Monthly Archives: July 2019

Will there be a daily diary?

The modernist poet Gertrude Stein wrote “A Diary” and published it in her book Alphabets and Birthdays (1927). Consistent with her style, Stein filled the diary with enigmatic pronouncements. At the end, she rejects the traditional idea of writing every day: “There will not be a daily diary.” In an earlier passage she declares that “a diary is not a line a day book.”

Throughout, Stein composes playful variations on expected diary themes—cooking details, gossip, habits, domestic tasks, manners, visits by friends, repeated days of the week—which I’ll write more about in a future post. For now, let’s consider the “daily diary.” Where does it come from?

When people question the distinction between a diary and journal, they’re often encouraged to use the words interchangeably, since both terms derive from “day” (dīes in Latin and jour in French). An early definition of diary, from the 18th-century dictionary of Dr. Johnson, is “an account of the transactions, accidents, and observations of every day; a journal.” Some blank books sold as diaries reinforce this idea of dailiness with a format that provides equal space for writing on each date of the year.

Like years with their seasons, the turn of a day marks out a basic cycle to which life responds. 24-hour circadian codes operate at the cellular level, delicately adjusted by cues from the outside world. Despite the recent pervasiveness of artificial lighting and temperature control, these cycles still function in human bodies.  As detailed in Satchin Panda’s Circadian Code, our sleeping, eating, and activity schedules can either align with or disrupt the natural rhythms. The pages of a diary map the writer’s experience of a life that still plays out in circadian ways.

John Cheever’s diary “seeks to give each day some form of shapeliness”; after noting details and images from the day, capturing a sense of the “contingencies of domestic life” he would close each entry with an interpretive flourish that gave it a personal touch (Anna Jackson’s Diary Poetics, 31-33).

Anaïs Nin agrees: “This was my principle when I wrote the diary—to write the thing I felt most strongly about that day . . . I chose the event of the day that I felt most strongly about, the most vivid one, the warmest one, the nearest one, the strongest one” (cited on p. 50 of Marlene Schiwy’s Voice of her Own).

Still, a diary that begins with the intention of daily writing may find itself cast aside when that rule becomes burdensome or impractical. Some of the most highly renowned diarists stopped writing daily. They continued their diaries by writing in spurts, even if the published entries look like a steady, daily stream. Frances Burney and Samuel Pepys both jotted down brief notes and at times procrastinated on expanding their notes into a full journal entry: “Pepys often wrote up as many as fourteen days at one time” (Elizabeth Podnieks, Daily Modernism). Virginia Woolf returns to her diary after spending some time away, and comments on the relief and pleasure of taking up her “old book” once more.

A more recent definition of the diary than Dr. Johnson’s, proposed by Steven Kagle in American Diary Literature (1979), is “a record of events or thoughts written as dated periodic entries.” Periodic can indicate something other than daily. The key point resides in how writers build the diary one entry at a time, spooling out an evolving perspective as later events offer a fresh view of what came before, and allowing the reader to re-live that process.

Clearly, the strict imperative to write every day—or even more rigidly, as the printed format of some diaries demands, to confine every entry to the same length—can feel impractical and restrictive; many of the greatest diary writers have ignored it.

A diary is not a line-a-day book. As Alexandra Johnson explains in her book, Leaving a Trace, “a diary or journal isn’t necessarily something that should be done daily, so much as it is a clue to how to see the daily world around oneself differently.”

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Journal method #2: Lists

The highly popular Bullet Journal relies on a format perennially used in diaries: the list. A few years back Ryder Carroll created this system to show people “how to neatly funnel all their notes and projects into one notebook.” BuJo, as it’s affectionately nicknamed, offers a streamlined system of trackers, schedules, logs, and occasional longer passages of reflection.

The clarity of a list punctuated with bullet points appealed to Carroll, who originally trained as a designer, because of his conviction that “few design conventions can do so much with so little.” A list collects and orders information in the quickest, most compact, and simplest manner possible. Hence, as Carroll acknowledges in The Bullet Journal Method (2018) “the list is the core design pattern in the Bullet Journal” (255).

Ryder Carroll was not the first to build a journal system around lists. Some of the earliest known diaries rely on list-making, all the way back to the Medieval Japanese “pillow-books.” Sei Shōnagon, poet and court attendant to Empress Teishi (Sadako) around the year 1000, wrote a famous Pillow Book that included her personal collection of entertaining and thought-provoking lists. Her lists have titles like “Things That Give a Clean Feeling,” “Things That Give an Unclean Feeling,” “Things That Seem Better at Night Than in the Daytime,” “Things That Look Pretty but That Are Bad Inside,” “Adorable Things,” “Things That Make One Nervous,” “Presumptuous Things,” and “Things with Frightening Names.”

Lying between the fanciful lists of a pillow-book and the pragmatic value of organizing one’s life with the BuJo system, a spectrum of list-making practices can enrich the content of any journal.

On the most basic level, when life gets incredibly busy and you find yourself with less than five minutes to spend with the journal, a great quick method is to divide the page into two columns labeled with “plus” and “minus” signs. In these columns, simply jot down a few words noting what’s good about your life right now and what’s less than optimal. You can return later to expand on these lists and write more on these topics later, but you don’t have to. Just having these minimal notes will suffice to jog your memory of what mattered during tough times when you couldn’t create a more extensive record.

Conversely, when you find yourself with plenty of time to explore and write, you might be looking for a way to move out of the present moment and pull material from the past into the journal. Ira Progoff’s Stepping Stones exercise, taken from his book At a Journal Workshop (1975) invites you to imagine your whole life up to this point as a set of stages. You give a name to each stepping stone (which you could also envision as chapters in the book of your life). This overview lets you see where you are in your life, from the present vantage-point. In future writing sessions you can select a single stepping-stone to expand, explore through memory, and develop in understanding.

These lists may be relatively short (Progoff recommends a maximum of 10-12 Stepping Stones), but Kathleen Adams, author of Journal to the Self (1990), recommends another practice called Lists of 100.  Adams recognizes that it’s hard to come up with 100 examples of pretty much anything. The exercise permits repeating the same item twice; the point is to write fast, listing as many items as possible, with the understanding that, as in many brainstorming processes, the less obvious and more delayed material could end up proving most interesting and useful.

Lists of 100 can be used for many purposes, mostly involving problem-solving, identifying hidden patterns, clarifying what matters, and generally moving beyond the first few (dozen) obvious items to pull deeper, otherwise inaccessible material from the subconscious mind. Examples that Adams gives include “100 Reasons to [Do X]”; “100 Reasons Not to [Do X]”; “100 Childhood Memories”; “100 Fears”; “100 Possessions I’ve Owned Long Enough”; “100 Decisions I’ve Made That Turned Out Well.”

Like other basic journal methods, the list format can work well to write a single entry, but listing also describes a key structural feature of the diary.  Anna Jackson comments in her book Diary Poetics that “in a sense, every diary is a kind of list of days, sharing with the list the open-ended structure, the paratactic relationship of its units, [whether it’s] the days of the diary or items on the list” (137).

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Material diary

While the book called a diary is built out of words and ideas, we also encounter it as a physical artifact. A diary contains multiple meanings, says Philip LeJeune in his book On Diary: “It signifies by virtue of its paper, its ink, its spelling, and its script, and many other aspects” (47).

Those who study human societies, past or present, sometimes divide their objects of study into examples of material culture and non-material culture. To study material culture involves examining physical objects and places—like tools, clothing, food, and architecture—to understand how people interacted with things and how they shaped the spaces around them. Figuring out how they handled material possessions can clarify and at times complicate the picture of the non-material culture (concepts, imagery, values, beliefs) by which that group of humans lived and behaved.

The material qualities of a diary—what it’s made from, the type of binding, texture of paper, color of ink, margins, page numbering, placement of headings, presence of a title page, the writer’s penmanship, added annotations, preserved mementos tucked or affixed inside—all contribute to the diary’s total meaning. Some clues are intentionally inserted, while others reveal things about the writer’s status that we might not know from their words alone. For example, even a reader primarily concerned with the words may observe how size and evenness of the hand-lettering unconsciously alters when the writer feels intense emotion or fatigue.

Part of the freedom associated with keeping a diary resides in the impulsive choices, some textual, some material, that its writer can make. As Tristine Rainer offers in her book The New Diary, “At any time you can change your point of view, your style, your book, the pen you write with, the direction you write on the pages, the language in which you write, the subjects you include, or the audience you write to . . . You can paste in photographs, paper clippings, cancelled checks, letters, quotes, drawings, doodles, dried flowers, business cards, or labels. You can write on lined paper or blank paper, violet paper or yellow, expensive bond or newsprint. It’s your book, yours alone” (28-29).

Anaīs Nin reveals that “all of my diary volumes have enclosures: loose pages written unexpectedly on the run and later inserted into the diary, and occasionally a photograph, a letter from a friend, a newspaper clipping, a recipe from that time” (cited in Marlene Schiwy’s A Voice of her Own, 56).

While diary enclosures can revive memories for the writer coming upon them years later, their tactile nature also has power to connect the writer with other readers in an unexpectedly intimate way. Anna Jackson describes how in her research on Katherine Mansfield, “I was particularly affected by the preserved kowhai flower I came across between two pages in a notebook. After all this time, there it still was, still yellow, still between the same two pages Mansfield had placed it between all those years ago. A piece of the world she wrote about was right there as a piece of the world still, not a piece of writing. This is the diary as capacious hold-all in a surprisingly literal sense” (Diary Poetics, 17).

If you have a chance to read an unpublished diary, look carefully for these extra clues. Consider, too, what someone could tell about you from how your diary presents its material self. Does the physical body of the diary speak nonverbally? When read with care, a diary will convey more than its words can say.

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Parataxis and the diary

Two thoughts, side by side. In my mind, in the diary. Diary readers don’t expect a logical bridge across ideas, as with other prose forms. It’s more like poetry, at least when poetry tries to look artless. The two discontinuous ideas jostle each other as they might lodge inside one’s mind, seemingly random. Whoever comes later to read the diary may choose to infer (or invent) a connection. Or not.

“Non sequiturs are a charm of diaries from the first,” Harriet Blodgett announces in her book, A Century of Female Days. She implies that the clash of disjointed impressions is part of what diary readers enjoy. Similarly Rebecca Hogan describes diaries as “elastic, inclusive texts, which mix chronicle, historical record, reflection, feelings, descriptions of nature, travel, work accomplished, and portraiture of character rather haphazardly together” (“Engendered Autobiographies,” 100).

Hogan and other scholars apply the concept of “parataxis” to understand this key element of the diary: “Grammatically, parataxis describes a sentence structure in which related clauses are placed in a series without the use of connecting words (I came, I saw, I conquered) or clauses related only by the coordinating conjunctions [and, or, but].” Not ranked in a hierarchical framework of logic, “the clauses are ‘equal’ in grammatical structure and rhetorical force.”

Rachel DuPlessis came up with this idea of “radical parataxis” while studying women’s personal writings. Rebecca Hogan and other scholars find plenty of parataxis on the level of grammar and phrasing within diary entries. But they also seek to extend this idea of absent connectors to the larger structure of a diary—“the relationships existing from entry to entry, from month to month, from year to year.” Things in diaries, Hogan explains, “happen between—between entries, between events, between diarist as writer and diarist as reader.”

The parallel structure of parataxis can easily accommodate the vast range of material that diaries cover—the continually shifting personal attention that equally absorbs important and unimportant events. Virginia Woolf aspired, in her most famous passage on diary-writing, to make her diary “so elastic that it will embrace any thing, solemn, slight or beautiful that comes into my mind” (Diary, April 20, 1919). The all-embracing flow creates continuity, while the clipped separate entries and the peppering of varied thoughts within each entry seem to lend equal weight to what Woolf calls the solemn, the slight, and the beautiful.

As Hogan concludes, “which events to describe or experience to reflect on will be selected according to a different set of rules or impulses on each occasion. It is this kind of process which creates the paratactic nature of the diary” (105). Anna Jackson in Diary Poetics adds that parataxis “creates immersion in a world of perceptions where each impression has its own weight and is deserving of focus. Chronology may replace other forms of connection among the elements of a diary “ (158).

Does your diary play with parataxis? Use it to pull in material you don’t usually write about; mingle easily-overlooked details with whatever weighs heaviest in life’s current phase. A paratactic sequence can flow onward indefinitely or stop abruptly after the second item. Two thoughts, side by side.

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