What Happens When You Publish Your Diary?

This artist recorded every day of her life as a comic for two years. And then she published it, opening up every awkward social encounter, every lost love connection, every private moment with friends for public consumption.

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We did something you're not normally supposed to do. We read someone's diary. This wasn't just any diary, of course. It's a published, purchasable book, which gives us a free pass to read it. But this is a diary of comics, small line drawings that somehow capture the anxiety and thrill of young adulthood in just a few pencil strokes and phrases. Leafing through Vanessa Davis's day-to-day banalities, watching her outings with friends and hopeful sexual encounters unfold in front of us, is a comforting reminder that our own similar experiences are just as valuable and compelling.

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Vanessa Davis was in her mid-20s, broke, and frustrated when she decided to start keeping the diary that would become Spaniel Rage. As a former art student who didn't have the money or the studio space to create works the way she had in school, Davis figured she'd turn a sketchbook into a journal, drawing scenes from her day, peppered with conversations she'd had or overheard. From 2003 to 2004 she sketched as devotedly as possible, first publishing Spaniel Rage in 2005. With the book coming back into print today, Sweet asked the artist about the anxieties of drawing the people you love (and who you want to love you) and then presenting these drawings for the world to see.

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What rules did you set for yourself to make sure you sketched something almost every day?

The only rule that I really kept was just that I had to try to do it. If I didn't, I felt bad or panicked, because I knew that I was behind. No matter how tired I was, I was going to have to have that day recorded. I mostly just did it when I came home from work, so a lot of them happened at night.

How did you decide which moments in a day to include?

Every day something would stand out to me. The first image [in the collection] is a sexual image. I was always so excited whenever I would get to have sex that I was like, "All right, well, I'm going to start with this." Then the next day I was just at work wondering, what am I even going to show from today, nothing's happening. I wanted to pick things that were funny. But then I also wanted to see what would happen if I recorded stuff that wasn't exciting or wasn't notable in any way.

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Did your friends know that you were keeping this sketchbook diary, and that they were key figures in it?

I was very excited about discovering comics at the time, and it was the only thing I really talked about—so yeah, they knew about it. I think they just trusted me to depict them in a respectful way. There were times when they looked at it and they felt weird about it, but it didn't cause any long-standing rifts.

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It's been about 13 or 14 years since you sketched out these experiences. Looking back at these drawings, what do you remember viscerally about these moments as a young adult?

It's interesting how angsty and mopey I was. I understand it now; I was in such a weird place of being an adult, but not really know what adult life was like. When I put together Spaniel Rage, I didn't know how to make comics. I would put in the components, and then see what happened, but I wasn't really holding myself responsible for what emerged. In the same way, I was going about life day by day, but I didn't have a plan on what I wanted that life to look like or become.

Is there anything that makes you cringe?

Yeah, definitely. Most of it, like things that I wore. Nowadays I feel like I've learned more about different kinds of people. There's this one comic I did where I talk about seeing a manly lady on the subway, and when we get out she's singing in this beautiful voice. The thing that stood out to me at the time was the inherent paradox between what she looked like and what she sounded like. It's sort of cringe-worthy that I based a comic on that; I wouldn't do that now.

I spent so much time lying around. I think part of it was that I was tired and also poor. Hopefully whenever you look back on times when you were younger, you have compassion for yourself and you know the circumstances that made you do the things the way that you did them. But you also can't help but wish that you could do it again knowing what you know now.

Spaniel Rage by Vanessa Davis (Drawn and Quarterly) $17, drawnandquarterly.com.

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