Unexpected Fame

Fame is a chancy thing. It is well known for flitting off the second your back is turned (nothing so fickle as fame) but it is also fond of landing on people when they least expect it – or leaping out on them from an unanticipated direction.

the-fame-of-the-arts-830002_640Of course, most of us will never be famous at all (there isn’t room) but some who become famous do so for entirely unanticipated reasons; reasons which sometimes eclipse a fame-worthy effort in another direction.

Take Margaret Mead for example. She is perhaps more widely known for the quote “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has,” than for her work as a cultural anthropologist. This is almost painfully ironic, considering that there is no proof that she ever said or wrote it.

To take another example, from The Illustrated History of the Housewife by Una A. Robertson, “Scotland’s Lady Grisell Baillie, of Mellerstain, near Kelso, is now better known through her book of domestic accounts than for her childhood heroism in saving her father’s life.” Thus proving that even the most dramatic of acts can be overlooked in retrospect, particularly if you leave behind solid documentary evidence of something else. (Another good argument for keeping a diary: distracting posterity from those things you’d rather it forgot.) Indeed, it is possible to become famous simply because you kept a diary.

Anne Frank Diary at Anne Frank Museum in BerlinWho knows? Perhaps Richard Dawkins may someday be remembered as the coiner of the word-of-the-age, ‘meme’ – meaning a cultural thing that is copied or transmitted in a similar way to biological data such as genes. He is, after all, a biologist – despite his outspoken opinions on other things, such as reading fairy tales to one’s children.

To be fair, while he initially said it was “pernicious to inculcate into a child a view of the world which includes supernaturalism,” he then decided that perhaps fairy tales encouraged the “spirit of scepticism” in children and were therefore permissible. This all comes rather oddly from someone who claims that “there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.” Pitiless he may or may not be, but he certainly doesn’t seem indifferent.

Dawkins has had some bad press in the past, so perhaps it would be only kind to begin associating him with that queen of memes, the captioned kitty. Considering his opinions on, for example, Down’s Syndrome, this would seem a good place to start:

Grumpy Cat dislikes your existenceFor another example of unintentional fame, take Edward Bulwer-Lytton. He might have thought he would achieve fame for his political achievements – he was Secretary of State for the Colonies at a time when Britain was by no means short of them – or for turning down the position of King of Greece. He probably dreaded the thought of becoming famous for inspiring Wilkie Collins’ novel The Woman in White, by having his (sane) wife committed to an insane asylum when she campaigned against his election to Parliament. He may have hoped that he would become famous for his novels, but probably not the way it happened: his fame has been almost entirely eclipsed by one of his opening lines.

It was a dark and stormy night… Of course, that isn’t so bad, if you’re the first to write it (which he was). If only he had left it at that, instead of extending the sentence to read It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents—except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.”

Ludwig Munthe - Stadttheater und Alleestraße (1891)This subsequently inspired some of the right-thinking sort to start a competition for execrable opening sentences: The Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest. This year’s submissions close next week (Thursday June 30th), so why not have a crack at it? If, like Edward B-L, you can become famous for a single line, why bother writing the rest of the novel?

The moral of the story (yes, sorry Mr Dawkins, this is one of those pernicious stories that have morals to them) is that it pays to be careful what you do, or write, or say, because you may become famous for something you didn’t mean to. Or something you didn’t even mean. Or even, like Margaret Mead, something you didn’t even say, but there is (alas!) not much you can do about that.

Dear Diary: Woe!

Thus began my first attempt at a written chronicle of my day-to-day life. I was twelve years old, which may account for the style. Or, then again, that might just be me.

Browne, Henriette - A Girl Writing; The Pet Goldfinch - Google Art Project

I pursued the theme, off and on, for years. Jo Brand says that she re-reads her diary occasionally “to remind myself what a miserable, alienated old sod I used to be.” I don’t re-read mine, for similar reasons. I was probably only miserable a minority of the time, but that minority formed the majority of the time I wrote in my diary. When I was happy, I was too busy enjoying myself to bother telling an exercise book about it.

More enjoyably, I kept a joint diary with a friend for some time. We had two exercise books, and swapped them once a week, read what the other had written, and had a jolly good go at solving the problems of the universe together.

Once the circumstances of life drove us to different countries, my diarising became very intermittent, until I left university and suddenly found myself craving the word fix. The diary from that year is not so much miserable as simply too boring to re-read, although I’ve considered trying it as a remedy for sleeplessness.
The following year I moved to Wellington to study scriptwriting, which solved the word fix problem; but, being away from everyone I knew, I kept talking to the diary anyway. (Back to the miserable setting, alas.)

Budapešť 0158

Then the Caped Gooseberry and I started our long-distance courtship, and I gave up writing a diary, because why rewrite in a book what one has already typed out in an email? As I was unemployed that year (overqualified for any job I could do, underqualified for everything else), I sent a lot of emails. Certainly not miserable, but probably boring to any but the starry-eyed correspondents themselves.

Then I got a job, got engaged, and moved cities (all in a matter of weeks), which left me learning the new job full-time, planning a wedding and filling in weekends at a writing initiative in another city. Re-starting a diary somehow failed to make it back on to the To Do list. It wasn’t until a year or so later, when my spiritual director suggested I read The Artist’s Way, that I started regularly diarising, or journalling, or whatever you call it.

The early ‘morning pages’ read largely as repeated rants about how cold it was – I used to get up half an hour early for this – and how much I wanted to leave my job. (By now an experienced diarist, I was capable of being both miserable and boring at the same time.) Then I started blogging, and soon after had the idea to actually do the Artist’s Way exercises, over the course of a year. Which I did, more or less, blogging about it as I went. Luckily for the reading public, I never blogged the morning pages.


But by the end of that year, the morning pages had turned into a sort of spiritual diary. Largely, to be fair, me ranting at God, but then, God likes people to talk to him, even if all they do is yell. I think those early morning scribbles kept me sane, or at least out of depression’s grip. It seemed some days that was the only thing worth getting up for, and the only thing that could bear me through the day. I had to keep it up.

Once I left my job, I carried on with it, albeit at a much more civilized hour of the morning. (If God had intended humans to rise before dawn, he would have made us able to see in the dark.) I generally write in it six days a week, and sometimes include what’s been happening in my outer world, particularly when it affects my inner world.
No-one reads it but myself and occasionally the Caped Gooseberry. Oddly, considering that it’s a place for being honest with myself about deep and sometimes difficult things, it’s actually an enjoyable experience to re-read, unlike the “what I did today” diaries – or more accurately, the “what I felt about what I did today” diaries. Neither miserable nor boring – who’d have thought I had it in me?

I keep three other diaries, to my surprise; or rather, two diaries and an annal.

Sometimes going analogue is the only way to go. #writing #quill #ink #paperblanks #magic

One is the record of my writing work, written in a paperblanks week-at-a-time diary (a Foiled Mini Horizontal with a magnetic closure, if you’re a stationery junkie like myself). I keep track of what I worked on each day, as far as both the current Work In Progress and this blog are concerned. I also note other matters of writerly importance, such as how often the fountain pen requires refilling (a good indicator of how much writing I’m getting through) and when I buy ink, or a craft book.

The second diary only dates from the beginning of this month, and I am writing it on the computer – I really don’t know why. Why on the computer, that is. I’m not quite weird enough to write a diary without knowing why. It’s a very specialized diary, and I promise to tell you all about it – some other time. (It pleases me to be mysterious about the prosaic. Bear with me, I beg you.)

The annal is one which the Caped Gooseberry and I keep together. The book which houses it was a gift from my comrades at the DDJ – a beautifully bound blank-paged book in which, each anniversary, we sum up the happenings of the previous year. It is sometimes disturbing to look back and see how much one has forgotten, even of the ‘highlights’. Forgetting the photos which are taken at the same time is, in my case, a matter of self-defence – I am most decidedly not photogenic.

Christine de pisan

To finish on a completely random note, if you are looking for a fictional diary to read, I can highly recommend Catherine, Called Birdy by Karen Cushman. A cut (or indeed, a whole slice) above the usual run of historical-fictional teenage girls’ diaries, and very funny to boot. This is one of those books where the reader becomes incapacitated with laughter and the book has to be passed around the room. (This is the voice of experience.)

Sadly, I fear posterity will find no such hilarity in my diaries, should I unaccountably fail to have them destroyed before I die. Posterity: consider yourself warned.