Category Archives: Purpose

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.

More recently I’ve started reading about 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. I’ll write a post about these ideas in the future.

Meanwhile, why not take a look at your own journal? Consider whether it leans positive or negative, and weigh the benefits of a journal that concentrates a single type of emotional energy versus one that widens to encompass the full range of your varied states of mind.

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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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Tap into the power

Mari McCarthy’s website, CreateWriteNow, encourages personal writing and diary-keeping for healing purposes. Numerous research studies suggest that reflective writing, such as keeping a journal, can be directed toward promoting the well-being of body, mind, and emotions.

Mari invited me to write a guest post for her blog, Journaling Journeys, and I was glad to oblige. “Tap into the Power of Diaries” went live on September 2, 2019:

“Most advice about journaling encourages us to simply ‘pick up a pen, grab a notebook, and write down your thoughts.’ A sense of freshness and spontaneity helps people get started. But journal writing didn’t begin five minutes ago . . . ” 

Keep reading:

https://www.createwritenow.com/journal-writing-blog/tap-into-the-power-of-discovering-diaries

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Your diary in one word

When journal-keepers try to sum up how their diary works, or what it means to them, they’ll often use a metaphor. If you want to see a book that pops with diary metaphors on almost every page, Alexandra Johnson’s Brief History of Diaries (2011) provides a good starting-point.

From Johnson and other sources, I looked at more than 250 diary metaphors from nearly three centuries of English-language writers. Taken together, most fit into just a handful of categories, and from this pattern an interesting picture of the diary begins to emerge.

To start with, many people think of their diary as a tool—an instrument for observing, measuring, and navigating through life’s experiences. These writers might portray their diary as a camera, a thermometer, a magnifying glass or microscope, a time machine, a compass, or a map.

And what unknown territory do they claim to discover or chart with these instruments? Possibilities include measuring progress toward professional goals, gains in mental health, health and wellness habits, or the spiritual growth of the journal-keeper.

Related to this type of description is the diary as a formal record: a set of data to consult later, perhaps at some point of reckoning that requires evidence or proof. From this perspective the diary may look to its writer like an account ledger, a ship’s log, a witness statement, a field notebook, or an inventory.

An even broader view of the diary describes it as a miscellany: a big comfortable container into which the writer can toss the raw material of life. The writer may hope that while stored inside, the contents will undergo transformation and clarification. In this class of metaphor we find objects like a specimen case, a tote bag, or a storage bin. Virginia Woolf’s famous passage describing her diary as a “deep old desk or capacious hold-all” exemplifies this category, especially as she goes on to say:

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. (Woolf, Diary, April 20, 1919)

Beyond gathering and sorting random experience, some people experience their diary as a place to develop skills and produce new work. This type of metaphor may depict the diary as a creative refuge where writers feel free to experiment with style. “For a writer,” Kristine Dugas writes on the first page of her doctoral thesis on Literary Journals, “a journal is a work-space.” Metaphors of the diary as a sketchpad, studio, crucible, workshop, or playing-field convey how they put their diaries to use.

Metaphors describing the diary as an inanimate object like a tool, container, or workroom don’t tell the whole story. The perception of a human presence, a person inside the diary—perhaps seen through a lens, window-frame, or mirror—may strike the journal-keeper even more strongly.

Gail Godwin, in her essay “A Diarist on Diaries” (Antaeus 61, 1988) explains how she has “found many sides of myself in the diaries of others. I would like it if I someday reflect future readers to themselves, provide them with examples, courage, and amusement.”

Parallel to this image of a mirror, writers have compared their diary to a portrait or a shadow of the writing self. These writers may address the diary as their alter ego or companion. The diary develops a personality, often with more freedom to air its views, desires, and attitudes than the writer may feel comfortable expressing outside its pages.

These categories don’t exhaust all the possible diary metaphors. You can devise a unique image that expresses how you see your diary—this is an exercise I’ve sometimes asked students to do.

James Boswell probably wins the prize for the most quirky and unforgettable diary metaphor. In 1783 he published a newspaper column (“On Diary”) in which he tried to persuade readers of the value of keeping a diary.

Boswell worried about the problem that even the most ordinary life offers vastly more experiences than a writer possibly has time to record. “I do not think it possible to [keep a diary],” he acknowledged, “unless one has a peculiar talent for abridging.”

To convey his idea of condensing the multiplicity of life into a concise journal entry, Boswell confided, “I have thought my notes like portable soup, of which a little bit by being dissolved in water will make a good large dish; for their substance by being expanded in words would fill a volume.”

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Perfect timing to start a diary

People like to say that the perfect time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. I recently attended a meeting that wasn’t even about journal-keeping, but when we went around the room to describe what we’ve done lately and I mentioned the dilemma of 127 diaries, several people said they’d love to go back and read their own diaries from ten or twenty years ago–if only they had kept one.

The tree proverb goes on to add, “–and the second-best time is right now.” Fortunately, the first page of a diary always represents a new beginning, no matter what date appears at the top of the page. Almost any day offers some logic for beginning–the first day of the month, the next full moon, the beginning of summer, starting a new job, the arrival of a guest, your first night in a new home, the day of returning from a trip, your birthday, an anniversary of significance: Something in your life is always starting anew. Certainly there’s no need to hold off until January 1 to start one’s first diary or to revive the practice after letting it lapse a while.

Remember, too, that a diary doesn’t need to focus only in the present moment. Even if an entry opens by settling itself in the here and now, your writing may proceed through a doorway into memory or pause at the threshold of an anticipated future.

Some diaries deliberately frame their focus around a marked-off period of time. Someone might keep a diary intended to cover just one term of study abroad. Parents may keep a detailed scrapbook of their baby’s first year. For some, a garden notebook captures each detail from initial sowing to the year’s last harvest.

What do you see on the horizon to guide the shape and direction of your next diary? A fresh start can feel good; the act of beginning a diary can in itself mark the first step of a journey. Even if no big change looms in your life and everything feels fairly routine, it’s just possible that your journal work will uncover a new way of seeing and experiencing those everyday events.

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Hitting the highlights

Journal, apple, tea mugWhen you read a diary, not all the entries spark interest to the same degree. So what quality makes a diary entry jump right off the page? How can you bring your diary to life, both for yourself when you look at it again, and for readers who may not even know you?

As I spend hours in the library basement slowly deciphering a young man’s Civil War-era diary, I come across moments that stay long afterwards in my mind:  his enjoyment of ice cream as a rare treat, how he’s swept away by the eloquence of a guest preacher at his church, the day he was snubbed by a doctor who decided not to hire him as an assistant.

And when I re-read my own diary, what draws my eye? For one thing, I love it when my former self looks ahead and tries to guess at the future. At age 25 I wrote a few tentative notes about someday becoming a parent; though it would be five years before it happened, here I can identify the earliest stages of imagining parenthood.

Students in my diary class enjoy those entries where diarists question or push back against social conventions of their time. When young Frances Burney, in 1775, successfully resists a marriage proposal that her father and all her friends put her under great pressure to accept, we follow the drama and watch her practice how to explain to people who care about her, and want the best for her, why she doesn’t want to take the obvious and expected path. Burney emerges in the pages of her diary as an individual with her own ideas and feelings, most visibly when these conflict with social expectations.

We also get drawn in by firsthand testimony or even sideline comments that record events of historical significance. I have a friend of a friend who treasures the family diary with an entry that responds to receiving news of President Lincoln’s assassination. Samuel Pepys’ personal account of living through London’s Great Fire in 1666—right down to details like burying a cheese in his garden to protect it from the fire, or watching the urban pigeons singe their wings as they try to escape the heat of a city going up in flames—numbers among the top most-read passages in the entire literary tradition of diaries.

As readers, we perk up when diarists let us in on their thoughts about what they hope to accomplish with their diary. Such passages often pop up near the beginning. When the diarist states an intention, that allows us to examine later entries with an eye to whether they’ve kept their resolution. If family and friends read their diary and offer opinions—perhaps aiming to discourage them from the habit, as we saw with several well-known 18th-century diaries—these accounts lend further interest, reminding us of the writer’s self-awareness and formation of identity.

Reader interest may surge when the diarist offers an account of a “big day”—the day when they learned something, or a whole new phase of life began, or any event that they find especially significant or influential. Among the accounts of mundane and repetitive days, these moments stand out.

But quiet moments, vividly described through the senses, also capture attention. Such moments help us see into the mind and feelings of the person writing. Brief scenes of interacting with a quirky or randomly encountered person (or animal), quoted snippets from conversations, notes on the arrival of a new season or fashion trend, an object that means a lot to the diarist even if unremarkable to others—all these bring the diarist and their world to life.

Conversely, the last thing most of us want to see is another summary of the day’s weather or list of routine tasks. And maybe it’s just me, but I once decided against transcribing an otherwise intriguing handwritten diary, simply to avoid being subjected to daily news about the writer’s digestive system! (Great time, by the way, for the writer to employ a personal code—I’ll write more about using codes in a future post.)

What draws your eye, or increases your heart rate, when you read a diary? Next time you pick up your diary, think about how you’ll make it lively and interesting to those who may someday read it—including your future self.

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What will diaries become in the digital age? 

Screenshot of a site discussing journal-writing appsBy now, online journaling apps and sites seem like the standard way to keep a diary. People who write with pen and ink in their diaries may resemble those nostalgia-seekers who make a show of collecting phonographs, rotary telephones, or manual typewriters. But the book-diary endured for centuries, and it’s intriguing to imagine a fresh use for this form even in the age of live blogs, fake news, image blotting out text as the primary carrier of meaning, and shrunken attention spans. 

The diary, a highly adaptable structure, has fitted itself over time to many human endeavors: religious and spiritual seeking, social connections, psychotherapy, scientific data-gathering, literary experimentsand philosophical contemplation.  

Diaries can provide companionship for the solitary traveler and an attentive, non-judgmental listener at times when no other support is available.  Diaries bear witness to history on a grand scale and preserve key moments in personal or family history. Diaries open a space where the writer can rehearse her resistance to social pressures—or build up strength to take a public stance on a challenging moral issue.  

Can the digital diary—often a live blog or social media account that chronicles its author’s life by the hourserve a similar range of purposes?  Does its electronic format represent a necessary adaptation to the contemporary era, or will it kill off the aspects of the diary that offer the most value? For example, the digital diary doesn’t stay in the place where it was written. It probably won’t be discovered by chance a hundred years from now in an attic by people living in the place that the diary describes. 

But so far, print books have not become obsolete in the advent of ebooks. We need not assume that the next phase of the diary’s history will involve converting them all into digital files stored in data warehouses. Maybe the diary will live through this century and beyond while maintaining its home in the realm of paper and ink.  

If it does evolve as a primarily digital and online form, will the diary re-energize and thrive on its metamorphosis into curated collection of instantly-available quips and images, or will it—akin to the “slow foods” movement—find some way to reclaim the benefits of concentrating attention for a longer time, reflecting and exploring ideas through writing, with entries that even dare to wait a little, flirting with obsolescence, before their release to the eyes of a worldwide audience?  

The diarists of today will define the diary of tomorrow. Like the mythical figure of Proteus, the diary has shown that it can shift its shape to counter each new challenge. Let’s think about our practices and choices. What will the new shapes of diary-making mean for our personal journey, our future readers, even for history? 

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