The Current Story of My Past:
an Interview with Throwback Diary’s Creator
MARION BOUVIER: Hi Caroline! Could you start by introducing Throwback Diary and giving us a little background on how and why you started the project?
CAROLINE: Throwback Diary is essentially me reading my past 25 years of diaries aloud, to strangers, over the Internet. Each Monday I post a new video entry, along with photos of the pages I am reading, and any other supplemental materials I have available. I call it Throwback Diary: The Story of a Life, Told One Diary Entry a Week. On a larger scale, it is a community art project: a place to share and comment upon the moments of our lives—menial or meaningful. People can write in and share their own journals, personal art projects, or responses to the things I’ve read. My guiding principle is that we can learn about life by learning how others are living their lives—if we just share, we won’t have to feel so alienated. The site’s homepage has this James Salter quote that I adore: “How can we imagine what our lives should be without the illumination of the lives of others?”
In the introductory video to your project, you muse about the reasons that led you to record your life in your diaries. So I guess my first question is: what can you identify as the main reason for you to have started writing your diary when you were 10 years old?
I got my first diary as a present from my grandmother on December 1, 1991. I know this because my first entry was a dutiful recording of this fact. I wrote sporadically about difficult homework and my annoying younger brother, scribbled “I [heart] Eric” all over the inside cover, and kept it hidden it behind my bedroom television set. On December 31, 1993, I set my resolutions for the coming year, including: “#7 Write in my diary at least 1 time during a week.” (You can see the entire list on the @throwback_diary Instagram account.) Once a week became every day for all of my teenagehood. And while I no longer write with such a frequency, it’s 25 years later and I’m still at it. Sometimes I think diary-keeping is little more than my most successful resolution! It’s as ingrained a habit as wishing on a digital clock’s 11:11. As an adult I can place words like “ritual” or “self-expression” onto the act, but at 10-years-old it was simply the decision to not toss the present, unused, into my closet.
That’s interesting! It also makes me wonder more generally why some people have the need to record and investigate the paths of their lives in written form (whether this be done in diaries, autobiographical or fictional novels), while some others are deeply drawn to reading about other people’s lives, and others still do not manifest such interest neither in reading nor writing about their lives/the lives of others.
Would you say that artistic expression in its various forms has at its core a desire to understand life through recording and expressing some of its substances?
Hmm… Do I listen to jazz to learn about life? No: I listen for the thrill and surprise of the musician’s virtuosity. And to—you know—bop up and down a bit and feel something move through my body.
But the art I participate in making: writing, photography, acting, filmmaking—absolutely. Because I have a personal fascination with humanity and the hidden inner life. I moved to New York after college to be an actor and playwright. What I most admired about the theater (and film, once I veered that way), was the illumination of how other people saw and experienced things. If it gave me a glimpse into how another lived, and taught me something along the way, I was in.
But some years into my time here, I became disappointed in what I was auditioning for and watching—the writing seemed so poor, so uninspired, so effort-laden in construct. I started watching documentaries exclusively. Then I began reading memoir, then reading any topic of non-fiction. I found in those works what I used to get from the theater: they made me feel something real, and experience something essential about human nature. The stakes were high enough.
I very much relate to what you say about looking for something that feels real, as an audience… But so what about the perspective of the person who is not “receiving” art, but “giving” it: what do you think drives people to decide to share these introspective investigations (whether it’d be in artistic form or through published diaries)?
Maybe some believe the writing is just so strong it should be available, regardless its personal nature? Maybe to participate in the literary heritage of teaching others how to live? I do think literature once served that purpose far more than it does now.
I actually haven’t read anyone’s published diary. For me, I was really struggling with an artistic impulse to Put Something Into the World. Last summer I made it my goal to write a personal essay about going to cosmetology school in my early 30s. Well, it was…an experience…and I went straight back to video editing. But the story is hilarious, really—at least I thought I could tell it that way. It was to be a real fish-out-of-water account in a similar voice to Amy Schumer or Tina Fey, and I’d send it to “Elle” or “Cosmopolitan.” Maybe it was writer’s block, or my attempt to write in such a prescriptive tone, but I couldn’t get past the introduction.
Around that time, I went home to clean out my childhood room before my parents moved, and collected my first 10 diaries to bring back to New York. For the first time, I had all 21 books in one place. Since I couldn’t write, I turned to photography. I would create a blog publishing photographs from the pages of my diaries. I would document the handwriting shifts, the little mementos left between the pages, the transition from childhood to womanhood—all as a kind of photographic time capsule. I described the idea to a friend who directs theater, and he kept asking me to explain the material. I randomly picked an entry and read it to him. It wasn’t an “exciting” entry, but I think we were both captivated by hearing the words aloud. There was some magic in sharing that really personal moment with him, and it affected us both. (Or maybe it was the scotch…)
It suddenly made sense that these had to be read. I decided I would creatively cast each entry with strangers. What would it mean to cast a body-building male to read an entry about me considering anorexia for my modeling career? What interesting dichotomies could be found through casting? A few friends politely suggested I was hiding: that the strength of the project would be watching someone grapple with the vulnerability of telling her own story. That’s long-winded…but it’s the arc the project took: it was never specifically about sharing the exact language of my diaries; it was using the resources uniquely available to me to make art.
It’s really interesting for me to hear about the creative process you went through before finally launching Throwback Diary! Also, I am guessing that as you changed and grew as an individual, the significance of these diaries for you evolved too; do you feel that you can identify an evolution in the purpose that the diaries served for you, or on the contrary do you feel that throughout the changes in your life, the diaries were a way to preserve a form of coherence, a unity of consciousness through the recollection of a wide variety of moments that formed your past?
Only in going back through the 21 books to select entries for Throwback, can I notice changes in how I used the diaries. For example: January 20, 2005 is about a one-off sexual encounter. It’s one of those Origin Stories of mine, from my early years in New York trying to make it as an actor/model. When I went back and actually re-encountered the source material, I can feel how I was editing myself. Even though I had zero intention of anyone reading these things, I was too scared to record my embarrassment of letting myself get into the situation. Those filters no longer exist. The way I write now is as raw as I feel and experience things. People have asked if my present writing is affected by the idea the entries may be shared—and luckily the answer is no. These books are the one place I get to be messy, or angry, or hopelessly romantic, or utterly lost. To censor that, to take away my own Safe Space, would probably leave me with nothing to write.
“Unity of consciousness” is interesting. Throwback Diary has completely altered my experience of time, in a very fascinating, but maybe not-so-good kind of way. When I have access to each individual day of my life, suddenly time seems like a large scale of democratized moments, with no one moment being any more Important than the other. I can’t recommend that kind of access as desirable. It’s healthy and probably necessary to forget so much of our lives. Did you catch the “This American Life” interview of the woman who can’t forget anything? The interviewer, and probably most listeners, were left swearing they’d never trade places with the woman. I go back and read something my mother yelled, and it stings like it happened today. It’s too much to carry in one head.
But so, at the beginning of the project, how difficult was it for you to start posting the entries, as well as the videos? What were you most afraid of when you uploaded your first entries?
I was keenly aware that my decision to expose my life to strangers was my decision alone. There was definitely concern about how the “characters” in some of the entries may react, and how to best respect and honor their privacy. I did a lot of legal research and decided what names to change. But for the most part, pre-production for this project was so intense, that I don’t think I had a moment to really appreciate what the week-by-week affect of the project would be, until the first weeks were already posted. Then it hit: what if no one watches? What if I never find an audience? What if I put my entire heart and soul into something that still doesn’t make me an Artist? or part of a larger community? That was my biggest fear for the first couple of months. And the fear my family would find it!… I haven’t told them about it.
How do you feel about all this now?
I’ve stopped worrying about numbers and mission statements. My push now is getting more people to participate. I just recorded an early entry for September, in which I try to recast the idea of sharing not as “brave” (a lot of people write me that they don’t feel brave enough to share), but as “compassionate.” For all the times someone writes me saying, “me too!,” I think how many times that would be multiplied by others’ stories. There are so many things I cannot offer, simply because they’re not part of my experience. When someone shares something about themselves, with their own language, it really enriches the entire project. “We can all affect each other, by being open enough to make each other feel less alienated.” —David Wojnarowicz. It’s so beguilingly simple to profoundly affect one another. Maybe that’s the better answer for what art can do for the human experience. It’s definitely what I want Throwback Diary to do.
I really like this idea of equating being open as being compassionate, but I can also see why people still find it courageous, especially since our society tends to associate openness with vulnerability and ultimately weakness. And yourself you seem to be a rather shy person, or at least that’s my impression from watching your videos (please correct me if I’m wrong!). So I’m wondering how you felt about the idea of not only sharing your life, as we’ve just discussed, but also of showing yourself in front of the camera? Is it something that’s liberating in a sense, to be able to go beyond your usual self for the project? And do you feel that this double medium that is the video and the Internet creates a certain distance, a “screen” (compared to for example a real-life interaction, or in the artistic sphere, theatre or live performances), that feels safer to you? Or is it on the contrary more nerve-wracking?
Maybe it’s the actor training, but I love being on camera! It’s intimate and vulnerable and invigorating. And I fiercely believe in the concept behind the project: that such good can come from honesty and connection. I’m a one-woman production crew on this thing, so there are times I wish the lighting were better, or my hair not doing something crazy! But on a day-to-day production level, it’s a beautiful vortex of all my artistic interests: the source material, the reading, the directing, the photography, the design aesthetic, the occasional cat wrangling… Some videos are definitely more weighted than others: talking about a cancer scare (February 12, 2010), starting an anti-depressant (March 21, 2010), high school bullying (May 17, 1999.) But the flip side is my first-ever date (February 25, 1995). I wasn’t able to read through that without blushing and giggling. It’s ridiculous and silly and wonderful.
I feel really safe in my videos, because everything I read is my past. It’s already done. But one entry was so eerie in light of my father’s current state of health, that I broke the “third wall” a bit and explained what was going on in my present (June 16, 2010.) That was intense. That was me actually looking for what I’m hoping the project provides for others—a resource for support and information about something that’s becoming a very real struggle in my life.
And more generally, do you feel that the Internet has created a more accessible space to share people’s stories, as well as artistic project? Is it something that you find encouraging, or does it come at a price?
In a way, the Internet has manifested the impulse to share. Social media allows us to create avatars of ourselves, as defined by the links and images and comments and approvals we “share.” But the things that are shared—especially if personal—are meticulously curated: a post does or doesn’t get the desired response, the poster gets a bolstering of approval or not, and then it’s pushed down a feed. Is there a price to pay from that personality split, or the feedback loop of instant gratification? I would tend to think so—at least in how marketing and advertising feeds off of that information. But maybe that’s cranky barely-a-Millennial me talking. It could also be called evolution, I suppose.
I’m trying to use Throwback Diary to serve a community looking to go deeper, and more personal. You see it with Humans of New York, The Moth, or the Beautiful/ Anonymous podcast—there is definitely the impulse to connect, to revisit and find comfort with one’s own story, through the stories of others. The Internet is a tremendous platform for that. But it’s also huge. And it’s hard to get attention, particularly in an organic way. I love fostering the work; I don’t love the PR.
So how did people generally react to your project, and what have been some of the best/worst feedback you’ve received?
The reactions are fascinating. One (self-identified) older man said he couldn’t relate to my experiences, but enjoys the project as you’d experience a new friend or lover: slowly getting to know someone over time. Someone just wrote saying he agrees with my thesis that, “a problem shared is a problem halved.” I love that. Sometimes people get indignant on my behalf—especially if I’ve shared a rough encounter with a boyfriend. There’s a lot of “you deserve better!” I have to remind myself people are experiencing each of these entries for the very first time, so a lot of things I’ve long grown past, are hitting with the immediacy with which I first wrote them down.
My favorite responses are when people write or call in with stories of their own. People send me journal entries about parts of their life they’ve never shared with anyone. There’s a woman named Nina who shares the most exquisitely illustrated pages (Nina’s submission.) There’s a voicemail from a man named Jeff who details all that went horribly wrong during his first sexual encounter (Jeff’s voicemail.) It’s hilarious (and is meant to be.) I strongly recommend checking out the Submissions page.
Of course there is the risk of trolling or hate-mail with anything that goes online. I do check the metrics on my YouTube channel, and there are some videos with the infamous thumbs-down. I used to think, “What don’t you like; it’s just my life?!” but, look, I’ve given people plenty to attack if anyone wanted to take the time to do so. Some downward-turned thumb icons aren’t so bad.
I have to say I really like the Submissions page!
My last question is about the relationship between the written world and reality. I’m currently reading the letters that Simone de Beauvoir sent to Jean-Paul Sartre, and which are in many ways very close to a diary—in them she relates her everyday life, from the progress she’s making on writing her novel to her love affairs.
What fascinates me is that it’s very personal and gripping, and at the same time I cannot help wondering how much of it is true. Of course Truth is always contingent to the subject’s point of view, and in a sense what she recounts is necessarily true because it’s the way she perceived it, or the way she wants to perceive it in order to share it with that particular person she’s writing to. But also from my personal experience, writing always(?) comes with creating a persona for ourselves; this persona can be more or less close to how we generally identify ourselves, or from how others perceive us, of course. But nonetheless I find that even in autobiographies there is always a part of fiction, which is in the creation of that person we want to be for the audience with which we share our experiences. And even in diaries, where there is no specific audience, I get the feeling that we often have an imaginary audience for which we shape our way of telling our story.
What are your thoughts on that?
I absolutely agree in terms of writing for an audience and a publisher, and I think my own self-sabotage with the cosmetology school essay was my obsession with tone and message. I write a lot of personal essays and creative non-fiction. It’s different than how I write in my diaries. Art created for an audience has the responsibility of considering how it wants to affect an audience. If it doesn’t—the whole art-for-art’s-sake thing—I tend to not enjoy it.
With Throwback Diary, I am working from source material created with no consideration of presentation. I feel strongly that this is true. I wrote, and continued to write, for myself and myself alone. As I said before, it’s the one arena of my life when I get to be raw, and I need that. What does happen as an entry transitions from being in my diary, to being part of the project, is the addition of present-day me. There’s the “character” of me who serves at the host, there’s the tenor of my voice that may or may not be anything like how I would have sounded when I actually wrote the entry. I’m also selecting the entries I present. I have 25 years of days to pick from, and I choose entries that feel like they tell a complete story, or will be interesting for a stranger. So as host, creative director, performer, what-have-you—that’s where some presentational choices come into play. There’s an entry I felt really needed a trigger warning (May 26, 2007.) At the end, I include footage from the actual night in which I’d written the entry, and I felt I was potentially breaking the contract of my own project—showing myself not safe, not well. There’s no getting around the addition of my present-day persona, and I think she’s quite necessary. She’s just like me, but with less swearing.
I’m writing this in a café, and two strangers are sitting at the table behind me. A middle-aged woman, and a woman in her early 20s. Most of the time they both sat speaking on their phones, and I imagined a little animosity as the older woman asked to join the table the younger woman first had to herself. Their respective calls just ended, and I heard the older woman ask: “So, I always want to hear everyone’s stories—you’re a college student?” And now they go on. They tell each other little personal bits of life, as they’ve each lived it. They’ll learn a new perspective. The younger girl will remember this as One of Those Things That Happen in New York. They’ll wish each other luck before parting. That’s everything.
Thank you for taking the time to answer my questions, Caroline, and I’m hoping that the project will continue growing and getting more people to share their own stories.