Monthly Archives: July 2020

Writing for Elderly Virginia

Diaries intrigue us because by looking inside one, we cross a threshold into private space, with a sense that maybe it was written solely for the writer to read.

In the middle of an entry, we might even see the writer pause to envision an older self who opens the book and reads it. At the age of 36, Virginia Woolf imagined this scene, and defined her future self as “Virginia Woolf at the age of 50, when she sits down to build her memoirs out of these books [the diaries]” Contemplating that moment, she added, “How I envy her the task I am preparing for her! There is none I should like better. Already my 37th birthday next Saturday is robbed of some of its terrors by the thought” (Diary I, 234).

As Barbara Lounsberry notes in Virginia Woolf’s Modernist Path, at this moment “a new persona enters the diary, an appreciative future reader and working writer” (20). This overseeing persona lends a new sense of purpose to the diary for the next several years, as Woolf writes:

Partly for [the] benefit of this elderly lady (no subterfuge will then be possible: 50 is elderly, though, I agree, not old) partly to give the year a solid foundation I intend to spend the evenings of this week of captivity in making out an account of my friendships & their present condition, with some account of my friends characters; & to add an estimate of their work, & a forecast of their future works. The lady of fifty will be able to say how near to the truth I come” (Diary I, 325).

From her vantage point across the years, old Virginia or elderly Virginia (as Woolf calls her) encourages the diarist to keep on writing: “I fancy old Virginia, putting on her spectacles to read of March 2020 will decidedly wish me to continue. Greetings! my dear ghost; & take heed that I don’t think 50 a very great age. Several good books can be written still; & here’s the bricks for a fine one” (Diary 2: 24).

As Lounsberry explains, Woolf envisions a future self who “will not only relish but also use Woolf’s diary prose. In that, this projected older self spurs the diarist on” (Lounsberry, 35).

The concept of addressing the diary to your future self comes recommended by many journal-keeping guides. Christina Baldwin, author of One to One, acknowledges that “most of the time, I write to the self that is just ahead of me in evolution—the person I am becoming” (51). Baldwin advises calling upon this “internal [projected] self” as a “friend,” “mentor,” and “guide.”

The author of The New Diary, Tristine Rainer, agrees: “In most cases, the best audience is your future self. If you think of your reader as the person you will be in five, ten, or even fifty years, it will encourage you to write concretely and to include details that make the experience interesting to reread. In ten years you won’t remember the situation unless you capture all its sensual vitality now” (24).

While some diary-keepers claim that they never look back at old entries, others frequently reread their diaries or plan to do so. Frances Burney insisted to a friend in a letter that she needed him to return the diaries he had borrowed, which she wanted back because “to you they can only furnish entertainment . . . but to me, who know all the people & things mentioned, they may possibly give some pleasure, by rubbing up my memory, when I am a very Tabby, before when I shall not think of looking into them” (The Early Journals and Letters of Fanny Burney, 58).

For those preparing to revisit their own diaries, authors of journal guides suggest numerous ways to “harvest” past volumes. Alexandra Johnson’s Leaving a Trace lists ten patterns to map as you go back through a set of journals. Johnson also gives examples of how writers use their diaries as sources for published work. Ron Klug, in the revised edition of How to Keep a Spiritual Journal (2012), discusses methods for indexing, “gleaning,” creating end-of-year summaries, and “bringing things forward”: “When you find some especially interesting insight while rereading a journal, copy it in your present journal and add some thoughts, showing how your thinking has been reinforced or changed” (125).

Most guides to journal harvesting describe the diary as holding scraps of insight, image, and memory that gain significance as they accrete and form thematic patterns. But the value of addressing a diary to one’s older self also connects with the special time-axis of a diary. The future reader will inevitably know more than the present writer about how current issues and situations will play out.

“Elderly Virginia,” then, will possess not just the general wisdom of experience that Woolf could just as well seek from her older friends and acquaintances, but also very specific answers about Woolf’s life, based on her later position in time and its retrospective capacity.

In 1924 Woolf described her diary as a place to “practise writing; do my scales” for her work as a novelist. She imagined that “[I] shall invent my next book here; for here I write merely in the spirit—great fun it is too, & old V. of 1940 will see something in it too. She will be a woman who can see, old V.: everything—more than I can I think” (Diary 2, 319-20).

The diary’s perpetual existence in the present that can’t see ahead helps to explain why one’s future self, “who can see,” represents an ideal reader. Cutting through a fog of uncertainty about the future, a diary writer can invoke the clarifying spirit of this reader as a balancing presence, one that hovers lightly over the page with yet-unseen wisdom—who offers (or at least will accrue) a more mature perspective.

Someday, this presiding presence implicitly assures us, more will be known about the future that preoccupies the diarist, clarifying and settling everything that matters to them.

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Writing for Miss Nobody

Something about the diary suggests that no one reads them—or at least, that they aren’t supposed to be read. Like a prayer written on a tiny scroll to roll up and burn, or a penny dropped into a wishing well, the diary seems to carry a message into the universe, unheard by human ears.

If the diary has any reader at all, we seem to accept most readily a fictional reader conjured up by the writer. Anne Frank addressed her diary to an imaginary friend she named “Kitty”; in her book Anne Frank: the book, the life, the afterlife (2009) literary critic Francine Prose comments that a character named Kitty in a popular book that Anne Frank read may have inspired the fictional confidant (90-91).

Other diarists before and since Anne Frank have addressed their diaries to an imagined person they explicitly invent and name. As he starts writing the fourth entry in his “private diary for the public,” Looking in on Lockdown (2010), Dortell Williams, incarcerated in a California prison for more than 20 years, declares that he will write to an imagined woman named Lourdes:

Lourdes. I think that’s what I’ll call you. I’ve always liked that name. And since I don’t know any Lourdeses personally, you can be my Lourdes. A new female friend who I can build an intimate friendship and open up to more deeply than when I share with the fellas. (7)

More than 200 years earlier, a fifteen-year-old Londoner named Frances Burney penned a diary prologue that cleverly combines both conventions: the notion that a diary is addressed to “Nobody” and the custom of addressing the diary to an imagined friend:

To Nobody, then, will I write my Journal, since to Nobody can I be wholly unreserved, to Nobody can I reveal every thought, every wish of my heart, with the most unlimited confidence, the most unremitting sincerity, to the end of my life!

To further complicate Burney’s playful paradox, these diaries weren’t even intended to remain private. All three diarists mentioned above—Anne Frank, Dortell Williams, and Frances Burney—make a point of conjuring up the secret confidant (Kitty, Lourdes, Miss Nobody) even while acknowledging that they intend to publish their diary for a wide readership.

Anne Frank revised and edited her diary even while still living in the Secret Annexe. She dreamed of a writing career and predicted that after the war, there would be interest in her story. Dortell Williams announces in the introduction to his book that his diary aims to educate members of the American public who labor under misconceptions about the prison system. Frances Burney published her address to Miss Nobody as a preface to her collected letters and journals.

As Francine Prose notes, “it was Kitty on whom Anne decided when, during her last months in the attic, she began to revise her diary and focused on one imaginary listener” (90-91). “This device,” Prose adds,

gave Anne a way of addressing her readers intimately and directly . . . Reading Anne’s diary, we become the friend, the most intelligent, comprehending companion that anyone could hope to find. Chatty, humorous, familiar, Anne is writing to us, speaking from the heart to the ideal confidante, and we rise to the challenge and become that confidante. She turns us into the consummate listener, picking up the signals she hopes she is transmitting into the fresh air beyond the prison of the attic. (91)

Note the key phrase, “we [readers] become the friend.” Through its words the diary constructs its reader, tilting audience sympathies and receptivity in the direction of an accepting, supportive friend, someone willing to absorb intense personal feelings and reactions that, in a more formal relationship, might remain ambiguous or, if expressed, prompt negative judgment.

The diary, then, sets itself up as an encounter between close friends, chatting about a variety of subjects as people do who know each other well. That comfortable tone solidifies the relationship between reader and writer, especially if they have never met in real life. Addressing an imaginary friend, then, appears to serve a distinct purpose for the diary at the very moment when its writer contemplates the challenge of how best to reach an unknown public audience.

Despite Frances Burney’s playful insistence that she trusts Nobody, the script of the imaginary confidant doesn’t mean the writer lacks an audience; rather, this device trains a future audience in how to perform their role. The imaginary friend acts as a stand-in for that future reader. This strategy of discourse develops a relationship of trust between writer and audience, based on the template of a solitary diarist addressing an imagined friend.

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When you pick up a diary, why does it often feel like you and the writer become instant friends? Diary language builds quick intimacy through its reliance on everyday conversational patterns—it just sounds like someone talking informally. Diary style often uses punctuation that’s closer to natural speech than formal narrative: self-interrupting dashes, fragmentary phrases that don’t add up to a grammatical sentence, a series of unrelated remarks, and questions that don’t really seek an answer.

Even with one voice talking, an impression gradually develops on the journal page of a relationship between two people—speaker and listener—who apparently know each other well, as the speaker feels no need to frame each point with a careful introduction nor to explain their abrupt leap to a new topic.

If a journal voice feels casual, it also fosters give-and-take, employing devices that serve to open room for potential response or reconsideration. Planting a question in the journal certainly works in this way. In fact, the grammatical tactic of questioning may create several different effects, depending on whether a question remains unanswered or whether it gets either an immediate or eventual reply.

When the diary writer raises a question and proceeds at once to answer it, this rhetorical move reveals the mind in motion. It shows the writer in the act of considering and reflecting: “What do I think? I think . . .” The reader gets a glimpse into the writer’s mind as the writer wonders about something and lets thoughts spin out from the initial prompt. Following along, the reader gets drawn directly into this current of thought and allows it to occupy the interior of the reader’s own mind.

In other cases, the question touches on something that has yet to happen, so it can’t be answered right away. The writer may return to this question in a later entry, once more information becomes known. Questions asked in one entry and answered in a later entry differ from an immediately-answered question. The question with a delayed answer creates a bridge,  connecting the entries into a larger narrative arc. Such an arc of continuity softens the rigid parataxis implied by the diary structure of separate, self-contained entries.

A third type of question is asked but never answered. This question perpetually hangs in the balance, a rhetorical gesture addressed to the outer world as a whole or hurled into the future, highlighting the unknown. Articulating what the writer does not and cannot know, maybe it even refers to metaphysical, forever-unanswerable questions.

In all cases, the use of questioning as a device draws attention to the relationship between writer and audience. Spoken by the writer, uttered in that conversational, intimate diary-language, the question only apparently addresses the reader (who is not present in real time to answer), calling attention to the asymmetry of their relationship.

Questioning nonetheless opens a space legitimately shared by writer and reader. Answered or not, questions set up an open-ended structure for both to explore with imagination, memories, speculation, and reflection—a way to reach out and encounter each other through time and space.

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Journal method #7: Reflecting

Clear rural pond at sunset reflects a horizon of trees and light.While thousands of journal prompts ask us to launch into reflecting on something specific, this post will examine reflection itself as a tool—one that you can pull out to enhance your journal even after you’ve started writing a new entry.

Consider prescribing yourself a dose of reflection whenever you find your diary reverting to a bland factual account of daily weather and completed tasks. Conversely, reflection can also fruitfully intervene when you’ve hit a rough patch and find that these days, your diary seems to serve only to vent a geyser of negative feelings, often in unoriginal, heated language.

Reflection works differently from other journal methods because any time while writing in a journal, you can pause and reflect. Stephanie Dowrick, in The Creative Journal, comments that “the process of journal writing gives you an invaluable measure of distance between yourself and your thoughts . . . I cannot emphasize too strongly how helpful this [measure of distance] is.” She describes reflective writing as a process of “’making room’ inside my own mind so that new thoughts can arise” (15).

So, how do you go about reflecting? To reflect means to break off and make sense of what you see. You give yourself a chance to examine what was just written, identify connections, patterns, or contradictions, and relay these findings in the next few sentences, as annotations, or in a later entry.

In contrast to journal methods that ask for concrete, immediate observation or a lightning-quick sequence of unprocessed thoughts, reflection takes more time to think before writing and involves intentionally stepping back. The “stepping back” matters most—yet another spatial metaphor for that process of creating “a measure of distance” or “making room” for focused work.

That new space opens within the mind of the journal-keeper. In a way the writer splits into two selves: one that can experience while another makes sense of the experience. Two common stylistic indicators of reflection in a diary include introducing the pronoun “you” and phrasing ideas in the form of questions. Both these linguistic moves give rise to implied dialogue between two subjects.

On the surface, these moves may appear to shift power toward a person other than the writer—an implied reader who is directly addressed as “you” or presented with a question to answer. But given the tradition that a diary is private and has no reader, reflection in a journal takes place within the writing self alone. A version of talking to oneself, it allows the writer’s mind to entertain and develop more than a single perspective.

In her book Diary Poetics Anna Jackson persuasively shows how the “you” in many examples of modern journal entries make more sense if “you” is taken as referring to the diarist, rather than a hypothetical reader. Instead of “I” (the writer) addressing “you” the potential reader, the second-person pronoun instead lets the writer build mental distance between an experiencing self and a reflective consciousness. (Sometimes the diarist may feel a need to protect the self at even greater distance by using third person to write about themselves.)

The use of questions likewise implies the two-sidedness of a conversation—or at least a sense that someone (outside or within) is listening to the journal-keeper and invited to respond.

Overuse of the reflective method may call out for its own counterbalancing. Analytical language can begin to feel detached and generalized, so a lengthy reflective passage may find itself giving way to “juicier” stylistic methods like specific descriptions, action scenes, or language that evokes direct sensations, whether emotional or physical.

Remember, too, that the insights gained in reflection only represent your thoughts at the current time. In the triumph of figuring something out, it can feel tempting to view that new interpretation as the final word on a subject, especially an emotionally complicated issue that matters deeply to you.

So even as you round off the reflection, you’ll want to leave the door open to re-question, reframe, and possibly someday replace today’s conclusions as the flow of time continues and the pages of future experience unfold.

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