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Forced Entries

On the trail of one of the world's top diary collectors, Sarah Phelan's life becomes an open book

By Sarah Phelan

May 15, 2002

Today, I decided to keep a diary about keeping a diary. I've stumbled upon one of the top collectors of diaries in the world--right here in Santa Cruz County--and it seems like the only way to write about him is to put it in diary form. This will be my first effort since I was a teenager and my sister locked herself in the bathroom and read aloud the entries of my diary, which went something like this:

    R. said hello at the bus stop!!! Tried to stay cool, even though I fancy him like CRAZY, because Wendy was there and if she finds out I fancy R., she'll tell everyone, including my sister. Must get to bus stop earlier. Maybe I'll wear my extra short skirt.

Yes, diary keeping is a risky business, which is why I abandoned it at age 13, while my sister, fearing retaliation, continued hers in code, a tradition that dates back to that granddaddy of diary writing, Dr. Samuel Pepys.

Never one to flinch from the truth, Pepys had good reason to encrypt his diaries, since they not only detailed the horrors of the Plague and the Fire of London, but also the delight he took in his wife's chambermaid, not to mention his desire to bed Nell Gwynne, a wish that would have cost him his head had it been made public, since Nell was none other than the king of England's mistress.

Luckily for Pepys, the details of his dalliances weren't decoded until he was safely pushing up daisies. And luckily for us, we can still read them today. For while it seems foolish to write about one's indiscretions, incriminating details are, let's face it, precisely what we are hoping to find in another person's diary, whether we've stolen it from our sister or borrowed it from someone's collection.

May 16, 2002

Which brings me to Ray Zager, a longtime resident of Santa Cruz Country who is also one of the foremost diary collectors in the world. He's the one who convinced me that despite all my firsthand evidence that diaries are liabilities, their benefits outweigh their risks. And though this story is my diary, it's really about him.

I met yesterday with Zager at his diary library in Corralitos, which at 1,200 volumes is the second largest in the United States. On its shelves, the thoughts of Pepys, Virginia Woolf, Anaïs Nin, John Muir, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Anne Frank and many more vie for attention. But it was Zager's very first diary that most immediately spoke to me of the value of preserving the minutiae of life.

"They didn't give you much space then," says Zager, 77, as he plucks from a shelf the diary--one of those five-year affairs--he was given as a Bar Mitzvah gift and in which he penned the following entry 61 years ago:

    June 3, 1941

    Mother came back from Frisco today, Aunt Alice's mother died yesterday & the Detroit Tigers beat the New York Yankees 4-2. Dizy Trout was the winner.

"Dizy Trout. A name from the past," nods Zager, smiling at that detail before turning a bit philosophical. "Emerson, like the practical Yankee he was, likened diaries to a savings book. Every word you put in is your deposit. When you take something out, that is your interest."

Though Zager kept a diary as a boy, he didn't seriously get into writing one until 1977, when he took a class with famed journal guru Dr. Ira Progoff. A quarter of a century later, Zager has penned 80 volumes, proving it's never too late to start.

A retired lawyer, Zager likens the years he practiced law and kept diaries to having a chariot drawn by two horses.

"The black horse was the law, the white one, my diaries. The white was pulling a little harder. When I retired, I got rid of the black and got another white horse. We've been traveling this path ever since," says Zager, who is currently finishing an instructional book about diary keeping.

"A diary is a written form, which has to be daily. If it's written every two to three days or week, it's a journal," Zager says. "And if goes too far, where it's not based on fine details, then it's called a memoir."

He should know. In 1999, he published a memoir of being a motor messenger in WWII, a war that ended almost 57 years ago but about which Zager still has nightmares.

"I should have broken the rules and kept a diary, but it wasn't allowed," says Zager, who was 20 years old when he broke down the gates of a concentration camp with his jeep Betsy, and found 18,000 starving inmates waiting to be liberated.

But compared to memoirs, diaries are a fresh running stream, says Zager, who keeps his own diaries in a fireproof safe. "My diaries are the most valuable thing I have. They are like a third memory.

Photo collage
Photograph by Stephen Laufer

May 17, 2002

Have decided to continue this diary on my computer, after spending an hour unable to chose from the multitude of journals on display at local stores. The Superwoman diary was tempting, but what if my entries weren't heroically kick-butt? And I was afraid my scrawl would ruin the sweet smelling flower-imprinted pages of the gorgeous hand-bound journals for sale. Lured, as always, by the look and feel of untouched paper, I almost bought a fat three-holed notebook, until Zager's voice rose through the pool of memory, reminding me that it's too easy to tear out their pages, a practice he abhors.

Zager's preference is for roomy journals with soft covers and blank pages, the kind of journals that he can easily slip into the worn black-leather pouch he carries everywhere, along with a glue stick, scissors and a fountain pen.

But since I'm indecisive and my handwriting is illegible, maybe it's better for me to stick with my computer, especially since it allows me to import emails, such as the following from former Metro Santa Cruz staffer Andrea Perkins on religious diaries, a tradition which is alive and well in Utah.

"All the Mormons I know keep diaries, as do I," writes Perkins, who, although not a practicing Mormon, grew up in Salt Lake City, where she has filled two big boxes with journals since she was in elementary school.

Perkins, who prefers unlined journals--"so I can draw," she says--owns the diary her great-great-great-great-grandfather kept while he was imprisoned for having five wives back when Utah became a state.

"Mormons keep journals to pass a part of themselves down to their ever-so-numerous descendants, a tradition that started with pioneers who documented their harrowing journeys across the plains," Perkins writes. "Today these pioneer diaries are the most precious things Mormon families own, connecting them to their heritage of persecution and triumph over the frontier."

But modern Mormons' entries are mostly pretty drab, Perkins admits. "One Mormon friend tells me she used to only write about things like what she wore and ate that day, and that was after she was married."

May 18, 2002

Not wanting to let my diary get as drab as all that, I call Zager to find out what he includes in his.

"My thoughts, dreams, awakenings, but no details of my sex life," he says.

Mostly he recommends writing about what's important and on your mind. "What gems of wisdom have you found? Did you find a spider web glistening in the sun? And poetry is marvelous to put in. I guess we are all trying to find and put down the truth as we see it, looking for the pure of the purest--that's why I'm so taken by Emerson, Thoreau and Burroughs, who wrote about the universe, nature and people."

Observing that many young women record romances in diaries, only to burn and destroy them later, Zager notes that the Bridget Jones' Diary was not a real diary, but a fiction. "More of a plaything for Hollywood, nothing was in depth," Zager says. OK, but it did reveal how an inordinate number of women think, and without it we would never have the term "emotional fuckwittage," which so succinctly sums up modern dating.

May 21, 2002

Writing by pen or pencil on paper is a pleasing sensation that has been sadly short-circuited by my computer keyboard, particularly since I don't touch type. Another drawback of my e-diary (since I don't have a laptop) is I can't write it in cafes, my preferred location for people watching, and one favored by diarist Anaïs Nin, who liked to take her big red diary to her favorite Paris restaurants.

"She liked to write while the seeds were still bursting, unlike her contemporary Henry Miller, who couldn't write unless he slept on it," says Zager, who likes to take a hot shower and meditate before writing a word in his diary.

"You have to slow the mind to get it into the alpha state," says Zager.

That's all fine and good if you're an aristocrat or retired, but kind of difficult if like me you're writing in a busy newsroom. Not nearly enough Zen showering opportunities around here. My ideal way to get ready to write is to take a long walk, a ritual also enjoyed by Virginia Woolf, who apparently penned her entries from the comfort of a soft cushioned chair over whose arms she placed a board.

"She wrote so fast, she's what you'd call a scribbler. She ran everything together," Zager says.

Ray Zager
Photograph by Stephen Laufer

Ray of Light Reading: Zager skims his collection.

May 24, 2002

Have been trying to record my dreams, without success, the images evaporating when I open my eye. Which is very frustrating, since Zager tells me our unconscious memories are sometimes better than our conscious ones.

"Which is why it's worth trying to access some of them," he told me last week. By his definition, hypnogogic imagery is that which you experience while falling asleep, hypnopompic imagery that which you recall on waking up. Whatever its name, I'm not retaining an ounce of it.

Frustrated, I call up Zager, who tells me to have a journal and pen ready on a table near my bed.

"That way you can write out everything the minute you wake. And try not to open your eyes," Zager advises.

May 26, 2002

Last night, I read Michihiko Hachiya's diary, in which he described what happened the day the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. His account of finding himself naked, his skin peeling off, as fires sprang up and scorching winds howled around him, while a mushroom cloud towered 20,000 feet above, carrying the pulverized remains of trees, cars and people, was a chilling reminder as India and Pakistan teeter on the brink of nuclear war. Reading it made me regret not having kept a diary in the wake of Sept. 11. Some things you think you'll never forget, but already the feeling of fear, anger and repulsion, the paranoia around overflying planes and white powder, has faded.

May 30, 2002

Today I recorded my first dream, which involved devouring a sponge cake soaked in sherry sauce, much like the custard and jelly trifles my mother used to make, only this one was shaped like Lighthouse Point. The dream seemed connected to an article I had recently enjoyed writing about said field, but not all dreams seem quite so obvious.

Take the one Metro Santa Cruz editor Steve Palopoli shared with me about a bunch of zombies trying to break into his house.

Shortly after he told me his dream I found a zombie reference in Veronica Tonya's The Creative Dreamer.

Writes Toney, "You might dream of a group of zombies who are trying to get you, when in fact zombies represent your own unproductive tendency to 'zone out,'" warned Toney, noting that characters who threaten us in dreams can present real-life problems.

Being his typical skeptical self, Steve scoffs at all this. He says he's just seen Night of the Living Dead one too many times. Clearly, he's in denial.

June 5, 2002

Zager says many people keep diaries as a way of storing ideas and thoughts for future reference. But just how do you find anything amid a mass of scrawled notebooks?

The answer is indexing, says Zager, a concept he took from Emerson, who spent five years indexing the 100-volume diary he started at Harvard.

"Indexing gave Emerson all the information to write his famous essays on self-reliance and compensation," says Zager, who indexes people's names and places, as well as trips, events, thoughts, dreams and awakenings.

But he does not color-code his entries according to type and topic, the way some people do. "I'm not that organized," he says.

Zager indexes his diaries by setting aside the last few pages of each journal, dividing each page into four rectangles. Within each rectangle he groups several letters of the alphabet, though some letters, notably A,B,C, S and T, need a box of their own, since so many words begin with them.

"In my case, Z needs its own box, since my family name begins with that letter," says Zager, who updates his index every five or so pages.

June 7, 2002

Have found a diary that suits me purrfectly. On sale for $3.98, it has Catwoman on the cover. The cartoon inside reads, "So Batman trailed me! Well, maybe he'll learn that those who bother cats get scratched."

All of which means that it's time for me to end this single-purpose journal on diary writing and get on with the business of writing my very own up-close-and-personal takes on life. Before I begin, I'll take Zager's advice and include my name and address on the inside cover, along with the promise of a modest reward, in the event that it gets lost. My diary may not be worth much to anyone else, but one day it could be one of my most valued treasures. Or my sister's.

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From the June 12-19, 2002 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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