Monthly Archives: September 2020

Clocks, diaries, and interior time

Diaries foreground time. Their structure of periodic, dated (even time-stamped) entries calls attention to the passage of time, day by day.

Historians who study the early modern era, including Stuart Sherman in Telling Time, claim an intriguing connection between the accessibility of portable clocks for individual ownership and the rise of day-based prose narratives like the newspaper and the diary.

New technology allowed people to count minutes reliably for the first time, so they could structure habits and work patterns into smaller increments. “Where church bells and clock towers had for centuries tolled time intermittently and at a distance,” Sherman explains, technical innovation made the progression of seconds, minutes, and hours palpable to the eye and ear: “Huygens’s clocks, ticking steadily, translated time into a sound both constant and contiguous” (4)

The new experience of “closely calibrated temporality . . . became concurrently a widespread practice in prose written, distributed, and read over steady, small increments of real time” (9). The spread of private diaries, daily newspapers, journal-letters published by travelers, and other installment-based forms of writing reflected how Europeans now perceived their position in time.

In a cultural shift that went far beyond just carving up time into smaller units, Sherman argues that through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in Europe, a dominant religious focus on eternity and wholeness was replaced by a more secular interest in present and “middle” moments—that is, on what you can accomplish right now: “clock-dials, minute hands, diaries, newspapers, and novels were new precisely in that they called attention away from endpoints and invested it in middles—of the current hour, of the ongoing life—that were sharply defined and indefinitely extended” (21).

“Clocks and watches, by rendering time palpable, audible, and visible . . . established themselves as the new point of reference not only for measuring time but for talking and thinking about it” (24). Sherman turns to the diary of Samuel Pepys—who took great pleasure in consulting “my minute watch” and even gave one to his wife—claiming that Pepys “writes middleness assiduously. . . When Pepys writes up an entry at the end of a given day, he often knows only the story’s middle, and not its conclusion” (94).

A diary’s structure relies on the idea that each entry occupies a “middle” position in time, reinterpreting the past to explain the present, but forever unable to see what happens next. It’s important to note Pepys’ obedience to this diary “rule”: even when he composes a diary entry long after the day in question, in some cases (such as his account of the Great Fire) revising multiple drafts, he still maintains the “fiction” or “contrivance” of limiting the entry to what he knew on that day. As Stuart Sherman concludes, the diary’s “narrative confines itself (regardless of the author’s information) to the timeframe specified by the dated calibration at the page’s edge; illumination as to the direction any given narrative is taking arrives in stroboscopic increments at intervals of a day” (94).

Clocks gave employers the ability to enforce stricter workday routines and productivity expectations, but diary-keepers could track their own progress toward goals, too. Samuel Pepys inventoried how much his wealth had grown at the end of each calendar year; he also used his diary to make rewards contingent on good behavior, such as promising himself that he won’t kiss a woman or drink wine again until he has caught up on a pesky backlog of diary entries.

Even before Pepys, the practice of keeping a diary often involved self-monitoring. Called “heart-watching” in Quaker parlance, this tradition, also associated with seventeenth-century Puritans, was popularized by Benjamin Franklin in his Autobiography and continues to this day in the form of Bullet Journal “habit-trackers” and spiritual journals that chart each time the writer says a prayer.

But apart from the history of technology, we’ve always had clocks inside us, programmed at the molecular level and “entrained” by the seasonal changes in day-length. Our interior timekeepers try their best to optimize healthy schedules that balance eating and digestion, physical exertion and sleep.

Does a connection between mechanical clocks and the rise of the diary make it less relevant for journal-keepers to focus on the physiological cycles our bodies live through in a 24-hour period? Though Sherman does not mention circadian rhythms, I wonder if the new focus on clock-time represented an important step in separating people’s intellectual understanding of time from their bodily sensations.

Clock-time, with its accompanying (often unrealistic) expectations of productivity—not to mention external agents making ever-more-precise demands on our time—have the effect of disrupting internal rhythms. As a result, sleep scientists suggest that people’s bodies suffer from a pattern of ongoing deprivation that begins by overstimulating with caffeine to compensate for insufficient sleep, followed by self-soothing with alcohol when that accumulated caffeine makes it hard to settle down at the end of the day—only to shake off the effects of the alcohol next morning by consuming even more caffeine.

Having learned about the origins of the modern time-sense might offer us a new opportunity in the diary. Consistent with its tradition of self-monitoring, we could steer the journal in the direction of seeking a healthier balance between two competing modes of dailiness: internal bodily rhythms governed by natural cycles, and the external march of the mechanical, industrial clock.


Selecting a book

Once you’ve resolved to give your journal a tangible material form—whether handwritten or on printed-out typed pages—the next step involves choosing a book to keep it in. This decision feels momentous, though your choice can always be revisited for the next volume. As Tristine Rainer puts it in The New Diary, “The structure and design of a book can influence what and how you write in it” (14).

Of course, you can choose any style of book. But journal-keeping experts offer a few points you may want to consider:

Pre-formatted diary, or empty notebook?

You can buy themed diaries of many sorts, already printed up with dates (calendar-style, line-a-day books or five-year diaries), commercial artwork decorating each page, or workbooks of guiding questions that offer prompts for what to write.

Does it makes sense to adopt someone else’s journal “system”?  Cathy Hutchison, who developed “Your Visual Journal,” says that systems like the Bullet Journal or Intensive Journal “are the result of someone else’s trial and error. They provide scaffolding for your thoughts, so that you don’t have to invent everything yourself. For sure, you can develop your own system. But using someone else’s as training wheels while you build journaling as a practice into your life can be a big win. Besides, most of the popular ones are popular with good reason. They work.”

Their structure can create a comforting routine, and push you to develop your thoughts in directions that you might choose to go, but especially over time, pre-formatted diaries may feel restrictive, limiting the range of what you’d like to explore. “Most dated diaries,” warns Ron Klug, author of How to Keep a Spiritual Journal, “even the largest, do not provide adequate space for a thorough journal” (27).

Blank or lined pages?

Many journal-keepers reach for a book with unlined pages, allowing for the open-endedness of smaller or larger lettering to match a mood, the chance to experiment with visual sketches or cartoons, or the freedom to write short passages that each head off in different directions—sideways, diagonal—across a page. A pre-ruled notebook may work against this flexibility of design.

On the other hand, if ruled pages evoke warm memories of childhood compositions, or dot-grid pages open creative possibilities, or quadrille blocks enable experimentation, choose any format that pleases you and makes you want to write.

Type of book: Loose-leaf binder?

Ron Klug notes that a loose-leaf binder offers good flexibility, allowing you to insert, temporarily remove, and rearrange the pages. Dividers can indicate different types of entries, so you can keep several journals in one (with sections labeled as your dream journal, to-do lists, monthly summaries, etc.). If your journal is a larger size, you can fold a few pages in half to bring along for writing entries away from home.

Drawbacks of a loose-leaf book, though, may include practical challenges to keeping the whole thing together, a lost sense of chronological flow, or the too-easy temptation to discard pages you might later wish you had kept. Tristine Rainer avoids the 3-ring binder as too reminiscent of school and homework; moreover, she cautions that this format might “influence the writer to become too concerned with filing, rearranging, rewriting, and even removing pages. Too many diaries are nipped in the bud by harsh self-criticism” (18).

Or scraps in a shoebox?

While it can enrich a journal to insert notes and mementos, most experts advise writers against a diary that consists entirely of miscellaneous scraps, even if assembled and stored together in a shoebox or folder. This casual approach may encourage spontaneity and the varied types of paper will add real-life texture, but once time has passed, reconstructing a chronology and restoring completeness to the record could prove impossible.

Or a hardbound volume?

An expensive blank book could generate the feeling that what’s written on its beautiful pages should somehow measure up in formality or quality. Committing your words to pages that can’t be removed or rearranged may feel intimidating. Klug observes that high-quality bound volumes, besides the financial outlay involved, “may be so elegant that they inhibit your writing. You may be afraid to ‘mess them up’ or you may be too concerned with conserving space to write freely” (27).

For other writers, though, the pleasure of a well-crafted volume may nurture their commitment.  Numerous journal guides recount the sensory experience of browsing through the selection of fancy stationers and binderies. Amanda Hobart, having received an elegant journal as a gift from her parents, describes on the CreateWriteNow blog how she developed a regular writing practice that helped her overcome severe anxiety: “I personally found that it made a huge difference that my journal was beautiful and expensive, I treated it with more care and placed a high importance on it.”

Cathy Hutchison, of “Your Visual Journal,” encourages writers to invest in a variety of books and tools, keeping options available for different moods and times: “You shift the story you tell yourself based on the look of the journal you work in daily. If your fingers are touching quality paper and binding, that’s a different message than catching your sweater on the frayed edge of a spiral.” She argues that the journal represents an investment in yourself and your ideas, concluding that people should allow themselves to splurge on journal supplies: “What’s the pricetag on feeling like a badass?”

. . . Or spiral-bound?

Other writers swear by the virtues of a spiral notebook, which keeps all the pages together and in order, but costs far less than a bound volume. “The 79-cent therapist” is Kathleen Adams’ nickname for her journal. In her book, Journal to the Self, Adams appreciates that “they’re inexpensive and come in a rainbow of cover colors and designs. I buy them by the dozen. You may keep the notebooks intact or tear out the pages to file in a 3-ring binder” (45).

A spiral binding conveniently lies flat and–at least for right-handed people, whose writing hand doesn’t bump against the spiral—allows writing up to the inner edge of the page, something that can be difficult with a stiff sewn or glued binding.

For those who don’t like lined pages, Adams acknowledges that it’s a little harder to find blank books in a spiral format. Also, the paper quality and durability may be cheaper than what you want, if you envision keeping your journals for a long time.

What’s the ideal size?

“Smaller notebooks can be tossed in a tote bag or briefcase; larger ones are bulky to carry around,” notes Kathleen Adams. Consider whether you plan to keep your journal on the go. Christina Baldwin says, “My journal goes with me nearly everywhere. . . When I’m driving around town, it’s on the car seat beside me, waiting for a few minutes when I can catch up with my thoughts. When I fly, it’s tucked in the seat belt next to me, waiting for the tray table to be pulled down.” (Life’s Companion, 11). If you plan to carry it around and write with others present, Stephanie Dowrick mentions that you may want to look for a book whose unobtrusive appearance “won’t attract others’ curiosity” (Creative Journal Writing, 55).

Ron Klug prefers a larger book: “I don’t generally carry my journal around unless I’m on a vacation or a trip” (28). If you write mostly at home, a large page may appeal, as it offers a wider canvas on which to compose. But Klug doesn’t turn off the journal-writing even when the book itself is not at hand: “If I have some idea or quotation I want to capture while I’m away from home, I jot it on some scrap of paper and later transfer it into my journal” (28).

Looking over past journals, Stephanie Dowrick sees that “most of my journals have inserted pages that I have scribbled when I have had some spare moments, old envelopes with notes, postcards, tickets, and other very precious memorabilia placed between pages. If I have a ‘journal-writing moment’ when I am far from my journal, I certainly don’t want to waste it” (57).


Above all, when selecting your journal make it a priority to choose a book that appeals to your senses and encourages you to write. Looking at the book’s cover design, the texture of the paper, and your writing instruments should lift your spirits and put you into a writing mood. “When I pick it up and feel it in my hands,” says Tristine Rainer of her journal, “I immediately feel anchored, centered, at home” (18).

Some journal-keepers decorate a plain book to individualize it, perhaps selecting a picture or photograph to place on the front cover. Fold-out pages can be inserted, or the book’s inside covers can be personalized with stickers or inked designs. Christina Baldwin, in One to One, encourages journal-keepers to “create a form uniquely our own. Beginning a journal or starting a new volume is an excuse to indulge yourself a little . . . This is not about getting fancy or expensive; it’s about creating a pleasurable link to the object you’re writing in” (30).