Some Thoughts on Keeping a Diary
I started keeping a diary shortly before the pandemic began, and soon, wanting to improve my drawing skills and inspired by Lynda Barry, it morphed into a diary comic. When I took on the challenge of making a daily comic, I’d expected to draw about hiking, birdsong, and the mere mundane details of my life—a learning practice that would produce nothing interesting to share.
The scholar Phillippe Lejeune points out that “diaries do not present consistent pictures of a life: they show an identity in process, even as they are part of the process itself of creating identity, day after day.” Diaries are introspective about aspects of the day, but unlike autobiography, they are not often reflective because the story is still in progress. They can reveal patterns, show the traces of a life, but it is through their accumulation that the individual panels and pages build into something greater, both fragmentary and repetitive to resembling a story.
As the days progressed, however, I found myself documenting a difficult series of events: we soon discovered that my husband had a large tumor growing on his kidney, that it was cancerous, and that he would need surgery—and another when a nodule appeared on his next CT scan. Between appointments, tests, and surgeries, the world at large somehow continued on. And so the diary comic documents not just cancer, but gives a more rounded and holistic look at a life, from coming into work, to cooking dinner, to playing with the cats.
Talking an oncologist recently, they said they would be interested in this book because it chronicles the patient experience. And I agree with that, but it’s not a very clinical approach—thinking of the diary as a tracker, used to record data about your life, such as how many calories have you consumed, changes in symptoms, side effects, changes in your medical condition, blood pressure, oxygen levels, etc., with the goal perhaps of better tailoring your treatment. This is not that kind of document, but I do think there is a value in this kind of graphic medicine for the caregiver, patient and the provider. Rather, the lifeline of a daily art practice is a radical form of vulnerability, where the sketchbook becomes a place to be honest with oneself, a place of intellectual and emotional engagement, of curiosity and awe, an unselfconscious place, a place of transformation. Through diary comics, you can change your relationship to illness.
Lynda Barry describes the diary as a place, not an object. I found the daily comic to be a place where I could amuse myself, a place that was a retreat and re-energizing force. In my sketchbook, I could be vulnerable, admit my ignorance about the human body, and tell a joke all at the same time. As Barry says, “To understand old patterns and values and explore what a new authenticity of self looks like for you.” Expressing a feeling gives you a chance to really look at it. There is value in creating a space where you can be “open and frank about your feelings,” because it can help you rediscover who you are and how you want to live.
Unfiltered: A Cancer Year Diary is a collection of diary comics—that is, personal comics drawn each day about that day, and spanning a year that my spouse was diagnosed with kidney cancer, treated, and entered remission. The title is a play off of the book being a largely unedited diary (“unfiltered”), with the only real edits being cutting the number of entries down from 365 and correcting the occasional spelling or legibility issue, and the kidney’s role in filtering your blood. You can pre-order Unfiltered here.
If you are in or near Albuquerque, I will be making the following public perfomances next month:
April 8 poetry reading for Chatter at SITE Santa Fe, in Santa Fe, NM
April 29 Daily Comics and Mindfulness Workshop + Unfiltered reading and signing at Books on the Bosque in in Albuquerque, NM at 2 pm
April 29 Unfiltered book release party at Lizard Tail Brewing - Nob Hill in Albuquerque, NM 6-8 pm
Upcoming Comics Events
March 17 - 19: Toronto Comicon (Toronto, Ontario, Canada)
March 24 - 26: Wondercon (Anaheim, California)
April 1-2 MoCCA Fest (New York, NY)
April 18-20: London Book Fair (London, UK)
April 29-30: Toronto Comic Arts Festival (Toronto, ON)