Monthly Archives: June 2019

Journal method #1: Here and now

No journal keeper ever needs to stare at a blank page, wondering what to write. Yes, it can feel overwhelming to open the book to a new page and get started—to select an opening gambit when faced with a rush of thoughts and emotions tumbling through the mind—or, at the other extreme, when bogged down by a sense of having nothing to say. Has too much happened since the last entry, or has nothing seemed to change much since you last wrote?

One method for starting any diary entry has proven consistently reliable. Tristine Rainer, in her book The New Diary, named this method “a here-and-now exercise.”  To do it, you engage in describing your surroundings at the time of writing. Rainer advises that this method works best if you “re-awaken all the senses,” intentionally heightening your physical awareness to pick up on concrete details that people don’t generally notice.

Here-and-now starts with describing what appears around you, making the language vivid, to bring readers right into the place of your writing. To do this exercise, it helps if you don’t write in a habitual place at the same time each day. Vary the scene of journal-keeping; look for different times to write and scout new locations.

What does “vivid” mean? To bring your scene to life, most writing guides suggest avoiding abstract words that render judgment (gorgeous, boring, neglected, delicious) in favor of clear factual details that immerse a reader in the experience. “The best way to avoid the trap of dead words,” says Hannah Hinchman, “is to keep a firm grasp on the real stuff, prickly, slimy, or bony as it may be.”

Build a rich vocabulary of nouns and verbs; scrutinize adjectives and avoid piling them on; find out and use the precise names for everyday objects and the parts of things, like a lamp finial or a wall bracket. In my own journals, even as the writing unfolds across the page, I play a game of avoiding “to be” verbs—a page without a single “are,” “is,” or “were” means that I win for clear and pointed prose.

So, describe what you see—branches laden with shades of green outside the window, a fly swatter on the table, softening apples in a bowl—but also note smells, sounds, and even more subtle sensory experiences: The cidery smell and puckered skin of the nearest apple, the whine of the passing housefly, the white-noise hum of appliances around the house—bitter aftertaste of the last, cooled sip from the coffee mug, drape of humid air on arms and neck.

Jon Kabat-Zinn, who writes about mindfulness, describes the state of heightened observation where you might notice, for example, how even when you close your eyes, the sound of rain can delineate a landscape, bringing out the contours and perspective of the surrounding space as raindrops hit different surfaces to produce different sounds, creating a complex acoustic experience.

What surrounds you here-and-now offers a variety of textures, colors, objects, perhaps living things to describe. You may also note interior physical sensations: Kabat-Zinn suggests, beyond paying attention to what you see, hear, and smell, pausing to immerse your awareness in the fluid “airscape” against your skin. Even on a day without wind, or when sitting indoors, if you attend carefully you can train yourself to feel a subtle current or draft moving around, in, and out of your body: cool, warm, wet, dry?

Why bother to note such trivial things and write them down? A here-and-now exercise squarely places you in the moment of diary-writing, and diaries take it as their project to begin in the present. “Put yourself right in the present,” advised the venerable diary-keeper, Anaïs Nin, quoted by Marlene Schiwy in A Voice of her Own. “Start there and that starts the whole unravelling, because that [present moment] has roots in the past and it has branches into the future.”

As you write about what’s around you, the outer world comes into contact with your physical self and produces interior sensations. Stretch to consider the less obvious sensory experiences, like sounds and smells in your environment. Let the here-and-now exercise work to expand your idea of what’s involved in being here, and your awareness of how that feels now.

By starting with the moment of writing, the diarist opens space to move in a variety of directions that we can explore in future posts. Just to give one example, sensory details of the present can evoke intense memories after years have passed. By practicing vivid ways to write about your “now,” you offer a gift to the later self who reads the diary—for whom, in Curtis Casewit’s words, “some long-ago days may still gleam there as if you had just experienced them.”

In posts ahead, we’ll look at ways to use the here-and-now exercise as a springboard. Details observed in the present often spark memories and provide a gateway into writing about the past—how it still affects our lives, or what has changed since earlier times. A single object, once we’ve placed attention on it, can become much more—the choice of words reveals what the writer finds important and how they feel at the time of writing. Mental or emotional state shapes everything recorded in the journal.

And finally, in future posts let’s broaden our idea of the present moment beyond a single point in time—the minutes spent writing today—to consider, as suggested by Ira Progoff (creator of the Intensive Journal), an “elastic ‘now’” that expands the present moment to include the length of time that has passed since writing the previous entry, or even the current period in one’s life. The elastic “now” can open enough space to take a fresh look at present circumstances and envision where to go from here.

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Journal for the seasons: summer

Seasons inscribe themselves into a journal. Even our modern lives in technology-regulated settings can’t entirely shut out seasonal variations in temperature, precipitation, and light.

For thousands of years, wherever they lived, people have kept track of seasonal change, because human lives depend on animal migration patterns and plants’ growing cycles, those natural cycles that include a seasonal rhythm of alterations in daylight and temperature.

If a journal truly reflects the here and now, its entries will acknowledge not just the details of daily life that differ according to the four classic seasons of the year, but also those subtler phenological effects that might be called micro-seasons or “seasons within seasons.”

Phenology, as journal writer Hannah Hinchman explains in her book A Trail through Leaves, is “the study of natural phenomena that recur periodically [and] their relation to climate and changes in season.” Phenology studies the life cycles of living things as they respond to weather conditions and to astronomical cycles of the earth.

Governed by these rhythms, the changing length of days (photoperiod) is the predictive cue for timing many predictable changes in the physiology and behavior of living things. On this day, the summer solstice, I want to share with you how Hannah Hinchman connects the more recent practice of keeping a diary with the ancient human practice of tracking the seasons:

“Journal-keepers, because they are creating a life-long record of their encounters, are natural phenologists. The habit of granting each day its singularity lays the groundwork for seeing into the hidden seasons, and seasons-within-seasons.” (A Trail through Leaves, 134-5).

In the Menologium, an Anglo-Saxon calendar poem that describes and praises each season around a year, the poet describes how in June “the sun lingers in field and furrow/and leaves its lovely gift of daylight/a little longer before it disappears/down under the horizon” (translated by Craig Williamson, The Complete Old English Poems.)

Eleanor Parker calls this poem “an exquisite combination of Old English poetry and medieval science. It serves a practical function by reminding the reader of important dates in the calendar, but its purpose is not primarily functional; more important is the relationship the poem explores between the interlocking cycles of the year, between the seasons and sacred time.” The Menologium moves around the year starting and ending with winter solstice which it connects with Christ’s birth; its account of summer solstice is placed precisely at the midpoint of the poem.

What in your life reflects midsummer? Whatever significance the day has for you, you can describe its sensory details for the reader so clearly as to make your words come to life. Picking up the diary even in midwinter, your reader will feel this morning darken as heavy storms flash in, swaddling an early sunrise in heavy blankets of warm humid fog.

You may honor this day as the anniversary of a deeply sad event as my family does, or you may remember the year when you visited a place so far to the North that the sun never set at all in 24 hours. Maybe you once saw the year’s first firefly at summer solstice, or maybe you just now tasted the first green lettuce leaf from your own garden.

Does the extreme length of daylight make it harder to sleep at night? Does it allow for more hours spent outdoors? How will you write the solstice into your journal?

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Perfect timing to start a diary

People like to say that the perfect time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. I recently attended a meeting that wasn’t even about journal-keeping, but when we went around the room to describe what we’ve done lately and I mentioned the dilemma of 127 diaries, several people said they’d love to go back and read their own diaries from ten or twenty years ago–if only they had kept one.

The tree proverb goes on to add, “–and the second-best time is right now.” Fortunately, the first page of a diary always represents a new beginning, no matter what date appears at the top of the page. Almost any day offers some logic for beginning–the first day of the month, the next full moon, the beginning of summer, starting a new job, the arrival of a guest, your first night in a new home, the day of returning from a trip, your birthday, an anniversary of significance: Something in your life is always starting anew. Certainly there’s no need to hold off until January 1 to start one’s first diary or to revive the practice after letting it lapse a while.

Remember, too, that a diary doesn’t need to focus only in the present moment. Even if an entry opens by settling itself in the here and now, your writing may proceed through a doorway into memory or pause at the threshold of an anticipated future.

Some diaries deliberately frame their focus around a marked-off period of time. Someone might keep a diary intended to cover just one term of study abroad. Parents may keep a detailed scrapbook of their baby’s first year. For some, a garden notebook captures each detail from initial sowing to the year’s last harvest.

What do you see on the horizon to guide the shape and direction of your next diary? A fresh start can feel good; the act of beginning a diary can in itself mark the first step of a journey. Even if no big change looms in your life and everything feels fairly routine, it’s just possible that your journal work will uncover a new way of seeing and experiencing those everyday events.

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Invisible “I”

Leaving out “I,” especially when beginning a new entry, is one of the strongest style patterns of a diary. Scraps and fragments of writing seem to suit the form. These create an effect, in the words of Anna Jackson, of “postcard-like economy.” The casual way of dispensing with “I am” (“Having a great time; wish you were here”) comes across as simple and time-saving. Abbreviation suggests the need to cram a whole lot of experience into a limited space. To omit the “I” also assumes that “I” is the most likely subject of any diary statement. It’s so well understood, it doesn’t need to be said.

This stylistic feature goes back to the early history of the diary. Samuel Pepys framed entries with the same formulaic phrases—both often parodied since his time—each of which contains an implied but absent first-person subject: “Up betimes,” he would write to start his account of the day . . . “and so to bed” at the end. No need to specify a subject for those actions. Countless diaries since Pepys’ time have adopted the custom of skipping the “I,” especially as the entry begins, and so moving directly into the action that matters most.

Besides omitting “I,” three other types of sentence fragments are described in Anna Jackson’s book Diary Poetics (2010) as hallmarks of the diary style. We may explore these uses in later posts: sentence fragments in the form of lists, weather summaries, and a meandering creative “free play” of words used to “revise, rewrite, rephrase memories or thoughts as they are written, or which jab at a thought to try to pin it down.”

These playful non-sentences “come to represent not just the thought itself but the jabbing, circling, revising process of thinking it” (134). Jackson concludes that “it is not so much the sentence fragment itself which is characteristic of diary prose, but the movement in and out of complete sentences, and in-between narrative and descriptive lists” (138).

If you’re not already working in this mode, I’d invite you to experiment, taking your cue from many others who have let go in their diaries and liberated their writing selves from the control of complete sentences. Fragments allow the diary to move swiftly through a set of impressions and narrated activities, to explore nonlinear associations linking one thought to the next, even to establish a closer bond with the person who will eventually read the diary.

As readers, we come to know the “self” in the diary as an eye and a voice. The diarist’s point of view controls where the readers focus, what we see, and how it looks to us. We hear only what the diarist wants to tell us, and we hear it in that person’s words. In this way we get to know the person writing a diary—listening, watching, gaining familiarity with their attitudes, responses, interests and preoccupations.

The omission of “I” brings reader and writer together as they dispense with the formality of grammatical correctness and assume an unspoken question from the reader, a question to which the entire diary provides an answer. The imagined reader poses in an expectant attitude, prompting the diarist by asking the simple question, “and what’s up with you?”

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127 diaries

Beginning on a sixteenth birthday, the books of many colors, shapes and sizes accumulate for over three and a half decades. While the set of books may have a few, always telling, gaps—the last semester of high school and first semester of college have no entries, nor does the whole first year of a particularly grueling professional term—for the most part, the diary steadily tracks a life from teenage years across the full arc of family and career.

Its handwriting starts out with squarish loopy cursive letters, then shifts at age 18 to compact, legible printing reminiscent of laboratory notebooks. At times the color of ink is coded to the writer’s state of mind—dark blue for a creative mood, green to explore a change, red for heightened alert, brown for domestic routines—and at times the facing page fills with related notes, quotations, dream accounts, or taped-in mementos.

Many of the books reserve a blank page at the beginning, as if anticipating the addition of a title page. Blank pages appear at the end of many volumes too, giving the impression of a writer who wants to preserve space for additional writing—as if she might find herself locked up somewhere with nothing but these journals, needing to continue to write.

When I dip into the journals, I experience vivid fragments of “what it felt like to be me,” as Joan Didion puts it in her brilliant essay “On Keeping a Notebook.” But I have never sat down and read them all from beginning to the present—a project that could take weeks, or even longer. When a volume ends, I put it on the shelf. But some part of me has always planned to return. Why else keep them? Will someone want to read them in the future? Someone other than the older self of the diarist?

Of all the vast array of books on how to keep a diary, few consider what eventually happens to all those completed volumes. Alexandra Johnson wrote Keeping A Trace, which offers advice for looking back through one’s diary to identify running motifs, patterns, and story arcs that the writer couldn’t yet have perceived at the time of writing. She discusses the diary as a source of insight and material for other writing projects.

Diaries even play a role in history. Historians’ work relies on letters and diaries, not just to record big events, but to reconstruct daily life among ordinary people. Working with 19th-century diaries in a library archive, deciphering their tiny, spiky script to find out what the diarists thought and felt, I sometimes wonder if I’ll bequeath my diaries to an archive, to serve as a record of everyday experience and observations from the late 20th century and beyond.

What to do with 127 volumes of a diary? Currently, the three long rows of variegated books fill the shelves in an upstairs bedroom closet. As the hand-printed lettering—all in blue ink, this latest time—spirals into the last pages of Volume 125, I have the next two blank books standing by, ready to fill. A lifelong habit of diary-keeping ripens into a Journals Project. I have preliminary ideas about what this project may involve, and I’ll write about them in future posts. The first stage involves reflecting and exploring possible directions. Just like the open-ended process of keeping a diary.

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Hitting the highlights

Journal, apple, tea mugWhen you read a diary, not all the entries spark interest to the same degree. So what quality makes a diary entry jump right off the page? How can you bring your diary to life, both for yourself when you look at it again, and for readers who may not even know you?

As I spend hours in the library basement slowly deciphering a young man’s Civil War-era diary, I come across moments that stay long afterwards in my mind:  his enjoyment of ice cream as a rare treat, how he’s swept away by the eloquence of a guest preacher at his church, the day he was snubbed by a doctor who decided not to hire him as an assistant.

And when I re-read my own diary, what draws my eye? For one thing, I love it when my former self looks ahead and tries to guess at the future. At age 25 I wrote a few tentative notes about someday becoming a parent; though it would be five years before it happened, here I can identify the earliest stages of imagining parenthood.

Students in my diary class enjoy those entries where diarists question or push back against social conventions of their time. When young Frances Burney, in 1775, successfully resists a marriage proposal that her father and all her friends put her under great pressure to accept, we follow the drama and watch her practice how to explain to people who care about her, and want the best for her, why she doesn’t want to take the obvious and expected path. Burney emerges in the pages of her diary as an individual with her own ideas and feelings, most visibly when these conflict with social expectations.

We also get drawn in by firsthand testimony or even sideline comments that record events of historical significance. I have a friend of a friend who treasures the family diary with an entry that responds to receiving news of President Lincoln’s assassination. Samuel Pepys’ personal account of living through London’s Great Fire in 1666—right down to details like burying a cheese in his garden to protect it from the fire, or watching the urban pigeons singe their wings as they try to escape the heat of a city going up in flames—numbers among the top most-read passages in the entire literary tradition of diaries.

As readers, we perk up when diarists let us in on their thoughts about what they hope to accomplish with their diary. Such passages often pop up near the beginning. When the diarist states an intention, that allows us to examine later entries with an eye to whether they’ve kept their resolution. If family and friends read their diary and offer opinions—perhaps aiming to discourage them from the habit, as we saw with several well-known 18th-century diaries—these accounts lend further interest, reminding us of the writer’s self-awareness and formation of identity.

Reader interest may surge when the diarist offers an account of a “big day”—the day when they learned something, or a whole new phase of life began, or any event that they find especially significant or influential. Among the accounts of mundane and repetitive days, these moments stand out.

But quiet moments, vividly described through the senses, also capture attention. Such moments help us see into the mind and feelings of the person writing. Brief scenes of interacting with a quirky or randomly encountered person (or animal), quoted snippets from conversations, notes on the arrival of a new season or fashion trend, an object that means a lot to the diarist even if unremarkable to others—all these bring the diarist and their world to life.

Conversely, the last thing most of us want to see is another summary of the day’s weather or list of routine tasks. And maybe it’s just me, but I once decided against transcribing an otherwise intriguing handwritten diary, simply to avoid being subjected to daily news about the writer’s digestive system! (Great time, by the way, for the writer to employ a personal code—I’ll write more about using codes in a future post.)

What draws your eye, or increases your heart rate, when you read a diary? Next time you pick up your diary, think about how you’ll make it lively and interesting to those who may someday read it—including your future self.

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What diaries don’t know

Unlike most artists, the writer of a diary can’t begin with even a preliminary vision of the completed project. It’s impossible to outline the diary’s key moments, its dramatic scenes and thematic patterns, ahead of the creation. It’s a basic condition of this form that the writer, no matter how observant and accomplished, has no way to foresee where the diary will go.

Even where a specific diary has its foreseen endpoint—for a prison diary, say, the scheduled date of release; for a travel diary, the day of coming back home; for a diarist near the end of life, the point when they can no longer summon enough strength to keep the diary—the person writing the diary can’t control how that ending will be reached, nor predict the emotional significance it may hold for the writer or the reader.

This formal feature of diaries has real implications, including the fact that a reader, much later, very likely knows more than the writer did about how things will turn out. Moreover, the limited visibility of the path ahead may be one of the reasons for keeping a diary.

Each entry in a diary reflects the view and voice of the writer who, at a specific time in their own life and more broadly a specific moment and place in history, expresses by writing a diary the intention to explore, observe, grow, reflect upon, or preserve a set of personal experiences for rediscovery at some point in the future.

It’s not like reading a novel, where the writer holds the cards and only gradually lets us know the ending. The diary writer writes in a state of uncertainty, with no choice but to face an unknown future. Sure, the diarist can express hopes, dreams, and fears about the future, but it’s the reader who more likely knows the outcome, and we often read a diary, from its earliest pages, in that light. Anne Frank’s diary is probably the most famous example. But it can be seen everywhere. I recently paged through the diary of a college student from the 1880’s as she met an attractive classmate and wrote about him in many entries—and all the time I knew, though she didn’t, that she would eventually marry someone else.

So, while it can relate the story of a life, the diary is neither written nor read as one long, smooth arc of narrative plotted and controlled by the person writing it. Rather, diaries consist of a series of separately-written entries (usually dated) that iteratively record where things stand at the time of writing. By using this periodic structure, the diary stays close to the writer’s individual perspective as it evolves through time—again, and very importantly, without knowing what time will bring.

By reading the diary we retrace their journey, appreciating their reactions and discoveries of the moment while layering an extra dimension of thoughts and feelings over what was originally written—however much we admire their insight and their voice. We read their words in an ironic light of knowledge they didn’t have, knowledge that can only come with time.

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