Rules and Rituals, Time Capsules and Tap Handles

By Chantal McStayMay 14, 2015

AS A GIRL, Heidi Julavits kept a diary. As a teen, the term embarrassed her, and she started calling it a journal. Her new book, The Folded Clock: A Diary, chronicles her recent return to the original form. She begins each entry with “Today I” — a formal quirk plucked from her childhood writings. With this prompt, the ordinary becomes a lens through which to investigate the profound. Julavits infuses the everyday — from trawling eBay to gossiping with girlfriends to spinning tops with her son — with cultural criticism and personal reflection. Sharp, witty, and endlessly curious, she crafts a self-portrait with candor and easy intimacy, as if she is chatting with a friend.

Julavits is the author of four critically acclaimed novels (The VanishersThe Uses of EnchantmentThe Effect of Living Backwards, and The Mineral Palace) and co-editor, with Sheila Heti and Leanne Shapton, of the New York Times bestseller Women in Clothes. She’s a founding editor of The Believer and the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship. She holds an MFA from Columbia University, where she currently teaches.

A self-proclaimed object person and lifelong collector, Julavits is a woman of exceptional accoutrements. On the day we met up, she was wearing a seal vertebra tied around her neck and a vintage 1960s coat formerly owned by a French actress she’s recently become obsessed with. In conversation, she selects words and makes literary references with a collector’s care. We talked diaries and other treasures over beers and oysters (including Pemaquids from her native Maine) at the Grand Central Oyster Bar saloon, which she describes as an “underground church” and where she can often be found with her children, exchanging secret messages via the whispering gallery created by the arched brick vaults at the restaurant’s entrance.


CHANTAL MCSTAY: The Folded Clock is committed to the mundane and by starting each entry with “Today I,” frames the everyday in very conventional terms. And yet it’s infused with a sense of the unexpected. So what were your goals initially? How did you set out on this project?

HEIDI JULAVITS: I had no intention of writing this book. I didn’t even know I was writing it while I was writing it! I thought I was just playing around until I figured out my next novel. I only knew that I wanted to write a different novel from the ones I’d written in the past — which were very idea and plot-driven. And so I thought, alright, I’m going to return to the first thing I ever wrote as a way to start anew.

And that was your childhood diary?

It was. Every entry started with “Today I.” But what’s notable about my old diaries isn’t the content and maybe not even the form, only that I wrote every day. I was religious about it. And yet this time around I faked a lot of the entries. Sometimes I wouldn’t write for five days, and then I would, in one night, fill in the missing days as if it were still “today.” I needed that unblemished appearance of rigor and discipline, even though no one but me would see the results. Also, I was the only who knew that I’d cheated. The unspoken rule was that I was allowed to break the most important rule. But I had to make it appear as if I hadn’t.

So starting with those parameters, what surprised you as you went on?

Starting with the two words, “Today I” — well, that provided a super-clean way to launch each entry. It’s plain and factual: it’s the “beginning” to a story that, in theory, has a neat time constraint around it — the single day. And so I’d finish the first sentence — but what surprised me was how the next sentence could be just a little off to the side. And then the sentence after that could be even more off to the side. And so there was a mostly logical progression from one sentence to the next, but overall they didn’t lead to a logical conclusion because each one was just a little bit off of center from where I’d started. “Today I” feels like two boots in the sand. Boom, boom. Here I am. Here I stand in time, and yet all of time felt really available to me.

That’s interesting. Because one way the book defies the diary convention is in its chronology. But though we’re going back and forth in time, there’s still a sense of forward propulsion. So how did that come about? And how did you ultimately organize the material?

I had a lot, much more than I could use. Many of the entries weren’t that good. They were flabby. They didn’t land. So I threw a lot of days away, after which it seemed pointless to arrange the book chronologically because there were so many holes. Also, it just wasn’t that interesting to read the entries in chronological order, so I started to play around with different ways to arrange them, like dividing them up into categories like “Friends” and “Children” and “Weather” and … I don’t know, “Sweaters.” But all of those categories kept collapsing back into themselves. “Friends” and “Sweaters” belonged together, and so on. Eventually I had one big pile of entries again. The metaphor I’ve been using to describe my eventual assembly process is the “mix tape metaphor.” When I used to make mixtapes with my friends, we’d put a song on, then we’d put another song on, and then we’d listen to them both and we’d ask ourselves, what do we want to feel next? Then we’d put a third song on and listen to all three songs. And we’d just keep adding another song, and listening, and adding another song, and working off the principal of “what do I want to feel next?” Here, unlike a mixtape, there were no technological limitations. In theory, I could have cut and pasted the entries quite easily, but it did start to become this object that I’d built, and like an actual cassette tape, it was hard to swap one entry with another, or to splice a new one in. The idea is that an up-and-down emotional topography would create momentum in the absence of a traditional plot. Not long afterward I was working on Women in Clothes and that, too, was an intense ordering project.

Both Women in Clothes and this book strike me as curatorial, which makes me think of how you describe yourself in The Folded Clock as an “object person.” You put what you call “identity stock” in certain treasured things — Mexican wineglasses, for example, or the tap handle totem you carry around. Objects just seem very alive to you with narrative and history.

I’m always shocked to encounter people who are not object people because objects are so much a part of how I’ve identified meaning or narrative or consistency in the world. I have a daughter who’s not an object person. Something happened the other day that typifies our different approaches to objects. She had a backpack with a keychain that we bought in Berlin. I’m pretty sure our autumn in Berlin was a high point for us as a family. I could be wrong, but I can’t imagine that the happiness we experienced in Berlin will ever be achieved again. And I try to always identify these best moments just in case they really are the best. At any rate, she had this keychain and the other day I slammed a door on it and broke it. I was horrified. I was like, Oh my God! I’m so, so sorry. I felt this terrible dread, like I had ruined something deep. Like not just the future, but I’d somehow besmirched the past. I don’t know. I freaked out. And my daughter very immediately was like, Mom, it’s okay. I don’t care about the keychain.

My dad, on the other hand, is an object person. He and I share that. Although my parents are also very non-ritualistic. It’s funny that we’re having oysters — I remember one time I visited my parents for Christmas and we weren’t in our home, we were somewhere else. And they said, we’re not getting a tree. And I had a fit. I was like, what are you talking about? It’s fucking Christmas. We’re getting a tree. And we’re making oyster stew for Christmas Eve. I just spun out on this whole weird fantasy of what a holiday should be like, even though none of our holidays had ever involved oyster stew. I suddenly was like we are going to ritualize this holiday.

Keeping a diary strikes me as a very ritualistic act.

It is. And it calms me and makes me feel like I have a handle on the future and luck. I know how un-intellectual and superstitious this is.

Do you think that these two years of your life were experienced differently because you were making such an explicit point of recording them?

I do. Like, I had such a fucking awesome day the other day, involving a celebrity encounter and a dress and two crabby old women. And I wanted to write about it. But this is my quandary, right? I don’t want to write the same book again, but I really love how writing this diary allowed me to enjoy my life more, and I do miss that. I’m not a compulsive writer, but I am a compulsive worker. I always need to be working, cleaning, whatever. It was very convenient and relaxing when my life counted as my job.

But did you have any idea that other people would enjoy reading as much as you enjoyed writing?

This returns to what I was saying about trying rewind to the beginning of my “career” as a writer. Possibly what I was craving most was not having an audience in mind. I wanted to write something where inherent to the form is that there’s no audience. Obviously a lot of people publish their diaries, myself included, but while writing a diary, at least, the idea is that you’re writing for yourself. It’s very different from writing a novel, which ideally you’re writing to be read by others. You entertain the fantasy, even while the novel is still a private document that nobody’s encountered, of it eventually being in the world. Taking that pressure off myself, and believing, even falsely, that, no, this isn’t going to be read, was an important part of the process. I also love that the diary is a democratic form. I guess in theory the novel is a pretty democratic form, too. It’s not like smelting a huge copper sculpture or I don’t know, building an airplane. Anyone can write a novel because it doesn’t have to fly or adhere to physics. It doesn’t take a ton of training to write one. But I think of the diary as being more democratic than the novel because it’s a form used by many people who do not self-identify as writers.

Not only is it a democratic form, it’s also often thought of as a feminine form.

And yet I have a counter-example! Witold Gombrowicz’s Diary, here in my bag.

And Kafka’s diaries are called diaries. But I agree it’s often thought of as a female form. I was just on tour, and I asked my audiences about the difference between a diary and a journal. People floated a bunch of different ideas, but suffice it to say that no man I met kept a diary (they kept journals) and most of the women kept journals, too, because the form, according to my not very scientific data sampling, is seen as primarily practiced by young girls. You think diary, you see little flowered book with a tiny lock on it.

Yes. And historically women have written privately because they couldn’t write publicly. So hanging this banner on your book is almost subversive, isn’t it? I mean, you seem like you were very conscious of all this in the writing and in the labeling of it.

I had an interesting discussion with my editor about the label because there was a point where I got nervous, to be honest, about calling it a diary. I thought, well, everyone’s just going to treat it like it is …

Insignificant? Were you afraid it would be marginalized?

Yes. And I thought, what if we don’t call it “a diary.” What if we leave the dates and call it nothing. And he smartly reminded me, It’s a diary. That’s not a bad thing for it to be. But this returns to the idea of rules. The last time I thought of a diary as a diary was when I was a kid. I didn’t really keep one again until I was in my late teens, early 20s, when I called it a journal. And the rule of the journal was that I was never allowed to write about anything romantic. It was going to be, like, about ideas, or whatever. I was practicing — a writer trying to figure out stylistically who she was, and to take herself seriously.

Did you make rules for yourself this time?

Well, I experienced a little residue of insecurity about what women are expected to turn to their diaries in order to divulge. And I didn’t want to do that. I decided, for instance, not to write much about my husband. He’s a really private person and I couldn’t make him anonymous. But then I gave him the book to read, and he felt a little confused, like, I’m barely in this book, it’s like you’re pretending you’re not married. Where he did appear, I thought I was writing about him so lovingly. I thought these entries were such moving expressions of my reliance and dependence and admiration and respect for him. But he wasn’t feeling it. And that was a great editorial note. I rewrote those entries to be a lot more honest and specific, I suppose, about my feelings for him, which I think I was avoiding because I didn’t want my diary to be seen only as a girl’s gushing about her very full heart.

A question this books keeps circling around is what makes a person interesting? Is it their accumulated qualities, their stuff, their “identity stock” to use your term? Or perhaps it’s in the omissions — I’m thinking of the woman you hear about in Germany with the unnamed illness that gives her an air of mystery and makes you both want to know and not know more about her. You seem very ambivalent about seeking the complex truth versus living with some ambiguity.

One of those living-with-ambiguity things would be, for example, whether or not I’m Jewish. Which is very easily determined these days. I could just get a DNA test. Someone asked me, Why don’t you do that? Why remain uncertain? It’s not like there isn’t a ton of uncertainty yet awaiting me, like I could die tomorrow. I don’t need to manufacture uncertainty. But in some sense — and this returns to young girls and diaries — what I was taught to think of as the “big life outcomes” have already been determined for me. Who will I fall in love with? Who will I spend my life with? How many children will I have? When will I lose my virginity? I already know the answers to those questions. I like to maintain a little bit of uncertainty about certain big questions, and so I’m not ready to answer that one.

There are a lot of to-Google-or-not-to-Google dilemmas in this book.

There are a lot of those.

And there’s kind of this strange insistence on randomness or on imposing randomness in the age of the internet when it’s so simple to just pinpoint exactly what you want to know.

I know. And this connects to my desire, when I started writing each daily entry, never to know where I was going. Yeah, I could get the “answer.” But what does that really get me? Where your unquenched curiosity takes you, even if it takes you way off into the wilderness, is maybe more interesting than reaching an answer.

What about reviews? Do you read them?

These days I only go on eBay. I don’t want to read, I don’t want to know. And I think it’s because I take things really way too personally and way too hard, and so if one person hates my book, I will be upset for way too long and way too intensely.

Do you think it’s particular to this because it’s so personal?

Ironically, I feel a bit more armored against criticism this time around. If someone hated a novel that I wrote, I would feel very much as though I had failed as a writer, whereas if someone hates this book, I will feel like I will have failed as a person, and I’m more able to deal with that failure. I do write about this a little bit, how the internet is something that you consult at your peril.

It’s like an oracle, you say.

You might learn something you just don’t need to know. I love the internet as much as the next person, but on eBay I will not discover anything I don’t need to discover.

You set up these different settings in the book. You’re in New York teaching, you spend the summer in Maine, you take some trips abroad —

It makes me sound like my life is really glamorous! In fact it’s all a big Ponzi scheme.

It sets up the idea of these different writing lives. The New York writer, the recluse, the expat. For you, does different writing take place in these different modes?

It’s partially why I love the Oyster Bar in Grand Central. Because when I come here, I feel like I can tap back into a romance with the city I’ve otherwise lost. And when I was in Berlin and when I was in Maine I felt like myself plus a future version of myself that I was striving toward daily. There’s an implicit identity ambition just by waking up in a city where the romance is still alive. When writing this book, I was trying to fall back in love with New York and rediscover the ability to see a future, more exciting me living there. Because I didn’t see potential here, I just saw an exhausted, continually diminished self. And that seemed so bratty. Like, Fuck you, you live in New York. Come on, this is what you always wanted. Why aren’t you so, so happy? For years when I first moved here I would walk around and think, I can’t believe I live here. But more recently it’s been like falling out of love with a person you’re still with. There’s the ghost of your former passion. Or the ghost of the better person you were going to be by loving this person or living in this city. So a lot of writing this book was trying to appreciate that I had realized a dream I’d had as a girl. And to not discount that, or her.

At one point in the book, you tell a friend, “I never made stuff up. But I did strive to be entertaining.” Would you say that this is true of The Folded Clock? What role does the truth play for you?

Before I gave the book to my husband to read the first time, I said to him, So, look, each day I would take as my starting point a statement of fact, and then I would go from there, like a logic proof. I was trying to map a thought process that was more about the process itself than it was about articulating an enduring truth. Rather, it was a record of how I felt — a truthful accounting of where my brain went, which to me is as truthful as it needs to be.

Or as is possible.

Or as is possible, yeah. If I had written any given entry on a different day, my brain would have gone somewhere else. I would have felt something else. Each entry is very vulnerable to influence: this was my mood; this was the weather; this was the barometric pressure. It’s a time capsule of thought. It’s very much of that moment.

I recently started freezing ice cubes on days that are meaningful and labeling them and making sure I jot down exactly what happened on that day. I’m sorry to keep talking about death, but I really do think about the process of death a lot. And I guess I’m sort of counting on my death being gradual enough that I can use these ice cubes. While I’m dying, I want someone (ideally my children — but if this request makes them uncomfortable, I’ll hire somebody else) to put each ice cube on my body and then, as it melts, remind me what happened on that day. So it’s like time reactivated by the body.

And maybe that’s part of the appeal of objects for you. You can visit them. You can go back in time in a way.

Yeah. Whereas the problem with the ice cubes — you can’t refreeze them. And they’re in Maine where the electricity frequently dies. So now I’m thinking that we have to get a generator.

And in the meanwhile? What’s next for you? Fiction? Nonfiction?

I really don’t know. There’s part of me that just feels like, that’s it. Maybe now I do something else. Like something totally else. Like not writing. I don’t know. I feel really, really open. 

There’s this incredible old building for sale in my town in Maine. It might even be affordable. The catch being that it’s going to cost a million or more dollars to get it up to code and functioning. But I love the keeping society — which is like a historical society — in my town and I’ve recently thought, well, maybe this is what I should do now. Maybe I become someone who, instead of keeping a diary, keeps a museum. I don’t know. I feel very happily at a crossroads. I mean, I write something, even if it is a very long and carefully considered email, every day, and in theory I have a new book in the works. But maybe I’ll never publish anything else. Working with Leanne and Sheila on Women in Clothes, I’m aware there are just so many directions that your imagination and your conceptual engagement with the world can move. Before I started this diary, I’d said to myself, it’s so limiting, at the outset of a project that doesn’t exist yet, to say, for example, this is going to be a novel; but maybe it’s equally limiting to say this is going to exist in language. I mean, the problem is that I don’t have other skills, so that makes language the default talent, if language can even be called a talent, since it’s just something most humans share with each other. I don’t know. Maybe, too, I’m trying to recreate the circumstances where I don’t know that I’m working on what I’m working on. I’m just going to make something, and then what happens to it is what happens to it, without a preconceived notion of what the outcome has to be. It might just be something I use to insulate my walls. That’s a great outcome. Insulation.


Chantal McStay is a writer living in New York. She studies English at Columbia University.

LARB Contributor

Chantal McStay is a writer living in New York. She studies English at Columbia University.


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