UNLIKE MOST ARTISTS who keep journals, Washington sculptor Anne Truitt began the record that was to result in Daybook with a specific purpose. On the occasion of two retrospectives of her work, at the Corcoran Gallery and the Whitney Museum in New York in 1973-74, Truitt felt a loss of self, "crazed," she writes, "as china is crazed, with tiny fissures." She came to believe that she had used the process of art as containment and defense, and that by failing to confront these feelings, by failing to confront herself as an artist, she had deprived herself of her self in the most profound sense. To reclaim what she had lost, Truitt decided to record her life for a year, let the artist in her speak, and see what happened.

What happened is that Truitt, continuing to write off and on from 1974 through 1980, not only succeeded in recovering her lost identity, but, fortunately for us, she has also produced a book as luminous and sparely beautiful as her wood sculptures, an artist's journal that will stand alongside the best in its genre.

In part at least, it may be that the very specific and personal purpose with which Truitt began to write is resonsible for this achievement. By its nature, the journal, like autobiography, is an intimate form, perhaps the most intimate. This does not mean that it should be "confessional," in the lurid sense that word has come to have, but that it must be personal in the truest sense -- it must reveal the person who writes, both to herself and to the reader. Doing that necessitates courage and unsparing honesty, a clear-eyed confrontation with the self, and Truitt's desire for self-knowledge made that imperative. Couple that honesty with an extraordinary intelligence and an elegant prose style and the result is Daybook.

When Truitt began her journal, she was facing what might be called a "mid-life crisis," though that term sounds too generalized and ordinary. In her fifties, divorced, with three children in late adolescence, she struggles to be artist and mother and breadwinner. Always, there is what the poet Robert Hass has called "the war between desire and dailiness." Though she takes great pleasure in family life, the responsibilities sometimes seem killing, particularly the financial ones. Truitt is represented by one of the most prestigious New York galleries and her work is found in the collections of many major museums, but the sculptures don't sell well -- they're large and can't be hung on the wall. And so there is a constant worry about money for necessities, a worry that takes its toll, both physically and in her art. A routine job would drain her of the energy she needs for her art, but she feels a kind of helplessness, "a kind of violation, as if something violent were being done to me. I flop about in a dim parody of the first violence I ever knew," the killing of chickens by the neighborhood grocer. Gradually, though, like so many women alone, and because she is by nature practical, someone who solves problems, Truitt learns to cope: she gets an advance from her art dealer, she cashes in some of her small inheritance, she takes a teaching job and finds that she has something to give her students and they her.

This represents quite a change for a woman who not long before had difficulty even identifying herself as "artist," though she had been making art for years. It was, she says, a way of controlling the definition of herself, limiting it to what she could rationalize. Insisting on a distaste for the inflated social definition of the artist was really the inverse of what she truly felt, she reflects: "I think I may have fallen into idolatry of . . . artists. So to think myself an artist was self-idolatry."

This is, it seems, a not uncommon female response: to exalt the artist and then to think we're not good enough, to hide our true feelings even from ourselves. The related problem of ambition is of special difficulty for the woman artist, though it is problematic for males as well. "Artists," Truitt says, "are thrust straight up against the wave of their ambition in the world as well as their ambition for their work. Unless they like being rolled over and over on the sharp pebbles of their own inconsistencies, they have to dive through this wave into understanding." She is not entirely comfortable with the idea that this is more difficult for women artists, but she recognizes the fact that while aspiration has been permitted to women, ambition has not been. After a stringent examination, Truitt concludes that, yes, she is ambitious, though not inordinately so, "in the position of a reasonably aspiring, reasonably ambitious man," but she is aware that "were I a man, I would not have had laboriously to pick my way through such an obvious train of thought to such an obvious conclusion."

There are feminists who will no doubt find Truitt too soft on the subject of feminism. It is, I think, a charge that she wouldn't find of very much interest. "Only individual acts feel authentic to me," she says, and it is in the individual acts of her life -- whether tending her garden or caring for her children or making art -- that the authentic Anne Truitt is found. And that Anne Truitt refuses to generalize, concluding wisely that "at my back I always feel the cave of womanhood. . . . But because womanhood is 'home' to me does not mean that I wish to stay home all the time."

Such wisdom is everywhere in Daybook. As Truitt thinks about her sculpture, faces what it means to age, or, in some of the most moving and evocative passages in the journal, recalls her childhood on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, one comes to understand along with her the inevitability of her vocation. What one comes away with is the sense of a life truly lived, deeply felt, and this is in some sense due to the elegance and grace of her prose. Truitt once thought she wanted to be a writer, and I'm sure that had she become one she would have had a long and distinguished career. Consider, for instance, this description of an early encounter with art: "Giotto, a blue shape, another blue shape, gray--my heart was wrung. Another arrangement of color . . . my heart lifted. Color and form in themselves (I cannot say how deeply this caught me) had meaning to which my whole being answered. The world I felt behind the world I fumbled with my senses was Piero della Francesca's kingdom: stripped, clarified, pure, more real than ordinary matter. If I lived in that limpid space, I thought to myself, I would be at home."

For me, Daybook is a limpid space in which to feel at home, to return to when I need a renewal, a recommitment, and I intend for my young writing students to discover its lessons about life and art, the way in which the two are mutually dependent. For, as Truitt says, "It is ultimately character that underwrites art."