Tag Archives: context

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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Journal for the seasons: autumn

On this day of the equinox, we find insight in an essay by Maria Popova, who writes on many topics in her online column, “Brain Pickings.” Popova describes autumn as the season most difficult to pin down, a time that can seem “temperate” as easily as it becomes “tempestuous”—a season often associated with the approach of winter and a process of inevitable loss, decline, and decay, while at the same time celebrating the abundance, ripeness, and fruition of yearly harvest.

The changing length of days continues to provide the most predictive cues for many organisms that adjust their physiology or behavior in accordance for the timing of vital activities like migration, reproduction, or hibernation. Days grow shorter during the entire time between summer solstice and midwinter; today we have reached the midpoint, the balance. How do the extending hours of darkness and the ever-scarcer hours of daylight affect patterns in your own day-to-day, journal-keeping life?

Maybe it’s easier to sleep on cooler nights, or harder to get up when the sun hasn’t finished rising. David Glaser, director of the Science Gallery at King’s College London, writes that many animals “become frisky in spring and hibernate over the winter.” Does time feel deeper or slower at this time of year? For many plants and creatures, “sensors of various kinds nudge [them] to keep track of the earth’s rotation around the sun” (Science Weekly, The Guardian, 14 January 2018). Can we still sense this rhythm?

Surrounded by artificial lights and temperature controls, having much the same range of foods to choose from all year round, and spending little time unprotected in the outdoors, to a large extent we have the luxury of ignoring the fluctuations of seasonal change. We don’t feel the physical effects or depend on reading the signs of earth and vegetation as vitally necessary to decisions that determine our food supply or preparation for getting through winter.

We have an abundance previously unknown—a year-round harvest season—and maybe also a loss that’s harder to register, a sameness of experience regardless of time of year. The practice of keeping a journal, especially one that observes nature over time (a phenology journal) can help to recover the balance of seasonality, the varying rhythms of outdoor experience, and an acute awareness of this halfway-between moment, the equinox of the year.

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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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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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Will there be a daily diary?

The modernist poet Gertrude Stein wrote “A Diary” and published it in her book Alphabets and Birthdays (1927). Consistent with her style, Stein filled the diary with enigmatic pronouncements. At the end, she rejects the traditional idea of writing every day: “There will not be a daily diary.” In an earlier passage she declares that “a diary is not a line a day book.”

Throughout, Stein composes playful variations on expected diary themes—cooking details, gossip, habits, domestic tasks, manners, visits by friends, repeated days of the week—which I’ll write more about in a future post. For now, let’s consider the “daily diary.” Where does it come from?

When people question the distinction between a diary and journal, they’re often encouraged to use the words interchangeably, since both terms derive from “day” (dīes in Latin and jour in French). An early definition of diary, from the 18th-century dictionary of Dr. Johnson, is “an account of the transactions, accidents, and observations of every day; a journal.” Some blank books sold as diaries reinforce this idea of dailiness with a format that provides equal space for writing on each date of the year.

Like years with their seasons, the turn of a day marks out a basic cycle to which life responds. 24-hour circadian codes operate at the cellular level, delicately adjusted by cues from the outside world. Despite the recent pervasiveness of artificial lighting and temperature control, these cycles still function in human bodies.  As detailed in Satchin Panda’s Circadian Code, our sleeping, eating, and activity schedules can either align with or disrupt the natural rhythms. The pages of a diary map the writer’s experience of a life that still plays out in circadian ways.

John Cheever’s diary “seeks to give each day some form of shapeliness”; after noting details and images from the day, capturing a sense of the “contingencies of domestic life” he would close each entry with an interpretive flourish that gave it a personal touch (Anna Jackson’s Diary Poetics, 31-33).

Anaïs Nin agrees: “This was my principle when I wrote the diary—to write the thing I felt most strongly about that day . . . I chose the event of the day that I felt most strongly about, the most vivid one, the warmest one, the nearest one, the strongest one” (cited on p. 50 of Marlene Schiwy’s Voice of her Own).

Still, a diary that begins with the intention of daily writing may find itself cast aside when that rule becomes burdensome or impractical. Some of the most highly renowned diarists stopped writing daily. They continued their diaries by writing in spurts, even if the published entries look like a steady, daily stream. Frances Burney and Samuel Pepys both jotted down brief notes and at times procrastinated on expanding their notes into a full journal entry: “Pepys often wrote up as many as fourteen days at one time” (Elizabeth Podnieks, Daily Modernism). Virginia Woolf returns to her diary after spending some time away, and comments on the relief and pleasure of taking up her “old book” once more.

A more recent definition of the diary than Dr. Johnson’s, proposed by Steven Kagle in American Diary Literature (1979), is “a record of events or thoughts written as dated periodic entries.” Periodic can indicate something other than daily. The key point resides in how writers build the diary one entry at a time, spooling out an evolving perspective as later events offer a fresh view of what came before, and allowing the reader to re-live that process.

Clearly, the strict imperative to write every day—or even more rigidly, as the printed format of some diaries demands, to confine every entry to the same length—can feel impractical and restrictive; many of the greatest diary writers have ignored it.

A diary is not a line-a-day book. As Alexandra Johnson explains in her book, Leaving a Trace, “a diary or journal isn’t necessarily something that should be done daily, so much as it is a clue to how to see the daily world around oneself differently.”

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Journal method #2: Lists

The highly popular Bullet Journal relies on a format perennially used in diaries: the list. A few years back Ryder Carroll created this system to show people “how to neatly funnel all their notes and projects into one notebook.” BuJo, as it’s affectionately nicknamed, offers a streamlined system of trackers, schedules, logs, and occasional longer passages of reflection.

The clarity of a list punctuated with bullet points appealed to Carroll, who originally trained as a designer, because of his conviction that “few design conventions can do so much with so little.” A list collects and orders information in the quickest, most compact, and simplest manner possible. Hence, as Carroll acknowledges in The Bullet Journal Method (2018) “the list is the core design pattern in the Bullet Journal” (255).

Ryder Carroll was not the first to build a journal system around lists. Some of the earliest known diaries rely on list-making, all the way back to the Medieval Japanese “pillow-books.” Sei Shōnagon, poet and court attendant to Empress Teishi (Sadako) around the year 1000, wrote a famous Pillow Book that included her personal collection of entertaining and thought-provoking lists. Her lists have titles like “Things That Give a Clean Feeling,” “Things That Give an Unclean Feeling,” “Things That Seem Better at Night Than in the Daytime,” “Things That Look Pretty but That Are Bad Inside,” “Adorable Things,” “Things That Make One Nervous,” “Presumptuous Things,” and “Things with Frightening Names.”

Lying between the fanciful lists of a pillow-book and the pragmatic value of organizing one’s life with the BuJo system, a spectrum of list-making practices can enrich the content of any journal.

On the most basic level, when life gets incredibly busy and you find yourself with less than five minutes to spend with the journal, a great quick method is to divide the page into two columns labeled with “plus” and “minus” signs. In these columns, simply jot down a few words noting what’s good about your life right now and what’s less than optimal. You can return later to expand on these lists and write more on these topics later, but you don’t have to. Just having these minimal notes will suffice to jog your memory of what mattered during tough times when you couldn’t create a more extensive record.

Conversely, when you find yourself with plenty of time to explore and write, you might be looking for a way to move out of the present moment and pull material from the past into the journal. Ira Progoff’s Stepping Stones exercise, taken from his book At a Journal Workshop (1975) invites you to imagine your whole life up to this point as a set of stages. You give a name to each stepping stone (which you could also envision as chapters in the book of your life). This overview lets you see where you are in your life, from the present vantage-point. In future writing sessions you can select a single stepping-stone to expand, explore through memory, and develop in understanding.

These lists may be relatively short (Progoff recommends a maximum of 10-12 Stepping Stones), but Kathleen Adams, author of Journal to the Self (1990), recommends another practice called Lists of 100.  Adams recognizes that it’s hard to come up with 100 examples of pretty much anything. The exercise permits repeating the same item twice; the point is to write fast, listing as many items as possible, with the understanding that, as in many brainstorming processes, the less obvious and more delayed material could end up proving most interesting and useful.

Lists of 100 can be used for many purposes, mostly involving problem-solving, identifying hidden patterns, clarifying what matters, and generally moving beyond the first few (dozen) obvious items to pull deeper, otherwise inaccessible material from the subconscious mind. Examples that Adams gives include “100 Reasons to [Do X]”; “100 Reasons Not to [Do X]”; “100 Childhood Memories”; “100 Fears”; “100 Possessions I’ve Owned Long Enough”; “100 Decisions I’ve Made That Turned Out Well.”

Like other basic journal methods, the list format can work well to write a single entry, but listing also describes a key structural feature of the diary.  Anna Jackson comments in her book Diary Poetics that “in a sense, every diary is a kind of list of days, sharing with the list the open-ended structure, the paratactic relationship of its units, [whether it’s] the days of the diary or items on the list” (137).

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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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127 diaries

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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