Tag Archives: diary as source

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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Your diary in history

In the midst of reading a diary from long ago, pause. Take a moment to imagine your own future readers—readers who will never meet you, but who will know you from your diary.

Does it make sense to keep a journal for someone fifty years from now, or in the next century? What would a 2075 historian look for in your diary?

Original diaries, even from the recent past, do serve as primary sources for research. And historians working with them occasionally express a wish that the diarist had included more information on certain topics, or had ventured personal opinions beyond just factually recounting events of the day.

Laurel Thatcher Ulrich chronicles the life of Martha Ballard in A Midwife’s Tale (1990), probably the most acclaimed work of American history ever based on a diary. Refusing to be daunted by mentors who warned her that she would find Ballard’s diary dull and scant on historical significance, Ulrich used contextual material and nuanced interpretation to write a Pulitzer-Prize-winning book that illuminates much about life in a Maine seaport town at the turn of the 19th century.

In her introduction to A Midwife’s Tale Ulrich admits that “one might wish for more detail [in the diary], for more open expressions of opinion, fuller accounts of medical remedies or obstetrical complications, more candor in describing physicians or judges, and less circumspection in recording scandal, yet for all its reticence, Martha’s diary is an unparalleled document in early American history. It is powerful in part because it is so difficult to use, so unyielding in its dailiness.” (33)

This historian’s wish indirectly offers an idea that today’s diarists might use as a road map: While future readers could appreciate the dailiness of our diaries, perhaps we could shape a life-record (and a future historical source) of heightened value. So, if we take the advice implied in Ulrich’s words, let’s make sure to incorporate explicit details about our everyday activities, candidly appraise any person in a role of authority (or fame) with whom we interact, elaborate fully on any local scandals we witness or hear about, and above all, hold forth with personal opinions on issues of the day.

Historians are cautious, though, in offering advice to diarists. With the advent of digital information storage and electronic communications, the landscape of publicly visible personal data has wildly proliferated since people in the 1790’s, or the 1970’s, kept their diaries. Far from making a trek to study the rare diary found in an attic or an archive, historians who study life in the 21st century will instead feel assaulted by tsunamis of personal information. They’ll have records of people’s purchases, tastes in entertainment, social media, political preferences, countless photos, emails, and storage folders filled with miscellaneous documents. Far more data about ourselves will live on in the contours of our electronic footprint than we could ever hope to inscribe in our diaries.

Does this mean future historians will ignore diaries? Or can diaries preserve knowledge or perspective that risks being lost among the digital ephemera, the sum of all the clicks made on our keyboards?

Historians I’ve consulted point to the reflective and (at least temporarily) private nature of traditional diaries as offering something different from raw data or even a series of public posts. Personae on social media value the instant, the first impression, the snapshot, the race to relay gossip or make a clever quip before someone else gets there first.

While sharing this acuity of perception and sense of “now,” journal-keepers take time to process an experience before sharing. Difficult thoughts and trade-offs leading up a big life decision may get recorded in a journal, while only the concrete outcome of the decision (the soft-focus photo of engagement rings, the invoice of a purchase) survives in the electronic record. This difference suggests that, as a diary keeper, one way to make your pages valuable to future readers may involve chronicling the gradual shifts in social, cultural, ideological, and linguistic evolutions currently underway.

Diarists have the chance to open a unique window into their historical age. I can plot tiny local points on the vast arc of change simply by noting “what’s new”—the arrival of the latest gadgets, trends, pastimes, customs, attitudes, role expectations, and even spoken expressions that weave their way into the everyday world of my workplace, my social groups, my neighborhood. What casual conversations did I have today, and what did they reveal?

A classic diary exercise involves making two lists: “What’s currently receding, coming to an end, a waning influence on my life?” and “What new thing appears now on the horizon, enters my life, calls out for attention?” Applying these questions on a scale just beyond the personal, you can speak directly to readers of the future, addressing their curiosity about what just arrived today in your community and beyond.

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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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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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