Author Archives: Paula Vene Smith

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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

 

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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.

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Michelle Obama’s journal

Sarah L.Voisin/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Just in time for winter holiday giving, journal-keepers and their friends can look forward to the release on November 19 of a new guided journal created by Michelle Obama.

The publisher, Penguin Random House, bills the new book as a companion to her recent bestselling memoir. The journal is said to be packed with “more than 150 inspiring questions and quotes that resonate with key themes in Mrs. Obama’s memoir and that are designed to help readers reflect on their personal and family history, their goals, challenges, and dreams, what moves them and brings them hope, and what future they imagine for themselves and their community.”

As a companion volume, the journal book echoes the memoir’s title Belonging and adds the explanatory subtitle “a guided journal for discovering your voice.” As cited by People magazine, Michelle Obama describes her own, brief experience with journal keeping in the book’s Introduction:

“I’d only kept a journal for a short period of my life, for a couple of years during my late twenties as I was getting more serious with Barack and contemplating a new career. It was a tumultuous time filled with change, and I found that dedicating time to writing my thoughts down helped me navigate all the transitions. Then I put it away and didn’t pick it up again until I began writing my memoir. Instantly, I was transported back to that earlier version of myself, with all the warmth, heartbreak, and frustration flooding in.

“The experience left me asking myself, ‘Why didn’t I journal more?’ The answer, like for so many of you, I’m sure, was that I simply got busy. I switched careers. I got married. I had children. Somewhere along the line, I ended up in ball gowns at the White House, however that happened.

“Looking back, I wish I’d taken more time to write down what I was thinking and feeling. I didn’t journal much because I talked myself out of it—journaling can feel a little intimidating and layered with implication, the idea being that once you put pen to paper, your thoughts have extra weight and meaning.

“What I recognize now, though, is far more simple: We don’t have to remember everything. But everything we remember has value.’ “

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Dashing

Diary writers have an affinity for the dash, a fluid and flexible punctuation mark used to propel spontaneous writing forward.  Hinged on a dash, the sentence pauses before starting to swing in another direction. Or a voice momentarily interrupts itself, cutting off an unfinished thought to launch a new idea.

Physically, when writing by hand, a dash is quickly accomplished by scooting a horizontal mark across the page, even before figuring out whether you’re ending a sentence there or planning to extend the same sentence in your next phrase.

Consider how Frances Burney writes in her diary, upon learning that the great Dr. Samuel Johnson has praised her first novel, Evelina: “But Dr. Johnson’s approbation!—It almost crazed me with agreeable surprise—it gave me such a flight of spirits that I danced a jig to Mr. Crisp, Without any preparation, music, or explanation;—to his no small amazement and diversion” (August 3, 1778).

According to Anna Jackson, who devotes a full chapter of her book Diary Poetics to the dash, a dash-filled passage conveys the sense of prose flowing at a rapid pace. With a series of dashes, the writer may easily leap from one idea or item to the next without having to explain the connection or insert a logical transition. The resulting series of images or details can pile up into a list, strung together into an indefinitely long series.

The relationship among items on a list separated by dashes doesn’t need to be spelled out. If each new diary entry starts afresh, juxtaposed to the last entry but holding no expectation that it must refer back to what was said before, a sentence containing dashes does the same thing on a smaller scale, mirroring in miniature the diary’s formal parataxis.

Especially when combined with exclamation points or question marks, a habit of using the dash can produce an effect more like natural speech than like formal prose. Before completing one thought, the dash leaves off to take up a new idea, as in conversation with a close friend, where mutual understanding makes explanations unnecessary.

In this casual mode, the dash can suggest that we’re following the writer’s thought process in real time. Dashes imitate a mind at work, as each phrase seems to prompt the next by association or proximity. Sometimes the dash is followed by a correction or comment on what went before, or it prefaces the discovery of what Jackson calls “the perfectly chosen word” to crystallize what the diarist has, up till this moment, been attempting to say.

As for mood, depending on the subject matter a profusion of dashes may convey a sense of agitation and lack of focus—or conversely, the dash could create a deliberate pause or gap, to slow things down where normal syntax would shove the message onward. As an example, Anna Jackson cites the reflective and delicate mastery of this punctuation mark in Emily Dickinson’s poems “to open up an interior, emotional space” (121). Whether that space in a Dickinson poem holds reflection open at the end of a line or inserts a gap in the middle of a line, it compels the reader to pause for a moment and think (or feel) before going on.

Because a dash, like taking a breath, can be followed by almost anything, it seems (again, like the diary itself) to resist finality and closure. Toward the end of her chapter on the dash, Anna Jackson suggests that these moments point toward what can’t be contained, and so befit themes and material that exceed what the writer is able to express. In this sense, the dash gestures toward the limits of language.

Katherine Mansfield recalls seeing a foaming wave “suspended in the air before it fell” and writes: “In that moment (what do I mean?) the whole life of the soul is contained. One is flung up—out of life—one is ‘held,’ and then,—down, bright, broken, glittering onto the rocks, tossed back, part of the ebb and flow” (Journal, p. 150).

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Journal for the seasons: autumn

On this day of the equinox, we find insight in an essay by Maria Popova, who writes on many topics in her online column, “Brain Pickings.” Popova describes autumn as the season most difficult to pin down, a time that can seem “temperate” as easily as it becomes “tempestuous”—a season often associated with the approach of winter and a process of inevitable loss, decline, and decay, while at the same time celebrating the abundance, ripeness, and fruition of yearly harvest.

The changing length of days continues to provide the most predictive cues for many organisms that adjust their physiology or behavior in accordance for the timing of vital activities like migration, reproduction, or hibernation. Days grow shorter during the entire time between summer solstice and midwinter; today we have reached the midpoint, the balance. How do the extending hours of darkness and the ever-scarcer hours of daylight affect patterns in your own day-to-day, journal-keeping life?

Maybe it’s easier to sleep on cooler nights, or harder to get up when the sun hasn’t finished rising. David Glaser, director of the Science Gallery at King’s College London, writes that many animals “become frisky in spring and hibernate over the winter.” Does time feel deeper or slower at this time of year? For many plants and creatures, “sensors of various kinds nudge [them] to keep track of the earth’s rotation around the sun” (Science Weekly, The Guardian, 14 January 2018). Can we still sense this rhythm?

Surrounded by artificial lights and temperature controls, having much the same range of foods to choose from all year round, and spending little time unprotected in the outdoors, to a large extent we have the luxury of ignoring the fluctuations of seasonal change. We don’t feel the physical effects or depend on reading the signs of earth and vegetation as vitally necessary to decisions that determine our food supply or preparation for getting through winter.

We have an abundance previously unknown—a year-round harvest season—and maybe also a loss that’s harder to register, a sameness of experience regardless of time of year. The practice of keeping a journal, especially one that observes nature over time (a phenology journal) can help to recover the balance of seasonality, the varying rhythms of outdoor experience, and an acute awareness of this halfway-between moment, the equinox of the year.

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Cyberdiary?

Today’s diary-keepers face a decision: Will you make marks on paper with a hand-held writing implement, or enter typed text from a keyboard into an online file?

Both sides have passionate adherents, and while there aren’t too many things you absolutely can’t do in the “other” format, the time and effort involved may differ tremendously. In short, some things that you might want to do with your diary come more naturally with a physical book, while other desired results come more rapidly and easily in a digital environment.

Ten points to keep in mind as you weigh the pros and cons of a cyberdiary:

  1. Electronic text documents can be configured as easily searchable. If you want to find every occurrence of a place-name or a person through all the volumes of your diary, or tag entries with a keyword/category so you can pull out all the entries that have something in common, these processes can be accomplished much more quickly and easily with an electronic document. It’s not that a notebook can’t be indexed, as Bullet Journal devotees will attest. But indexing by hand has severe limitations compared with the facility of these features common to text-processing programs.
  1. The electronic diary may easily absorb digital photographs, image files, and audio and video clips. It can readily incorporate hyperlinks, too, for the diary’s reader to explore. Upon the page of a physical book, on the other hand, you can easily affix little pieces of real life: a postage stamp, a bar napkin, a train ticket, a receipt, a pressed flower. For some diarists, the reproduced image of an autumn leaf does not possess the same power as the brittle-textured, faded leaf layered over with cellophane tape in the hands of the original writer. People who value the creation of a unique material keepsake may find the look-and-feel of an electronic journal too generic and impersonal for their taste.
  1. For those who like the idea of sharing, an online post accomplishes this task instantly and effortlessly. Copies multiply and get distributed with miraculous ease compared with the amount of work and time involved to stand before a copy machine, scanning or reproducing (especially a hardbound book) page by page. When my friend Hanna lived and worked in Japan, she relates, “I wrote almost every night on my computer. It was quicker and then I could adapt my journaling into letters.” But even in places with scarce connectivity she maintains the habit, instilled by her mother ever since she was a teenager on her first trip abroad: “When I travel, I keep a diary and handwrite my adventures every night.”
  1. A public online diary, especially if focused on a trending topic, can instantly build virtual community among people who were strangers to each other seconds earlier—something that, for a book diary, entails the time and effort of bringing a book to publication.
  1. As well as writing words, some people sketch and scribble in their journals. This process can now be approximated with a tablet computer and plastic stylus. Yet some people still find those tools less nimble and pleasurable for sketching than an artist’s pen or pencil held between the fingers.
  1. Even if made entirely of words, a diary written by hand reveals the writer through varied lettering. The personal stamp of handwriting can represent either a plus or a minus. Seeing the letters waver and fade in a fatigued hand, or grow large, intense, and bold when the writer gets wrought up, might enrich and flavor the experience of reading. Studies suggest that writing by hand may benefit memory and emotional health. Conversely, typing offers relief for those who find writing by hand a tedious and muscle-cramping travail. And that frustration may grow even more when they try to decipher their own illegible words.
  1. A diary’s privacy may be more safely guarded through password protection and encryption than by trying to conceal or tuck away a physical notebook—not to mention the level of security offered by the flimsy padlock on a classic stationery-store diary.
  1. The book-diary can remain rooted in the place of its birth, perhaps never leaving the rooms in which its writer lived and wrote. By turning up in that place long afterward, the book might become part of the place’s history. The scenario of discovering an old diary in the attic, or among a trove of inherited material, grows more likely if that diary was created and stored as a material artifact. A cloud-based diary is more likely to “turn up” long afterward by means of someone’s intentional web search for place names or people mentioned in it.
  1. If you want to generate entries on the move, carrying a physical diary around everywhere may feel cumbersome. And the practice of pulling out a notebook in a public place and starting to write in it may create a more attention-getting spectacle than typing into one’s mobile device or even—as some apps allow—dictating an entry from voice to text.
  1. And finally, the evanescence of electronic text means that the document lends itself much more easily to revision. Deletions, insertion of new text, re-ordering of passages, and other editing can take place any time after the initial writing, ultimately leaving hardly a trace of the earlier draft. If you see your diary practice as a commitment to impressions formed in the moment—a first-take preserved, the hot-striking iron valued—you may prefer a diary that actually makes it harder to cross things out or add annotations without leaving evidence of such changes upon the page.

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