Category Archives: Style features

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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Parataxis and the diary

Two thoughts, side by side. In my mind, in the diary. Diary readers don’t expect a logical bridge across ideas, as with other prose forms. It’s more like poetry, at least when poetry tries to look artless. The two discontinuous ideas jostle each other as they might lodge inside one’s mind, seemingly random. Whoever comes later to read the diary may choose to infer (or invent) a connection. Or not.

“Non sequiturs are a charm of diaries from the first,” Harriet Blodgett announces in her book, A Century of Female Days. She implies that the clash of disjointed impressions is part of what diary readers enjoy. Similarly Rebecca Hogan describes diaries as “elastic, inclusive texts, which mix chronicle, historical record, reflection, feelings, descriptions of nature, travel, work accomplished, and portraiture of character rather haphazardly together” (“Engendered Autobiographies,” 100).

Hogan and other scholars apply the concept of “parataxis” to understand this key element of the diary: “Grammatically, parataxis describes a sentence structure in which related clauses are placed in a series without the use of connecting words (I came, I saw, I conquered) or clauses related only by the coordinating conjunctions [and, or, but].” Not ranked in a hierarchical framework of logic, “the clauses are ‘equal’ in grammatical structure and rhetorical force.”

Rachel DuPlessis came up with this idea of “radical parataxis” while studying women’s personal writings. Rebecca Hogan and other scholars find plenty of parataxis on the level of grammar and phrasing within diary entries. But they also seek to extend this idea of absent connectors to the larger structure of a diary—“the relationships existing from entry to entry, from month to month, from year to year.” Things in diaries, Hogan explains, “happen between—between entries, between events, between diarist as writer and diarist as reader.”

The parallel structure of parataxis can easily accommodate the vast range of material that diaries cover—the continually shifting personal attention that equally absorbs important and unimportant events. Virginia Woolf aspired, in her most famous passage on diary-writing, to make her diary “so elastic that it will embrace any thing, solemn, slight or beautiful that comes into my mind” (Diary, April 20, 1919). The all-embracing flow creates continuity, while the clipped separate entries and the peppering of varied thoughts within each entry seem to lend equal weight to what Woolf calls the solemn, the slight, and the beautiful.

As Hogan concludes, “which events to describe or experience to reflect on will be selected according to a different set of rules or impulses on each occasion. It is this kind of process which creates the paratactic nature of the diary” (105). Anna Jackson in Diary Poetics adds that parataxis “creates immersion in a world of perceptions where each impression has its own weight and is deserving of focus. Chronology may replace other forms of connection among the elements of a diary “ (158).

Does your diary play with parataxis? Use it to pull in material you don’t usually write about; mingle easily-overlooked details with whatever weighs heaviest in life’s current phase. A paratactic sequence can flow onward indefinitely or stop abruptly after the second item. Two thoughts, side by side.

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Invisible “I”

Leaving out “I,” especially when beginning a new entry, is one of the strongest style patterns of a diary. Scraps and fragments of writing seem to suit the form. These create an effect, in the words of Anna Jackson, of “postcard-like economy.” The casual way of dispensing with “I am” (“Having a great time; wish you were here”) comes across as simple and time-saving. Abbreviation suggests the need to cram a whole lot of experience into a limited space. To omit the “I” also assumes that “I” is the most likely subject of any diary statement. It’s so well understood, it doesn’t need to be said.

This stylistic feature goes back to the early history of the diary. Samuel Pepys framed entries with the same formulaic phrases—both often parodied since his time—each of which contains an implied but absent first-person subject: “Up betimes,” he would write to start his account of the day . . . “and so to bed” at the end. No need to specify a subject for those actions. Countless diaries since Pepys’ time have adopted the custom of skipping the “I,” especially as the entry begins, and so moving directly into the action that matters most.

Besides omitting “I,” three other types of sentence fragments are described in Anna Jackson’s book Diary Poetics (2010) as hallmarks of the diary style. We may explore these uses in later posts: sentence fragments in the form of lists, weather summaries, and a meandering creative “free play” of words used to “revise, rewrite, rephrase memories or thoughts as they are written, or which jab at a thought to try to pin it down.”

These playful non-sentences “come to represent not just the thought itself but the jabbing, circling, revising process of thinking it” (134). Jackson concludes that “it is not so much the sentence fragment itself which is characteristic of diary prose, but the movement in and out of complete sentences, and in-between narrative and descriptive lists” (138).

If you’re not already working in this mode, I’d invite you to experiment, taking your cue from many others who have let go in their diaries and liberated their writing selves from the control of complete sentences. Fragments allow the diary to move swiftly through a set of impressions and narrated activities, to explore nonlinear associations linking one thought to the next, even to establish a closer bond with the person who will eventually read the diary.

As readers, we come to know the “self” in the diary as an eye and a voice. The diarist’s point of view controls where the readers focus, what we see, and how it looks to us. We hear only what the diarist wants to tell us, and we hear it in that person’s words. In this way we get to know the person writing a diary—listening, watching, gaining familiarity with their attitudes, responses, interests and preoccupations.

The omission of “I” brings reader and writer together as they dispense with the formality of grammatical correctness and assume an unspoken question from the reader, a question to which the entire diary provides an answer. The imagined reader poses in an expectant attitude, prompting the diarist by asking the simple question, “and what’s up with you?”

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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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