Tag Archives: community of tradition

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.

 

145 total views, no views today

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.’ “

100 total views, 1 views today

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

128 total views, no views today

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.

183 total views, 1 views today

Material diary

While the book called a diary is built out of words and ideas, we also encounter it as a physical artifact. A diary contains multiple meanings, says Philip LeJeune in his book On Diary: “It signifies by virtue of its paper, its ink, its spelling, and its script, and many other aspects” (47).

Those who study human societies, past or present, sometimes divide their objects of study into examples of material culture and non-material culture. To study material culture involves examining physical objects and places—like tools, clothing, food, and architecture—to understand how people interacted with things and how they shaped the spaces around them. Figuring out how they handled material possessions can clarify and at times complicate the picture of the non-material culture (concepts, imagery, values, beliefs) by which that group of humans lived and behaved.

The material qualities of a diary—what it’s made from, the type of binding, texture of paper, color of ink, margins, page numbering, placement of headings, presence of a title page, the writer’s penmanship, added annotations, preserved mementos tucked or affixed inside—all contribute to the diary’s total meaning. Some clues are intentionally inserted, while others reveal things about the writer’s status that we might not know from their words alone. For example, even a reader primarily concerned with the words may observe how size and evenness of the hand-lettering unconsciously alters when the writer feels intense emotion or fatigue.

Part of the freedom associated with keeping a diary resides in the impulsive choices, some textual, some material, that its writer can make. As Tristine Rainer offers in her book The New Diary, “At any time you can change your point of view, your style, your book, the pen you write with, the direction you write on the pages, the language in which you write, the subjects you include, or the audience you write to . . . You can paste in photographs, paper clippings, cancelled checks, letters, quotes, drawings, doodles, dried flowers, business cards, or labels. You can write on lined paper or blank paper, violet paper or yellow, expensive bond or newsprint. It’s your book, yours alone” (28-29).

Anaīs Nin reveals that “all of my diary volumes have enclosures: loose pages written unexpectedly on the run and later inserted into the diary, and occasionally a photograph, a letter from a friend, a newspaper clipping, a recipe from that time” (cited in Marlene Schiwy’s A Voice of her Own, 56).

While diary enclosures can revive memories for the writer coming upon them years later, their tactile nature also has power to connect the writer with other readers in an unexpectedly intimate way. Anna Jackson describes how in her research on Katherine Mansfield, “I was particularly affected by the preserved kowhai flower I came across between two pages in a notebook. After all this time, there it still was, still yellow, still between the same two pages Mansfield had placed it between all those years ago. A piece of the world she wrote about was right there as a piece of the world still, not a piece of writing. This is the diary as capacious hold-all in a surprisingly literal sense” (Diary Poetics, 17).

If you have a chance to read an unpublished diary, look carefully for these extra clues. Consider, too, what someone could tell about you from how your diary presents its material self. Does the physical body of the diary speak nonverbally? When read with care, a diary will convey more than its words can say.

221 total views, no views today

Journal for the seasons: summer

Seasons inscribe themselves into a journal. Even our modern lives in technology-regulated settings can’t entirely shut out seasonal variations in temperature, precipitation, and light.

For thousands of years, wherever they lived, people have kept track of seasonal change, because human lives depend on animal migration patterns and plants’ growing cycles, those natural cycles that include a seasonal rhythm of alterations in daylight and temperature.

If a journal truly reflects the here and now, its entries will acknowledge not just the details of daily life that differ according to the four classic seasons of the year, but also those subtler phenological effects that might be called micro-seasons or “seasons within seasons.”

Phenology, as journal writer Hannah Hinchman explains in her book A Trail through Leaves, is “the study of natural phenomena that recur periodically [and] their relation to climate and changes in season.” Phenology studies the life cycles of living things as they respond to weather conditions and to astronomical cycles of the earth.

Governed by these rhythms, the changing length of days (photoperiod) is the predictive cue for timing many predictable changes in the physiology and behavior of living things. On this day, the summer solstice, I want to share with you how Hannah Hinchman connects the more recent practice of keeping a diary with the ancient human practice of tracking the seasons:

“Journal-keepers, because they are creating a life-long record of their encounters, are natural phenologists. The habit of granting each day its singularity lays the groundwork for seeing into the hidden seasons, and seasons-within-seasons.” (A Trail through Leaves, 134-5).

In the Menologium, an Anglo-Saxon calendar poem that describes and praises each season around a year, the poet describes how in June “the sun lingers in field and furrow/and leaves its lovely gift of daylight/a little longer before it disappears/down under the horizon” (translated by Craig Williamson, The Complete Old English Poems.)

Eleanor Parker calls this poem “an exquisite combination of Old English poetry and medieval science. It serves a practical function by reminding the reader of important dates in the calendar, but its purpose is not primarily functional; more important is the relationship the poem explores between the interlocking cycles of the year, between the seasons and sacred time.” The Menologium moves around the year starting and ending with winter solstice which it connects with Christ’s birth; its account of summer solstice is placed precisely at the midpoint of the poem.

What in your life reflects midsummer? Whatever significance the day has for you, you can describe its sensory details for the reader so clearly as to make your words come to life. Picking up the diary even in midwinter, your reader will feel this morning darken as heavy storms flash in, swaddling an early sunrise in heavy blankets of warm humid fog.

You may honor this day as the anniversary of a deeply sad event as my family does, or you may remember the year when you visited a place so far to the North that the sun never set at all in 24 hours. Maybe you once saw the year’s first firefly at summer solstice, or maybe you just now tasted the first green lettuce leaf from your own garden.

Does the extreme length of daylight make it harder to sleep at night? Does it allow for more hours spent outdoors? How will you write the solstice into your journal?

214 total views, no views today

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?”

170 total views, no views today

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? 

166 total views, no views today