Dear Diary: On the Performative Self and the Non-Existence of the Private Space

Photo by Robert Wright.

When I was 13, I had a Pinterest board devoted to other people’s Wreck This Journals and a small notebook I decided was going to be my own Wreck This Journal since the real one was too expensive. I would write in it, draw on it, press flowers inside its torn pages, and do all the things I imagined one would do with the real thing.

I started showing it to people, because isn’t that why we all wanted a Wreck This Journal? I brought it to school every day, and my friends and I would huddle around it to see what I had done with it the night before. Then I would go home and think of what to do next, what to write or draw or list or stick or rip. Everyone in my middle school wanted a Wreck This Journal, and I was the only one in my class to have something remotely similar, so of course I had an audience—and of course I wanted to tend to it.

Thus, I spent the rest of eighth grade curating my journal. I had stopped keeping a diary when I was 9, and coming back to it, I felt the same kind of comfort it had used to give me. Of course, back then I was writing about ridiculously mundane things like what I had eaten for lunch. This time I felt more artistic, more refined; I wrote poems about unrequited love, metaphors about waiting for something unknown, testimonies to the school system’s flaws—and when you’re 13 you love reading about stuff like that. So I was continuously told I was a good writer. My little journal was passed around between classes and read in secret between lectures.

The Writer™ had always been my identity. It’s how other people saw me, and how I identified myself. I learned how to write at a pretty young age, and I won Gold at an intercity writing contest on my second try. When you’re in a small school, news like that gets around. Oh, that’s Andrea, she’s the writer. If you don’t know her from hearsay, then you must know her from the giant congratulatory poster of her plastered on the school gate that I have to see every single morning. I had to live up to the hype, and for 13-year-old me, that wasn’t a problem—I loved being known as a writer. I loved that people wanted to read what I was writing. I loved working on my journal every night, making sure it was deep and poetic and perfect and profound.

Of course, deep and poetic and perfect and profound are almost never in the first draft. There’s always a better way to say “you’re in my veins, and so aside from my little journal, I had a separate, super secret journal that held bullet points of things I wanted to write about and drafts upon drafts of things that may or may not have made it in the Real Journal. I kept it from people not because I wrote my crush’s initials or who I hated in the class or any of those juicy secrets, but because it had mistakes. Other people’s Wreck This Journals never had mistakes, and if they did, they wouldn’t have ended up on my prestigious Pinterest board, or anyone else’s for that matter.

Eighth grade ended, my journal ran out of pages, and we all awoke from our collective pseudo-deep Tumblr, scream-poetry, grunge-aesthetic, it’s-3-AM-and-I-love-you fever dream, so I bought a new journal and decided to keep writing for myself. Except that I couldn’t. I had nothing to write about.

I found this completely disorienting, because was I not self-proclaiming as the Bukowski of my generation just two months prior? Was I not producing pages upon pages nightly to be consumed the next day? But alas, the page remained empty. I was blank.

I racked my brain for something to write about, reading more books and looking for prompts on the internet. I chanced upon these group of girls my age who all had blogs and I thought they were cool, so I made a blog. And oh reader, I am telling you: God is real, and They had smiled upon me because once I had that blog, I was writing. I was writing writing. Every day in my journal, a piece a week on my blog.

But the older I get, the more trouble I have maintaining a writing habit. I still have a journal, but the entries are always three months apart and it all starts with, “Okay, i know i haven’t been writing so i thought i should start again!!!” and then I don’t start again. I’ve realized that I never saw writing as an escape. I never wrote when I felt sad or angry. I wrote when I wanted to feel validated, when I wanted people to tell me how good I was or how advanced for my age I was. I never got excited about writing unless I knew there would be someone to read it after.

I think all along I knew my journals were never meant to be read by just me. I saw those journals as portfolios, not diaries. I never knew what to write about because I was holding myself back, waiting for the idea that was deep enough to be immortalized. Even now, when I reread them, I get disappointed when they aren’t good—I mean, diary entries are supposed to be anything but good! They’re diary entries! And yet here I am, approaching with the scrutiny of a pretentious book snob who thinks young adult fiction is the downfall of literature as we know it (I actually think the contrary—I love YA and how it birthed a whole demographic of young readers—but I digress).

I never saw myself as having a career as a writer because I constantly felt like I was being a phony. I read the unabridged journals of writers I admire, and even their most private thoughts are worthy of praise. I never had that. My private thoughts are 50% complaining about something happening to me, 50% complaining about how my private thoughts are never worthy of praise. I wanted to be like them; I wanted someone to find my journals one day and be so blinded by my sheer skill and profundity that they had no choice but to publish it.

***

Bo Burnham recently went on Late Night with Seth Meyers and read a letter that his sixth-grade self wrote to his future self.

The Patriots won the Super Bowl this year, but I was so sick I fell asleep at half-time, frownie face,” he reads. “I am performing my love of sports to myself. I was so scared of my masculinity, [especially] being a Boston kid, I am performing the fact that I like sports to my future self! Truly pathetic.”

Except it isn’t pathetic.

***

Erving Goffman is my favorite sociologist, even though he’s the reason I almost failed my first sociology final. He came up with dramaturgical analysis, which is basically the idea that capital-S Self is not a property of the individual but something the individual performs while interacting with others. The Self is the product of social interaction, not its precursor. Who we are does not exist without other people, because it is through this process of guiding what other people’s impressions of us are that we see what we want to be perceived as—our Self. And so we put on a performance—we wear the right costume, we say the right dialogue, we move the right way, we don’t miss our marks.

Obvious examples are occupations: a doctor wears a white coat and says all that science stuff and can be seen at hospitals—the right costume, the right script, the right stage. By getting all that right, we, the capital-O Others are able to identify the doctor as a doctor in a shared space. Their identity is established.

Goffman says that it is through this need to establish a social identity—an identity that we want to be recognized as—that we develop the concept of a “front” of the stage, which is the performance that we show other people. Dressed in well-pressed clothes and hair up neatly for a job interview? Front. Talking to the person you like and pretending your knees are not about to give out any second? Front. Facing your mom after curfew convincing her that you’re not drunk when you are very much totally smashed? Front. Only writing the things you deem profound enough in your journal to appear as a flawless poet, unable to write a verse out of rhythm? Frontfrontfrontfront.

In all those situations, you’re not exactly trying to be something you’re not—you’re just trying to tap into a part of yourself that you think would benefit you most in your current situation. Everyone tries to present an idealized version of themselves in their front. Goffman calls this “mystification”—trying to conceal unacceptable behavior from the audience and emphasizing characteristics that are socially accepted—celebrated, even—and that legitimize the identity—the performance—you’re trying to pass. Like, I don’t know, creating a separate, super secret journal apart from your Real Journal to hide the fact that you, a human being, make mistakes.

Apart from the frontstage, the “back” and “outside” of the stage also exist. The backstage is exactly what it sounds like—your private space, your solace, your sigh of relief. You are no longer visible to the audience, so the need for mystification vanishes. In here you are more truthful. The outside, on the other hand, involves the audience members that do not have access to your performance. Having an outside is helpful in preserving proper relationships and making sure the right audience gets to see the right performance.

Learning about this analysis brought me a lot of comfort. It relieved me of my anxieties, of my worries that I was being fake, that the fact that I was a different person when with different people felt like a betrayal because I wasn’t being my true self. But all these selves are true; they’re all me. Who knew the words of a dead white man from the ‘50s could bring so much validation to an 18-year-old brown girl from the 2010s?

But that’s the thing with Goffman’s writing—he’s a dead white guy, and I’m alive and on the internet. Today the lines between the frontstage, backstage, and the outside are not so much blurred as they are completely obliterated. Everything is a post waiting to happen, and your performance of your Self becomes an entity on the worldwide web, able to have a life of its own. When everyone you meet comes pre-packaged with an expectation of you which they formed by looking at how you curate yourself online, the online self is no longer an extension of the real self, but the contrary—the real self is struggling to keep up with the online self.

The internet demands self-curation—from bios to Instagram feeds to following-follower ratios, every little thing says something about you. It demands perpetual surveillance, and I don’t even mean that in the an-FBI-agent-is-watching-you-through-your-webcam way. I personally process my experiences through the lens—literally. I turn on my webcam and start talking to it, telling stories about what’s bothering me or what I need to get done. Before I began writing a draft of this piece, I talked to my camera for twenty minutes. And I don’t even have any plans of releasing these videos on the interwebs—the mere illusion of an audience, the illusion that I was a YouTuber and I was doing a Story Time (Not Clickbait) video for my thousands of subscribers, got me talking, got me to clear my head, in a way that writing in my little journal never could.

You don’t get the luxury of a backstage when your audience is omnipresent. When your audience is quantifiable and the fact that you received 20 less profile visits this week compared to last week is actually something that hurts you. When one of your audience members is yourself. The performance is done when the audience can no longer see you, but what if they never leave? Do you just keep performing? Do you keep writing diary entries as if someone other than yourself will read them? Where is your true self? Is it within the audience?

***

“You read diaries of yourself, you know what I mean? Diaries are apparently, like, private, but when you read them, you’re going, ‘Why am I performing my own depth to myself?’ you know what I mean? Like, ‘Oh, today I was this,’ and it’s like, all these Words of the Day, so I just think there’s even a sense of performing yourself to yourself at that age. You’re even trying to trick yourself into convincing [yourself] you’re something,” Bo adds.

“Again, you know, this is an element of the film [Eighth Grade], this is a girl who does videos every day and talks, and this is how the film starts, and it’s interesting, her performative nature, because she’s just projecting confidence that she obviously doesn’t have,” Seth replies.

“Yeah, and people see that just as a bad thing, like, ‘Oh kids, they’re so fake online,’ but the version of trying to speak out loud and maybe become what you say you may be is beautiful, and like, I do actually think that who we hope we might be is a more vulnerable truth than who we’re scared we might be. I think people are way quicker to admit their fears than their hopes, so a little kid online, lying about their life, trying to be cool, I think is beautiful, and not just fake, not just superficial.”

***

I think it’s only fitting to end this with me reclaiming my backstage by putting on a more truthful, less idealized performance in front of the audience. So let me tell you something I would never say outside my own head: I am so absolutely terrified that this piece will be rejected for publication. People will see through me, see through my costume, my script, my stage, my performance, and deem me unacceptable, not a good writer, deem me audacious for even thinking I am worthy of the title “writer.”

I do actually think that who we hope we might be is a more vulnerable truth than who we’re scared we might be. I think people are way quicker to admit their fears than their hopes…

I want to be a writer. I want to be a writer whose words may not make sense all the time but capital-O Others find solace in them anyway. I want to be a writer, I want to be a writer, I want to be a writer.

…So a little kid online, lying about their life, trying to be cool, I think is beautiful, and not just fake, not just superficial.

I am a writer. Right now that’s a lie, but if you’re reading this, even if you think it’s so embarrassingly bad, then it’s not a lie anymore. Thank you for reading.


By Andrea Panaligan

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