, I have found my methadone. This is the even more addictive nature of movies.
The NewRepublic has generously provided me with the primo cable package, which means that I am able to receive 1,000 cable channels. Many of these venues aren’t worth the time it takes to flip from one channel to the other, and the pay-per-view option was mysteriously blocked a few days after I purchased, for professional reasons I don’t have time to go into right now, Vivid Vixens for $3.99. But the two dozen or so movie channels are manna from heaven. I realize that there are actually films that I didn’t see when I was younger. Fury, for example, Fritz Lang’s sublime movie about a man, played by Spencer Tracy, falsely accused of a kidnapping and almost killed by a vigilante mob. The problem is that some nights there is such a cornucopia of oblivion-inducing cinema that I don’t get to sleep until dawn, which means that I don’t eat breakfast until noon, and lunch until 4. By that time, in Sevilla, they are just sitting down to dinner.