Tag Archives: community of tradition

Clocks, diaries, and interior time

Diaries foreground time. Their structure of periodic, dated (even time-stamped) entries calls attention to the passage of time, day by day.

Historians who study the early modern era, including Stuart Sherman in Telling Time, claim an intriguing connection between the accessibility of portable clocks for individual ownership and the rise of day-based prose narratives like the newspaper and the diary.

New technology allowed people to count minutes reliably for the first time, so they could structure habits and work patterns into smaller increments. “Where church bells and clock towers had for centuries tolled time intermittently and at a distance,” Sherman explains, technical innovation made the progression of seconds, minutes, and hours palpable to the eye and ear: “Huygens’s clocks, ticking steadily, translated time into a sound both constant and contiguous” (4)

The new experience of “closely calibrated temporality . . . became concurrently a widespread practice in prose written, distributed, and read over steady, small increments of real time” (9). The spread of private diaries, daily newspapers, journal-letters published by travelers, and other installment-based forms of writing reflected how Europeans now perceived their position in time.

In a cultural shift that went far beyond just carving up time into smaller units, Sherman argues that through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in Europe, a dominant religious focus on eternity and wholeness was replaced by a more secular interest in present and “middle” moments—that is, on what you can accomplish right now: “clock-dials, minute hands, diaries, newspapers, and novels were new precisely in that they called attention away from endpoints and invested it in middles—of the current hour, of the ongoing life—that were sharply defined and indefinitely extended” (21).

“Clocks and watches, by rendering time palpable, audible, and visible . . . established themselves as the new point of reference not only for measuring time but for talking and thinking about it” (24). Sherman turns to the diary of Samuel Pepys—who took great pleasure in consulting “my minute watch” and even gave one to his wife—claiming that Pepys “writes middleness assiduously. . . When Pepys writes up an entry at the end of a given day, he often knows only the story’s middle, and not its conclusion” (94).

A diary’s structure relies on the idea that each entry occupies a “middle” position in time, reinterpreting the past to explain the present, but forever unable to see what happens next. It’s important to note Pepys’ obedience to this diary “rule”: even when he composes a diary entry long after the day in question, in some cases (such as his account of the Great Fire) revising multiple drafts, he still maintains the “fiction” or “contrivance” of limiting the entry to what he knew on that day. As Stuart Sherman concludes, the diary’s “narrative confines itself (regardless of the author’s information) to the timeframe specified by the dated calibration at the page’s edge; illumination as to the direction any given narrative is taking arrives in stroboscopic increments at intervals of a day” (94).

Clocks gave employers the ability to enforce stricter workday routines and productivity expectations, but diary-keepers could track their own progress toward goals, too. Samuel Pepys inventoried how much his wealth had grown at the end of each calendar year; he also used his diary to make rewards contingent on good behavior, such as promising himself that he won’t kiss a woman or drink wine again until he has caught up on a pesky backlog of diary entries.

Even before Pepys, the practice of keeping a diary often involved self-monitoring. Called “heart-watching” in Quaker parlance, this tradition, also associated with seventeenth-century Puritans, was popularized by Benjamin Franklin in his Autobiography and continues to this day in the form of Bullet Journal “habit-trackers” and spiritual journals that chart each time the writer says a prayer.

But apart from the history of technology, we’ve always had clocks inside us, programmed at the molecular level and “entrained” by the seasonal changes in day-length. Our interior timekeepers try their best to optimize healthy schedules that balance eating and digestion, physical exertion and sleep.

Does a connection between mechanical clocks and the rise of the diary make it less relevant for journal-keepers to focus on the physiological cycles our bodies live through in a 24-hour period? Though Sherman does not mention circadian rhythms, I wonder if the new focus on clock-time represented an important step in separating people’s intellectual understanding of time from their bodily sensations.

Clock-time, with its accompanying (often unrealistic) expectations of productivity—not to mention external agents making ever-more-precise demands on our time—have the effect of disrupting internal rhythms. As a result, sleep scientists suggest that people’s bodies suffer from a pattern of ongoing deprivation that begins by overstimulating with caffeine to compensate for insufficient sleep, followed by self-soothing with alcohol when that accumulated caffeine makes it hard to settle down at the end of the day—only to shake off the effects of the alcohol next morning by consuming even more caffeine.

Having learned about the origins of the modern time-sense might offer us a new opportunity in the diary. Consistent with its tradition of self-monitoring, we could steer the journal in the direction of seeking a healthier balance between two competing modes of dailiness: internal bodily rhythms governed by natural cycles, and the external march of the mechanical, industrial clock.

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Writing for Miss Nobody

Something about the diary suggests that no one reads them—or at least, that they aren’t supposed to be read. Like a prayer written on a tiny scroll to roll up and burn, or a penny dropped into a wishing well, the diary seems to carry a message into the universe, unheard by human ears.

If the diary has any reader at all, we seem to accept most readily a fictional reader conjured up by the writer. Anne Frank addressed her diary to an imaginary friend she named “Kitty”; in her book Anne Frank: the book, the life, the afterlife (2009) literary critic Francine Prose comments that a character named Kitty in a popular book that Anne Frank read may have inspired the fictional confidant (90-91).

Other diarists before and since Anne Frank have addressed their diaries to an imagined person they explicitly invent and name. As he starts writing the fourth entry in his “private diary for the public,” Looking in on Lockdown (2010), Dortell Williams, incarcerated in a California prison for more than 20 years, declares that he will write to an imagined woman named Lourdes:

Lourdes. I think that’s what I’ll call you. I’ve always liked that name. And since I don’t know any Lourdeses personally, you can be my Lourdes. A new female friend who I can build an intimate friendship and open up to more deeply than when I share with the fellas. (7)

More than 200 years earlier, a fifteen-year-old Londoner named Frances Burney penned a diary prologue that cleverly combines both conventions: the notion that a diary is addressed to “Nobody” and the custom of addressing the diary to an imagined friend:

To Nobody, then, will I write my Journal, since to Nobody can I be wholly unreserved, to Nobody can I reveal every thought, every wish of my heart, with the most unlimited confidence, the most unremitting sincerity, to the end of my life!

To further complicate Burney’s playful paradox, these diaries weren’t even intended to remain private. All three diarists mentioned above—Anne Frank, Dortell Williams, and Frances Burney—make a point of conjuring up the secret confidant (Kitty, Lourdes, Miss Nobody) even while acknowledging that they intend to publish their diary for a wide readership.

Anne Frank revised and edited her diary even while still living in the Secret Annexe. She dreamed of a writing career and predicted that after the war, there would be interest in her story. Dortell Williams announces in the introduction to his book that his diary aims to educate members of the American public who labor under misconceptions about the prison system. Frances Burney published her address to Miss Nobody as a preface to her collected letters and journals.

As Francine Prose notes, “it was Kitty on whom Anne decided when, during her last months in the attic, she began to revise her diary and focused on one imaginary listener” (90-91). “This device,” Prose adds,

gave Anne a way of addressing her readers intimately and directly . . . Reading Anne’s diary, we become the friend, the most intelligent, comprehending companion that anyone could hope to find. Chatty, humorous, familiar, Anne is writing to us, speaking from the heart to the ideal confidante, and we rise to the challenge and become that confidante. She turns us into the consummate listener, picking up the signals she hopes she is transmitting into the fresh air beyond the prison of the attic. (91)

Note the key phrase, “we [readers] become the friend.” Through its words the diary constructs its reader, tilting audience sympathies and receptivity in the direction of an accepting, supportive friend, someone willing to absorb intense personal feelings and reactions that, in a more formal relationship, might remain ambiguous or, if expressed, prompt negative judgment.

The diary, then, sets itself up as an encounter between close friends, chatting about a variety of subjects as people do who know each other well. That comfortable tone solidifies the relationship between reader and writer, especially if they have never met in real life. Addressing an imaginary friend, then, appears to serve a distinct purpose for the diary at the very moment when its writer contemplates the challenge of how best to reach an unknown public audience.

Despite Frances Burney’s playful insistence that she trusts Nobody, the script of the imaginary confidant doesn’t mean the writer lacks an audience; rather, this device trains a future audience in how to perform their role. The imaginary friend acts as a stand-in for that future reader. This strategy of discourse develops a relationship of trust between writer and audience, based on the template of a solitary diarist addressing an imagined friend.

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Questioning

When you pick up a diary, why does it often feel like you and the writer become instant friends? Diary language builds quick intimacy through its reliance on everyday conversational patterns—it just sounds like someone talking informally. Diary style often uses punctuation that’s closer to natural speech than formal narrative: self-interrupting dashes, fragmentary phrases that don’t add up to a grammatical sentence, a series of unrelated remarks, and questions that don’t really seek an answer.

Even with one voice talking, an impression gradually develops on the journal page of a relationship between two people—speaker and listener—who apparently know each other well, as the speaker feels no need to frame each point with a careful introduction nor to explain their abrupt leap to a new topic.

If a journal voice feels casual, it also fosters give-and-take, employing devices that serve to open room for potential response or reconsideration. Planting a question in the journal certainly works in this way. In fact, the grammatical tactic of questioning may create several different effects, depending on whether a question remains unanswered or whether it gets either an immediate or eventual reply.

When the diary writer raises a question and proceeds at once to answer it, this rhetorical move reveals the mind in motion. It shows the writer in the act of considering and reflecting: “What do I think? I think . . .” The reader gets a glimpse into the writer’s mind as the writer wonders about something and lets thoughts spin out from the initial prompt. Following along, the reader gets drawn directly into this current of thought and allows it to occupy the interior of the reader’s own mind.

In other cases, the question touches on something that has yet to happen, so it can’t be answered right away. The writer may return to this question in a later entry, once more information becomes known. Questions asked in one entry and answered in a later entry differ from an immediately-answered question. The question with a delayed answer creates a bridge,  connecting the entries into a larger narrative arc. Such an arc of continuity softens the rigid parataxis implied by the diary structure of separate, self-contained entries.

A third type of question is asked but never answered. This question perpetually hangs in the balance, a rhetorical gesture addressed to the outer world as a whole or hurled into the future, highlighting the unknown. Articulating what the writer does not and cannot know, maybe it even refers to metaphysical, forever-unanswerable questions.

In all cases, the use of questioning as a device draws attention to the relationship between writer and audience. Spoken by the writer, uttered in that conversational, intimate diary-language, the question only apparently addresses the reader (who is not present in real time to answer), calling attention to the asymmetry of their relationship.

Questioning nonetheless opens a space legitimately shared by writer and reader. Answered or not, questions set up an open-ended structure for both to explore with imagination, memories, speculation, and reflection—a way to reach out and encounter each other through time and space.

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When did this stage of your life begin?

Everyday activities have altered across the world. What we called ordinary life feels entirely different from our lives before. On social media we see that increasing numbers of people, confined to their homes, imagine starting a diary. Reduced options for human contact and social connection add appeal to the companionship of a journal. Diary literature features prominent examples of diaries kept by convalescents, prisoners, or people on solitary retreats.

As effects of pandemic touch people everywhere, the present moment also feels historic, producing even greater reasons to track their lives in a journal. Both lifelong journal-keepers and people who never kept a diary before now find themselves wanting to open a blank book and write pages about how life has changed.

You, too, may have had this passing thought, then grew unsure about following through. Maybe you dismissed the idea, telling yourself that surely there will be a glut of such diaries. What could yours add?

Besides, the coronavirus era is no longer news. After a month of staying home, isn’t it a little late to start a diary about what that feels like? Shouldn’t I have started writing on the day when I first heard of the virus, or back when we still went out in groups and everyone in public was overheard talking about it, or maybe that first day we spent entirely at home? Surely the moment for starting a journal has passed.

But the diary offers remarkably flexible ways to handle time, and one of these could help you now. Ira Progoff, who devised a system called the Intensive Journal, understood that people don’t want to write only about today. “The Now of our life,” he wrote, includes “the most recent relevant past.” To examine how we got here, to see our lives in larger context, we need to “expand the present” and develop journal entries that ask more broadly: What is this present period in my life? How far back does it reach? What have been the main characteristics of this recent time?

Progoff recommends sitting quietly to consider at what point the “Now” of your life began: “We stretch the present moment back as far as it needs to go in order to include as much of the past as is still an active part of the present. . . This forms the period that is the Now of our lives, our most recent relevant past as it moves into our present. “ Citing examples like a move to a different city, starting a new job, undergoing an illness, or starting an important relationship—“since that time,” he explains, your “life has borne the imprint of that event, and it, therefore, is the definitive factor in this present period.”

Your new journal, in other words, can open with an entry that reflects on the present period, that explores the elastic Now. As you look back, when did you realize that life had changed, that your freedom of movement and contact with other people would suffer restriction, that all future events on the pages of your calendar had evaporated, that you would need to figure out how to cope?

Whether your Now arrived by way of subtle shifts and adjustments or in one single intense moment that showed the curtain rising on a new act, the story behind your current reality may take more than one writing session to record. Go ahead and weave into this account of the recent past some details of what happened today, bits of what you notice around you in the here-and-now, even while you write.

The concept of an elastic Now enables you to explore earlier life-stages as well. Progoff calls these stages “stepping stones” and we will leave them for a future discussion. For now, if you want to catch up on diary-keeping in a new and unaccustomed time, borrow his method to pull the recent past into the pages of a new journal.

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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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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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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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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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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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