Author Archives: Paula Vene Smith

Journal method #6: Snippets & scraps

Readers savor the collection of miscellaneous odds and ends that form the collage of the diary. We expect a diary entry to travel freely across the writer’s thoughts, without regard to logical or grammatical transitions.

If you’ve been writing long discursive entries, consider breaking it up:  Do several different things on the same page, and don’t even try to connect the series. Give voice to a brief expression, leave some blank space, and move on.

A single image, a succinct comment, a quick recap of a recent incident, a rapidly sketched verbal portrait of someone you met or saw today, a check-in with your physical body, a flashback to the hour before dawn when you woke during the thunderstorm, the salient question on your mind—you can give a moment of attention to each little piece as you inscribe them, one after another, in your journal.

For this method, aim to keep each burst of writing energy brief and self-contained. The jottings may vary in length from a handful of words to a couple of sentences. Fill a page, attending with fresh attention to the vitality and sharpness of each piece.

Don’t confuse this method with an exercise in automatic writing or freewriting that requires you to keep the pen moving without lifting it from the page as you pour out an unedited stream of consciousness. Rather, while forming these scraps take all the time you want to pause and consider what the scrap will include, to think about your wording and the shape of a phrase. Sentence fragments may feel right for some of the bits and pieces, while others will tend to speak themselves in sentences.

Possibly a few of the scraps will consist of material other than words. Your exercise in miscellany may open space to sketch a small picture, set down a line of music, or tape a preserved memento like a ticket stub, pressed leaf, recipe, or news clipping, on the page.

If you go about it mindfully and clearly, setting down each scrap as it occurs to you, a fuller picture made up of these disparate pieces may later emerge, revealing connections traced by your imagination and memory as you wrote. Such patterns become visible only with time. Virginia Woolf refers to this process in the well-known passage where she describes the ideal diary as

some deep old desk or capacious hold-all, in which one flings a mass of odds and ends without looking them through. I should like to come back, after a year or two, and find that the collection had sorted itself and refined itself and coalesced, as such deposits so mysteriously do, into a mould, transparent enough to reflect the light of our life, and yet steady, tranquil compounds with the aloofness of a work of art. The main requisite, I think, on reading my old volumes, is not to play the part of a censor, but to write as the mood comes or of anything whatever; since I was curious to find how I went for things put in haphazard, and found the significance to lie where I never saw it at the time. (Diary, April 20, 1919)

When vignettes stand out separately on a diary page, we think of the most highly condensed literary forms: the haiku, aphorism, imagist poem, couplet, or epigram. Maybe your own scraps will assume one or more of these shapes—or maybe your own favorite examples will weave themselves in among your own writing as quotation and counterpoint, in the age-old tradition of the “commonplace book,” a diary that consisted entirely of other people’s words.

 124 total views

Journal method #5: Shaping a day

Maybe you don’t keep a daily diary, and even take pride in how your journal cultivates an elastic sense of time: an open-ended approach that lets you focus on the immediate moment of writing, venture back to reflect on significant incidents in the past, or list the current ongoing circumstances in your life. Yet despite its marvelous flexibility to travel across minutes, weeks, or years, any journal or diary, at the very root of its name, retains a privileged connection to one well-defined span of time: the day.

You can honor the form’s tradition of dailiness by choosing to dedicate the occasional entry to a detailed sketch or portrait of your day. Tristine Rainer, in The New Diary (Updated for the 21st Century) makes the point that you gain the greatest benefit from this type of entry “if you have time to expand it as fully as possible, to push beyond an outline of the day’s activities” in order to dwell on the nuances, sensory textures, and highlights of insight or emotion that defined the shape of this 24-hour period.

Rainer acknowledges that a full chronicle of every day “could become exhausting and dull.” But if practiced “occasionally,” she asserts that “a complete record of the day will give you a sense of the complex, detailed fabric of your life” (27).

To enhance the challenge, instead of spelling out or labeling your emotional state(s), you could try allowing your feelings to seep through the vocabulary and phrasing that describe the day. The tone of selected words, the entry’s pace and rhythm, explanations of context, commentary, which aspects of the day you choose to focus on and how you arrange them—all these elements of apparently objective description will reveal your mood and interior life.

Equally accomplished as novelist and diarist, Virginia Woolf understood how thoroughly perception shapes experience. As she wrote in her 1919 essay, “Modern Fiction,”

Examine for a moment an ordinary mind on an ordinary day. The mind receives a myriad impressions—trivial, fantastic, evanescent, or engraved with the sharpness of steel. From all sides they come, an incessant shower of innumerable atoms; and as they fall, as they shape themselves into the life of Monday or Tuesday.

In this passage Woolf implies that we can use our “ordinary” minds to view every “ordinary” day as not just unique but extraordinary—as offering a treasury of sensations, ideas, perceptions, reactions, interactions, and feelings that may strike you as momentary or entrenched. Unless the day is extraordinarily bad—perhaps muffled in unbearable strain or grief that places caring for yourself above working in the journal—you can practice uncovering the day’s richness in all that it presents.

Followed through from dawn to dusk, from the shrill of a morning alarm to the ritual of settling in at bedtime, whether the day marks itself in hours, in scheduled and unscheduled events, encounters with other people, mealtimes, pastimes, or outings—the full description of its turning-points, its ebb and flow of energies, will do more than illuminate just that one day. Looking back at the entry will tell you more than reviewing a page in an old calendar. You’ll perceive again what life felt like, and survey all that you received and responded to during this time.

Samuel Pepys typically began his diary entries with the phrase “Up betimes” and ended with, “and so to bed.” This formula of daily rising and retiring would predict a chronicle of an ordinary person’s activities over many thousands of mostly ordinary days. But if you can write about your days with the vitality and enthusiasm that Pepys brought to the task, maybe people will be reading your diary almost four centuries from now.

 64 total views

Journal method #4: Loosen the bounds–work outside the book

Some journal prompts bring up a strong feeling of resistance. Why? For me, it’s the loose and sloppy ideas, like free-writing for 20 minutes without ever lifting your hand from the page, experimenting with the pen held in your non-dominant hand (reviving the awkward stage of learning to write), or scripting a dialogue between yourself and some imagined entity, such as a person who once wronged you, a spiritual wisdom figure, or your own body.

I recognize that formal experiments generate material you wouldn’t get otherwise. They make you loosen up and try something fresh, even risky, in your journal. Like anyone, I feel tempted to see what may emerge from my subconscious mind if I try such methods.

But when I imagine those “loosening up” activities on the page of my journal, I come up against something I am reluctant to admit: I view my journal as not just a process, but a product.

I know. Most schools of journal-writing caution us against holding our journal to any standard. In a journal, they say, “anything goes.” You can’t do it wrong. The journal creates a place of freedom from our inner critic, release from the perfectionism that too often creeps into our writing.

Besides, to see journal-writing as pure process feels therapeutic. A free and open-ended diary offers great value in helping to sort out ideas and feelings. The practice of writing a journal settles the mind, and often brings new clarity to a confusing situation. I’ve found every one of these claims borne out in my own experience. But . . . that’s not all I want from my journal.

I want to go back and read the journal someday. Maybe others will read it too. And speaking for myself as future reader, I don’t relish the prospect of wading through illegible pages poured out in a rush as the stopwatch ticked away. I don’t want to revisit those embarrassing efforts to speak in the voice of my body or of my nemesis. I don’t want, in a word, to cringe.

Fortunately, I have a solution. Turns out you can have it both ways. How? Simple but radical: You can engage in journal-writing that doesn’t end up in the book.

When a journal-keeping prompt gives you that doubtful feeling, yet you can’t keep from wondering what the process might reveal, take up a loose sheet of paper, and get down to writing on it. That piece of paper may end up getting inserted into your journal as an entry, or it may get filed in a folder that feeds other writing projects—or it may end up in the trash. Even if you crumple and discard the page, you’ll know something you didn’t know before.

Maybe in your journal, you’ll reflect on the insights gained from writing in this undisciplined manner, this cheesy format or this kooky style. If it opened your mind and widened your perspective, the investment has paid off. At the same time, you don’t need to preserve something that was never intended as a product. Developing a skillful and versatile style for your journal may entail some detours that boost stylistic experimentation and personal growth, but these don’t have to become part of the journal that lives on into the future.

 96 total views

When did this stage of your life begin?

Everyday activities have altered across the world. What we called ordinary life feels entirely different from our lives before. On social media we see that increasing numbers of people, confined to their homes, imagine starting a diary. Reduced options for human contact and social connection add appeal to the companionship of a journal. Diary literature features prominent examples of diaries kept by convalescents, prisoners, or people on solitary retreats.

As effects of pandemic touch people everywhere, the present moment also feels historic, producing even greater reasons to track their lives in a journal. Both lifelong journal-keepers and people who never kept a diary before now find themselves wanting to open a blank book and write pages about how life has changed.

You, too, may have had this passing thought, then grew unsure about following through. Maybe you dismissed the idea, telling yourself that surely there will be a glut of such diaries. What could yours add?

Besides, the coronavirus era is no longer news. After a month of staying home, isn’t it a little late to start a diary about what that feels like? Shouldn’t I have started writing on the day when I first heard of the virus, or back when we still went out in groups and everyone in public was overheard talking about it, or maybe that first day we spent entirely at home? Surely the moment for starting a journal has passed.

But the diary offers remarkably flexible ways to handle time, and one of these could help you now. Ira Progoff, who devised a system called the Intensive Journal, understood that people don’t want to write only about today. “The Now of our life,” he wrote, includes “the most recent relevant past.” To examine how we got here, to see our lives in larger context, we need to “expand the present” and develop journal entries that ask more broadly: What is this present period in my life? How far back does it reach? What have been the main characteristics of this recent time?

Progoff recommends sitting quietly to consider at what point the “Now” of your life began: “We stretch the present moment back as far as it needs to go in order to include as much of the past as is still an active part of the present. . . This forms the period that is the Now of our lives, our most recent relevant past as it moves into our present. “ Citing examples like a move to a different city, starting a new job, undergoing an illness, or starting an important relationship—“since that time,” he explains, your “life has borne the imprint of that event, and it, therefore, is the definitive factor in this present period.”

Your new journal, in other words, can open with an entry that reflects on the present period, that explores the elastic Now. As you look back, when did you realize that life had changed, that your freedom of movement and contact with other people would suffer restriction, that all future events on the pages of your calendar had evaporated, that you would need to figure out how to cope?

Whether your Now arrived by way of subtle shifts and adjustments or in one single intense moment that showed the curtain rising on a new act, the story behind your current reality may take more than one writing session to record. Go ahead and weave into this account of the recent past some details of what happened today, bits of what you notice around you in the here-and-now, even while you write.

The concept of an elastic Now enables you to explore earlier life-stages as well. Progoff calls these stages “stepping stones” and we will leave them for a future discussion. For now, if you want to catch up on diary-keeping in a new and unaccustomed time, borrow his method to pull the recent past into the pages of a new journal.

 233 total views,  1 views today

Journal for the seasons: Spring

Even in quiet years we tend to overlook the equinox, that halfway mark on the path between two annual extremes. Even if we didn’t find ourselves clumsily surfing, as we do now, on momentous waves of disruption and instability, who pays attention to such a subtle gateway into the new season, delicate balancing-point of day and night?

This year uncertainty abounds in our work lives and families. Event plans, travel plans, social plans, and everyday activities face new restrictions and complications with every scrolling headline. Livelihoods and lives are threatened—grim prospects bound to affect real people we care about, even if for now we still absorb the news impersonally, through onscreen charts and graphs.

So what about the inconsequential arrival of spring? We still receive public-health advice to spend time outdoors, perambulate, greet neighbors and their leashed dogs from a prudent six-foot distance. A friend on a bicycle called out, “making our own gym!” yesterday as she rode by. (Indoor exercise facilities had closed less than an hour earlier, not to re-open for the foreseeable future.)

Yesterday, too, Middle Way Farm, located just north of town, announced the year’s first outdoor planting of vegetable seeds—snap peas. “Farm work,” Jordan posted, “is continuing relatively uninterrupted despite how every other part of life has been disrupted. I’m trying to take solace in the work and the steady coming of spring but it’s still hard.”

In personal journals, as on the farm, a rhythm develops between unpredictable events with heightened impact and the familiar cycles we count on—night following day, spring following winter. Long-time journal keepers can look back to see what happened on this day three years ago, or ten. The first seedlings in a bare field, the first redwing blackbird, or the first rain instead of snow might, depending where you live, serve as expected signs of spring.

Right now, as journal-keepers discuss (protected by the safe distance of online platforms) a revival of the “plague diary” tradition—in which people record how their lives are disrupted by threats of contagion and enforced isolation—we’re also encouraged, if we can, to go outdoors, to spend time in fresh air and take in the natural landscape. In a healing way, the journal can weave together what endures and what changes.

And so, though many people will notice this only on a subliminal level, one of the most disquieting aspects of global heating (climate crisis) must involve the alteration of long-established cycles of phenology. For as long as we can, let’s note local details of recurrent renewal even as we mark the ways that everyday interactions, family life, and how we make a living assume a stark new form.

Some habits we’re forced to adopt could recede in the next weeks and months while others persist into the future. Journal-keepers understand this: The diary never knows what comes next. While writing today’s entry we can’t discern what common practices we may be giving up forever, what inconveniences will affect us for merely a week or two, and what all this change means for the long-term. We couldn’t tell back in September 2001, could we, what aspects of ordinary life would alter only briefly and what changes would persist 20 years later?

A well-kept journal reflects large-scale cultural shifts more accurately and vividly than a completed narrative. Writers who already know the outcome will tend to distort the keen sensation of uncertainly—the luxury of retrospect lets them correct misplaced assumptions, point to hints missed at the time, and minimize fears that turned out to be unwarranted. But journals capture a big transformation in the very act of hitting a household, a workplace, or a neighborhood.

Respect the equinox, this moment of balance poised between. From where you are, reflect on the seismic tides of change moving through our lives, accepting that we simply don’t have a long, settled perspective. If you aren’t one of those presently caught up on the front lines, unable to take time to write, make it your gift to preserve an authentic uncertainty viewed from the present vantage-point. Open up a personal journal. The words you write today may contribute, eventually, to forging sense out of this year’s chaotic season.

 250 total views,  1 views today

Exploring states of mind

Having freed the journal from dwelling entirely in negativity or else entertaining only positive thoughts, a writer may want to move beyond the polarity of gloom versus cheer, exploring the spectrum of interior modes that a journal can reflect.

Neuropsychologists, sleep researchers, applied psychologists, and theorists have recently produced books on studies that show how mental states shape perceptions of time and the body. Evidence extends beyond well-known examples—how time drags when you feel bored, or the fun that makes “time fly”—to far less-common states: moments of acute danger, hallucinogenic trips, sensory-deprivation studies, hypnosis, and even accounts of near-death experiences. These books discuss states of altered consciousness from lucid dreaming, mindful meditation, and intoxication to religious visions and rhythm-induced trance states.

As a mind moves through different states, the flow of a diary adopts shifting views of place, time, and the body. While these recent books on altered consciousness rarely mention diaries, it seems reasonable to imagine that temporal perceptions and physical feelings described on the pages of a diary may respond in part to alterations in the mental state of the writer.

States of consciousness don’t confine themselves to the brain; they infiltrate the physical experience of the whole self. As a normal part of dreaming, for example, the body enters a state akin to paralysis, deprived of ability to get up and move. Though weird to contemplate, this immobility serves a useful function; its disorder can lead to sleepwalking and related somnambulatory behaviors. To give two other common examples, both an inebriated condition and the fever that accompanies an illness may affect multiple sensory perceptions and produce symptoms that one feels throughout the body.

Extreme states of altered consciousness hardly lend themselves to the activity of writing in a journal—though people who experience them may resolve in the moment to remember as much as possible and to record these experiences in their journals when able to do so. Points of heightened intensity “recollected in tranquility” (to use Wordsworth’s phrase), like the panic of a near-accident unfolding in slow motion, vivid dreams or unexplained apparitions, a vision of transport or insight arising in meditation or while listening to music—each can get absorbed into the pages of a journal.

Taking advantage of common, everyday fluctuations in mood and energy, you could begin to experiment by deliberately writing entries while in different mental states. To vary the quantity of light, ambient temperatures, and other environmental conditions that bring new sensations, seek out new times and places in which to write. Write one entry in a burst of emotional energy, another when energy feels flattened out and time seems to move at a slow pace.

Write after a glass of wine or a cup of coffee (if such lie within your habits); write at the glimmering borderline between dreams and waking, or when listening to music that powerfully affects you. Some time when you aren’t feeling well, write in the diary. Another time when you feel too restless to settle, write an entry. Daydreaming, musing, mind-wandering states will produce diary entries quite different from what you write while in your focused and pragmatic planning mode.

Who knows what you’ll learn from these explorations? Whatever direction they take, you’re bound to widen your practice by incorporating new sensory perceptions. Not until afterward, when you look back, can you see whether a certain mental state left an imprint on the pages of your journal.

 258 total views,  1 views today

Your diary in history

In the midst of reading a diary from long ago, pause. Take a moment to imagine your own future readers—readers who will never meet you, but who will know you from your diary.

Does it make sense to keep a journal for someone fifty years from now, or in the next century? What would a 2075 historian look for in your diary?

Original diaries, even from the recent past, do serve as primary sources for research. And historians working with them occasionally express a wish that the diarist had included more information on certain topics, or had ventured personal opinions beyond just factually recounting events of the day.

Laurel Thatcher Ulrich chronicles the life of Martha Ballard in A Midwife’s Tale (1990), probably the most acclaimed work of American history ever based on a diary. Refusing to be daunted by mentors who warned her that she would find Ballard’s diary dull and scant on historical significance, Ulrich used contextual material and nuanced interpretation to write a Pulitzer-Prize-winning book that illuminates much about life in a Maine seaport town at the turn of the 19th century.

In her introduction to A Midwife’s Tale Ulrich admits that “one might wish for more detail [in the diary], for more open expressions of opinion, fuller accounts of medical remedies or obstetrical complications, more candor in describing physicians or judges, and less circumspection in recording scandal, yet for all its reticence, Martha’s diary is an unparalleled document in early American history. It is powerful in part because it is so difficult to use, so unyielding in its dailiness.” (33)

This historian’s wish indirectly offers an idea that today’s diarists might use as a road map: While future readers could appreciate the dailiness of our diaries, perhaps we could shape a life-record (and a future historical source) of heightened value. So, if we take the advice implied in Ulrich’s words, let’s make sure to incorporate explicit details about our everyday activities, candidly appraise any person in a role of authority (or fame) with whom we interact, elaborate fully on any local scandals we witness or hear about, and above all, hold forth with personal opinions on issues of the day.

Historians are cautious, though, in offering advice to diarists. With the advent of digital information storage and electronic communications, the landscape of publicly visible personal data has wildly proliferated since people in the 1790’s, or the 1970’s, kept their diaries. Far from making a trek to study the rare diary found in an attic or an archive, historians who study life in the 21st century will instead feel assaulted by tsunamis of personal information. They’ll have records of people’s purchases, tastes in entertainment, social media, political preferences, countless photos, emails, and storage folders filled with miscellaneous documents. Far more data about ourselves will live on in the contours of our electronic footprint than we could ever hope to inscribe in our diaries.

Does this mean future historians will ignore diaries? Or can diaries preserve knowledge or perspective that risks being lost among the digital ephemera, the sum of all the clicks made on our keyboards?

Historians I’ve consulted point to the reflective and (at least temporarily) private nature of traditional diaries as offering something different from raw data or even a series of public posts. Personae on social media value the instant, the first impression, the snapshot, the race to relay gossip or make a clever quip before someone else gets there first.

While sharing this acuity of perception and sense of “now,” journal-keepers take time to process an experience before sharing. Difficult thoughts and trade-offs leading up a big life decision may get recorded in a journal, while only the concrete outcome of the decision (the soft-focus photo of engagement rings, the invoice of a purchase) survives in the electronic record. This difference suggests that, as a diary keeper, one way to make your pages valuable to future readers may involve chronicling the gradual shifts in social, cultural, ideological, and linguistic evolutions currently underway.

Diarists have the chance to open a unique window into their historical age. I can plot tiny local points on the vast arc of change simply by noting “what’s new”—the arrival of the latest gadgets, trends, pastimes, customs, attitudes, role expectations, and even spoken expressions that weave their way into the everyday world of my workplace, my social groups, my neighborhood. What casual conversations did I have today, and what did they reveal?

A classic diary exercise involves making two lists: “What’s currently receding, coming to an end, a waning influence on my life?” and “What new thing appears now on the horizon, enters my life, calls out for attention?” Applying these questions on a scale just beyond the personal, you can speak directly to readers of the future, addressing their curiosity about what just arrived today in your community and beyond.

 255 total views,  2 views today

Journal for the seasons: Winter

During this season, time extends for hours after the sun has disappeared and before it’s time to go to bed. After an evening walk in the cold to experience the blue glow of moonlight on fallen snow, the perfect time sets in for journal writing.

A swirl of traditions, some widespread across cultures and others unique to your family, gather around the winter season. In a journal, this time works well for considering how a cycle may pause at its deepest, darkest point before turning to move steadily toward the light. Many winter holiday traditions focus on that image of solstice as a signal of change and hope.

The annual repetition of rituals and customs can also draw attention to powerful changes that have taken place between the past and now. This time around, more of us are gathered in the house to hail the special day–or maybe fewer.  Someone is missing who formed an important part of the festivities in years past. A dear new arrival is celebrating with us for the first time. That changing presence in the house, whether waxing or waning, brings a snow-drift surge of reflections and feelings that may find their way into your journal.

Late December also marks the turn of a calendar year. The most popular time to begin a new journal or start a new volume is January 1.

So when the chill and darkness bring on a sense of isolation, or when the brightly colored bustle, noise, and pressure of social expectations begin to overwhelm, think of the people who sit in many different locations but share in the same community, each one writing a new year’s date at the top of a new year’s first entry. The group includes curious newcomers taking up a blank notebook for the first time and experienced journal-writers committing to renew their practice for yet another not-yet-explored, still-in-the-future year.  Join us!

 343 total views

Obama “goes high” with new journal

This column was published Dec 2, 2019 in The Washington Post’s “Made by History” section:

How Michelle Obama ‘goes high’ in the new Becoming journal

By Paula Vene Smith

Paula Vene Smith is a professor of English at Grinnell College and author of “Engaging Risk: A Guide for College Leaders.”

Dec. 2, 2019 at 5:00 a.m. CST

In November, Michelle Obama released a companion volume to her best-selling memoir, “Becoming: A Guided Journal for Discovering Your Voice.”

The new book is inspired by Obama’s discovery of a diary she had kept 20 years earlier. We got a glimpse of this diary in her memoir when she shared a passage from its opening entry, which explains why she decided to put pen to paper. “One, I feel very confused about where I want my life to go. What kind of person do I want to be? How do I want to contribute to the world? Two, I am getting very serious in my relationship with Barack and I feel that I want to get a better handle on myself.”

This is all we know about the content of her own diary. But Obama bases her guided journal on the same two purposes: framing one’s life story and preparing for activism. As readers make their way through the workbook, alongside standard personal prompts such as, “How does nature nourish you?” or “Write about a favorite photo,” they are asked new questions that seem simple, but that push toward ideas of justice, inequality and change: “Where did your ancestors come from and what challenges did they face?” “How do you connect with your community?” “What changes — whether on a local, national, or global level — do you wish to see?” “How do you bring your own history, culture, and experiences into spaces where they never existed?” “Have you ever considered taking on a leadership role?”

Like influential figures before her, Obama is paving the way for a new trend in personal writing that could have powerful reverberations for inspiring awareness and action both today and in the future.

Since its earliest appearance in English letters, the diary as a form of writing has continually adjusted itself to the cultural moment. But the diary has also produced examples in each generation that go against the grain. Such diaries have influenced the moment by using this flexible, easily overlooked genre in ways that challenge how contemporaries understand the world around them. Today, extending a project that began with her memoir, Obama is joining that tradition.

When the practice of journal writing first gained popularity, as Alexandra Johnson relates in “A Brief History of Diaries,” most examples followed a Puritan tradition that “stressed conscience and confession.” While myriad Londoners maintained somber records of spiritual self-examination, Samuel Pepys exuberantly took the opposite direction, conjuring up his own “portrait of seventeenth century life, both as participant and spectator.”

Calling up vivid details and a flair for storytelling, Pepys chronicled his marital strife and serial infidelities, shared his enjoyment of favorite foods and music, made sure to total up his net worth on the last day of each year and dished on what he heard and saw of political intrigue at the court of Charles II. Pepys made sure that his secret diary was preserved for posterity, but it wasn’t decoded and published until 1825 — and for a long time afterward, editions of the published book omitted many of its salacious details. Even today, Pepys’s diary remains among the most famous and frequently cited examples of the genre.

One notable reader inspired by Pepys was Virginia Woolf. She, too, challenged the prevalent model for diary-keeping in her time. Woolf developed an approach that veered dramatically from “the current vogue for confessional and lengthy intimate reminiscence.” Woolf noted how her friends treated their diaries as receptacles for their thoughts and feelings: “I haven’t an inner life,” she declared, and used her diary instead as a space to practice experiments in style.

Scholars of Woolf’s work, notably Barbara Lounsberry, have traced her use of the diary form through her career, connecting it with her development as a major modernist writer. Lounsberry’s three-volume study of “Virginia Woolf’s Diaries and the Diaries She Read” makes it clear that even as she steeped herself in the diary tradition, Woolf took the form in new directions and established a path for those who came after her. If the diary can be regarded as a serious literary endeavor, this is largely thanks to Woolf.

Throughout the 20th century, the diary form continued to adapt to cultural demands and, at times, to challenge norms. Religious diaries are more likely now to inspire and affirm faith than to confess and tally sins. Varied uses of journal-keeping to boost mental and emotional health have evolved in tandem with the advent of each new school of psychotherapy.

But diary-keepers with heightened respect for the powers of language are most likely to take the form in unexpected directions. Recently the poet Harryette Mullen published “Urban Tumbleweed: Notes From a Tanka Diary” based on an assignment she gave herself for one year. She took a walk outdoors each day and wrote a short poem about nature as encountered in a California city. The image of “urban tumbleweed” refers to wind-buffeted plastic bags.

Mullen’s work reveals how diverse journal-keeping has become, as people look for different forms to prompt and shape a sequence of daily entries.

That search has created a market for journal workbooks and how-to books about diary-keeping, as readers actively look for guidance. Obama’s new book provides such a model.

But she is also the latest writer to go against the grain, as her book challenges two dominant models that have emerged in recent years: the bullet journal and the gratitude journal.

Ryder Carroll’s bullet journal swept the Internet in 2013 as a new system for productivity and personal organizing. Incorporating to-do lists, calendars, planning charts and habit trackers, a host of online bullet journals try to outdo each other in artistry as users display their skill in calligraphy, ornamental borders and creative page layouts.

Improved efficiency, progress toward fitness and professional goals and ramped-up productivity dominate the world of the bullet journal. The gratitude journal, on the other hand, requires listing and appreciating the abundance of reasons one has to feel joy and comfort.

But there is one strong similarity between the bullet journal and the gratitude journal: Both focus on the writer’s personal satisfaction. The bullet journal helps get you organized, and the gratitude journal makes you feel better about how life already is.

It is this focus that Obama is challenging with “Becoming: A Guided Journal.” Her book encourages readers to identify key turning points in their life stories and to make their stories serve a larger purpose. The focus is not just on the self but also on social change. With this bold invitation to rethink the journal’s purpose, Obama joins a tradition of challenging what most people are doing in their diaries. She brings the political message of going high to her readers on a personal level, exhorting them to think beyond themselves. If it works, the activist journal could be the next trend in the centuries-long tradition of reflecting on one’s own life in a diary.

 

 482 total views

One-sided

My sister Rosemary once told me about a journal she kept during her teen years. It served an important purpose. She could turn to this journal whenever she felt unhappy, and it would always provide a listening ear. Rosemary recalls, “I think that writing the journal became less important when I had a person with whom to share hopes and fears, or maybe when I became happier in my own skin. I remember that during those HS and early college years I was quite lonely.”

Writing in low spirits, telling the journal her woes, helped her to work through a difficult time, and this aspect was appreciated. But I was struck by what Rosemary said next: When she looked back at these journals, the picture of her life was distorted as a result of writing only when her spirits were low. This journal focused on pain: days that were tough to get through, weeks when she felt unsteady or overwhelmed. Rosemary had other memories to assure her that life as a whole hadn’t been grim or despondent—but unfortunately, that’s how it came across in her journal.

She adds, “It’s difficult to reflect back on that time–either I’ve forgotten the specific events or I only see it as one long period of growing up and figuring out how to speak for myself.”

Since then, other friends have relayed a similar story. They’ll acknowledge having kept a journal which, like Rosemary’s, served a helpful role at an important stage. But as they produced (and read over) page after page of sadness and dissatisfaction, the cumulative weight of negative emotion eventually sank the ship of the journal.

Whether or not they discarded the book and its memories, they certainly stopped writing in it. Rosemary has kept her journals, considering them a part of her life, but she continues to mull over the decision of when will be the right time to go back and read them through from beginning to end.

At the far end of the spectrum from this type of journal is the currently popular practice of the gratitude journal. Responding to prompts in a commercially published workbook or writing in a blank book, people are encouraged to make entries every day noting the abundance and joy discovered in their lives. This type of journal, filled with affirmation and positive images, can comfort the writer who looks back through it. The practice offers a reminder of the good things in life, commemorating all that we appreciate and feel thankful for.

But this approach, too, presents a one-sided picture. Instead of recording the current stage in the writer’s life, a gratitude journal tends to omit what’s not going well—unless the problem can be framed as “actually a blessing” or “a challenge that will test me and make me stronger.”

A one-sided journal can serve its purpose, whether to channel negative emotions in a way that helps the writer feel better, or to bank positive thoughts for a needed surge in emotional well-being. In either case, to guard against a misleading later impression for yourself or other potential readers, a simple solution is to label the book with a title page that clarifies—in whatever phrase resonates best for you—whether it’s intended as a storage place for negative or positive energy.

How might a journal-keeper gain the same emotional benefits while building a more balanced picture of the present chapter in their life? Such a challenge may entail less effort than it appears. I remember a stage in my career when I was working so hard that I simply couldn’t find time to write in a journal. Even so, I felt a strong need to check in with my life at least every day or two.

Driven by necessity, I devised a system that would take just a couple of minutes. I abandoned the idea of writing whole pages or even full sentences. Instead, I sketched out two rough columns on the page, one with a “+” sign and the other a “-“ sign. Under the “plus” and “minus” headings, I rapidly jotted brief phrases to summarize what I felt especially good about on that day and what in my life was creating stress, anxiety, or disappointment.

One immediate result was to discover, in clear visual form, that my “plus” list on a given day generally was longer than the “minus” one. Just seeing that pattern already made a difference and helped me get through the upcoming days with their new challenges.

Consider, then, the multiplicity of human mental states—more complex dimensions than simply a polarized “good mood” versus “bad mood”—each of which could frame a journal entry in interesting ways.

So why not take a look at your own journal? First determine whether it leans positive or negative, play with restoring a clearer balance, and weigh the benefits of a journal that concentrates a single type of emotional energy versus one that widens to encompass your many states of mind.

 460 total views