Category Archives: Gaps

Does your diary need a code?

Nothing signals “keep out” to potential readers more than a cipher, shorthand system, or code. Since the earliest years of the genre, writers have guarded their diaries with barriers—whether on every page, or only in selected entries—by using abbreviation, elements from other languages or alphabets, and symbols.

These codes don’t just make the diary challenging to read; in some cases they may render it invisible. During the Second World War Donald Hill, a British pilot held in a Japanese prisoner of war camp, disguised his diary as a mathematical grid that looked like a multiplication table.

Beatrix Potter, who later wrote the famous “Peter Rabbit” series of children’s books, kept a childhood diary written in a code she invented. In its pages she could record her frustrations with the social restrictions placed upon privileged young girls in Victorian England, without fear that her mother would punish her for expressing such inappropriate views.

Anne Lister, whose bold and rakish life was recently made famous in the “Gentleman Jack” BBC television series, kept a 19th-century diary even more voluminous than that of Samuel Pepys. Lister encoded the diary in what she called her “crypt hand,” a personal cipher based on letters of the Greek alphabet and other symbols. She devised the code in her early teen years to communicate secretly with her first love, a girl she met in boarding school.

Other examples abound. Pepys himself used a secretarial shorthand system to keep his diary safe from casual prying eyes; he added further layers of opacity by translating the more graphic details of his sexual exploits into a school-boyish mélange of Italian, Spanish, and French words. While this move probably wouldn’t do much to hide unfaithful behavior from his (French-born) wife, scholars have speculated that the naughty spice of foreign words may have enhanced Pepys’ own enjoyment of the memories upon re-reading.

Diaries kept entirely in code can prove nearly as cumbersome to generate as to read, and people wishing to conceal a whole diary nowadays have plenty of options for password protection and software encryption to keep the whole thing secret. But even pen-and-paper diarists can boost their level of privacy at special moments with a light touch of coding—perhaps by recounting events in indirect or elliptical language, inserting a symbol, or leaving strategic gaps.

Betty Jane Wylie, in her book Reading Between the Lines, points out that many diaries, especially those kept by women, “have a code of their own—subtle hints, ellipses, or deliberate omissions that force us to speculate or make educated guesses” (p. 26). While it’s relatively easy for the writer herself to recall the full story with help from her diary’s hints, or to fill in the omitted material based on the content of her memories, those readers who are farther away in time and not directly acquainted with the writer may never be able to crack the code.

In this way, the writer restricts a thorough reading of the diary to her own future self and to those close to her, who already know enough to fill in the gaps. As for strangers, only those who care enough to pursue the clues and conduct research will prevail: “Reading between the lines, rereading after other facts are revealed, breaking the diarist’s code, and perceiving other facts or contrary emotions with hindsight or with outside knowledge of her life and times, the reader begins to feel like a detective” (Wylie, 27). Even more, the reader begins to emulate a family member or close friend of the diarist, thus earning the right of access to the diary. (I’m indebted to Kaitlyn Goss-Peirce for this last insight.)

Based on her study of midwestern diaries, Suzanne Bunkers found that when a diary speaks evasively—or even remains silent—about something emotionally charged, like a taboo subject, the writer may in fact be expressing something very difficult in the only way possible. Such evasions and silences constitute “encoding” because they attempt to “transmit a message in an oblique rather than direct manner” (“Midwestern Diaries,” 194): “Indirection, contradiction, deviation, and silences” are paradoxical ways “of breaking silences, that is, of finding ways in which to speak” [italics added].

Arthur Ponsonby in his classic English Diaries (1923) is referring to material censored by an editor when he grumbles that “stars, blanks, initial and dashes are often very annoying and tantalizing to the reader.” The use of symbols, gaps, and abbreviations can also serve the diary’s original writer when they wish to track something in their lives that they prefer not to spell out. They may be summarizing material that honestly means more to the diary-keeper than it would to any future readers and that might be dull to read about in repeated detail, such as the current state of their digestive system, the day’s weather, or how often during a given period they paused to pray. In some cases, readers have nonetheless been intrigued enough to make extensive efforts to devise a legend and find what was hidden behind those encoded marks.

For the contemporary journal-writer the option to encode parts of a diary may offer a useful tool—one that has earned a place in the diary tradition. When an experience, topic, emotion, or relationship feels uncomfortable or even perilous to discuss explicitly, it can still find a place in the diary if noted indirectly, in disguise, or in a fragmentary way. Include just enough information to jog the memory and preserve what matters to the writer’s ongoing life. Ingenious use of codes can minimize the risks of betraying privacy or planting a landmine that others (such as the writer’s descendants) could trip over in the near or distant future.

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127 diaries

Beginning on a sixteenth birthday, the books of many colors, shapes and sizes accumulate for over three and a half decades. While the set of books may have a few, always telling, gaps—the last semester of high school and first semester of college have no entries, nor does the whole first year of a particularly grueling professional term—for the most part, the diary steadily tracks a life from teenage years across the full arc of family and career.

Its handwriting starts out with squarish loopy cursive letters, then shifts at age 18 to compact, legible printing reminiscent of laboratory notebooks. At times the color of ink is coded to the writer’s state of mind—dark blue for a creative mood, green to explore a change, red for heightened alert, brown for domestic routines—and at times the facing page fills with related notes, quotations, dream accounts, or taped-in mementos.

Many of the books reserve a blank page at the beginning, as if anticipating the addition of a title page. Blank pages appear at the end of many volumes too, giving the impression of a writer who wants to preserve space for additional writing—as if she might find herself locked up somewhere with nothing but these journals, needing to continue to write.

When I dip into the journals, I experience vivid fragments of “what it felt like to be me,” as Joan Didion puts it in her brilliant essay “On Keeping a Notebook.” But I have never sat down and read them all from beginning to the present—a project that could take weeks, or even longer. When a volume ends, I put it on the shelf. But some part of me has always planned to return. Why else keep them? Will someone want to read them in the future? Someone other than the older self of the diarist?

Of all the vast array of books on how to keep a diary, few consider what eventually happens to all those completed volumes. Alexandra Johnson wrote Keeping A Trace, which offers advice for looking back through one’s diary to identify running motifs, patterns, and story arcs that the writer couldn’t yet have perceived at the time of writing. She discusses the diary as a source of insight and material for other writing projects.

Diaries even play a role in history. Historians’ work relies on letters and diaries, not just to record big events, but to reconstruct daily life among ordinary people. Working with 19th-century diaries in a library archive, deciphering their tiny, spiky script to find out what the diarists thought and felt, I sometimes wonder if I’ll bequeath my diaries to an archive, to serve as a record of everyday experience and observations from the late 20th century and beyond.

What to do with 127 volumes of a diary? Currently, the three long rows of variegated books fill the shelves in an upstairs bedroom closet. As the hand-printed lettering—all in blue ink, this latest time—spirals into the last pages of Volume 125, I have the next two blank books standing by, ready to fill. A lifelong habit of diary-keeping ripens into a Journals Project. I have preliminary ideas about what this project may involve, and I’ll write about them in future posts. The first stage involves reflecting and exploring possible directions. Just like the open-ended process of keeping a diary.

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What diaries don’t know

Unlike most artists, the writer of a diary can’t begin with even a preliminary vision of the completed project. It’s impossible to outline the diary’s key moments, its dramatic scenes and thematic patterns, ahead of the creation. It’s a basic condition of this form that the writer, no matter how observant and accomplished, has no way to foresee where the diary will go.

Even where a specific diary has its foreseen endpoint—for a prison diary, say, the scheduled date of release; for a travel diary, the day of coming back home; for a diarist near the end of life, the point when they can no longer summon enough strength to keep the diary—the person writing the diary can’t control how that ending will be reached, nor predict the emotional significance it may hold for the writer or the reader.

This formal feature of diaries has real implications, including the fact that a reader, much later, very likely knows more than the writer did about how things will turn out. Moreover, the limited visibility of the path ahead may be one of the reasons for keeping a diary.

Each entry in a diary reflects the view and voice of the writer who, at a specific time in their own life and more broadly a specific moment and place in history, expresses by writing a diary the intention to explore, observe, grow, reflect upon, or preserve a set of personal experiences for rediscovery at some point in the future.

It’s not like reading a novel, where the writer holds the cards and only gradually lets us know the ending. The diary writer writes in a state of uncertainty, with no choice but to face an unknown future. Sure, the diarist can express hopes, dreams, and fears about the future, but it’s the reader who more likely knows the outcome, and we often read a diary, from its earliest pages, in that light. Anne Frank’s diary is probably the most famous example. But it can be seen everywhere. I recently paged through the diary of a college student from the 1880’s as she met an attractive classmate and wrote about him in many entries—and all the time I knew, though she didn’t, that she would eventually marry someone else.

So, while it can relate the story of a life, the diary is neither written nor read as one long, smooth arc of narrative plotted and controlled by the person writing it. Rather, diaries consist of a series of separately-written entries (usually dated) that iteratively record where things stand at the time of writing. By using this periodic structure, the diary stays close to the writer’s individual perspective as it evolves through time—again, and very importantly, without knowing what time will bring.

By reading the diary we retrace their journey, appreciating their reactions and discoveries of the moment while layering an extra dimension of thoughts and feelings over what was originally written—however much we admire their insight and their voice. We read their words in an ironic light of knowledge they didn’t have, knowledge that can only come with time.

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