Tag Archives: journaling

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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Selecting a book

Once you’ve resolved to give your journal a tangible material form—whether handwritten or on printed-out typed pages—the next step involves choosing a book to keep it in. This decision feels momentous, though your choice can always be revisited for the next volume. As Tristine Rainer puts it in The New Diary, “The structure and design of a book can influence what and how you write in it” (14).

Of course, you can choose any style of book. But journal-keeping experts offer a few points you may want to consider:

Pre-formatted diary, or empty notebook?

You can buy themed diaries of many sorts, already printed up with dates (calendar-style, line-a-day books or five-year diaries), commercial artwork decorating each page, or workbooks of guiding questions that offer prompts for what to write.

Does it makes sense to adopt someone else’s journal “system”?  Cathy Hutchison, who developed “Your Visual Journal,” says that systems like the Bullet Journal or Intensive Journal “are the result of someone else’s trial and error. They provide scaffolding for your thoughts, so that you don’t have to invent everything yourself. For sure, you can develop your own system. But using someone else’s as training wheels while you build journaling as a practice into your life can be a big win. Besides, most of the popular ones are popular with good reason. They work.”

Their structure can create a comforting routine, and push you to develop your thoughts in directions that you might choose to go, but especially over time, pre-formatted diaries may feel restrictive, limiting the range of what you’d like to explore. “Most dated diaries,” warns Ron Klug, author of How to Keep a Spiritual Journal, “even the largest, do not provide adequate space for a thorough journal” (27).

Blank or lined pages?

Many journal-keepers reach for a book with unlined pages, allowing for the open-endedness of smaller or larger lettering to match a mood, the chance to experiment with visual sketches or cartoons, or the freedom to write short passages that each head off in different directions—sideways, diagonal—across a page. A pre-ruled notebook may work against this flexibility of design.

On the other hand, if ruled pages evoke warm memories of childhood compositions, or dot-grid pages open creative possibilities, or quadrille blocks enable experimentation, choose any format that pleases you and makes you want to write.

Type of book: Loose-leaf binder?

Ron Klug notes that a loose-leaf binder offers good flexibility, allowing you to insert, temporarily remove, and rearrange the pages. Dividers can indicate different types of entries, so you can keep several journals in one (with sections labeled as your dream journal, to-do lists, monthly summaries, etc.). If your journal is a larger size, you can fold a few pages in half to bring along for writing entries away from home.

Drawbacks of a loose-leaf book, though, may include practical challenges to keeping the whole thing together, a lost sense of chronological flow, or the too-easy temptation to discard pages you might later wish you had kept. Tristine Rainer avoids the 3-ring binder as too reminiscent of school and homework; moreover, she cautions that this format might “influence the writer to become too concerned with filing, rearranging, rewriting, and even removing pages. Too many diaries are nipped in the bud by harsh self-criticism” (18).

Or scraps in a shoebox?

While it can enrich a journal to insert notes and mementos, most experts advise writers against a diary that consists entirely of miscellaneous scraps, even if assembled and stored together in a shoebox or folder. This casual approach may encourage spontaneity and the varied types of paper will add real-life texture, but once time has passed, reconstructing a chronology and restoring completeness to the record could prove impossible.

Or a hardbound volume?

An expensive blank book could generate the feeling that what’s written on its beautiful pages should somehow measure up in formality or quality. Committing your words to pages that can’t be removed or rearranged may feel intimidating. Klug observes that high-quality bound volumes, besides the financial outlay involved, “may be so elegant that they inhibit your writing. You may be afraid to ‘mess them up’ or you may be too concerned with conserving space to write freely” (27).

For other writers, though, the pleasure of a well-crafted volume may nurture their commitment.  Numerous journal guides recount the sensory experience of browsing through the selection of fancy stationers and binderies. Amanda Hobart, having received an elegant journal as a gift from her parents, describes on the CreateWriteNow blog how she developed a regular writing practice that helped her overcome severe anxiety: “I personally found that it made a huge difference that my journal was beautiful and expensive, I treated it with more care and placed a high importance on it.”

Cathy Hutchison, of “Your Visual Journal,” encourages writers to invest in a variety of books and tools, keeping options available for different moods and times: “You shift the story you tell yourself based on the look of the journal you work in daily. If your fingers are touching quality paper and binding, that’s a different message than catching your sweater on the frayed edge of a spiral.” She argues that the journal represents an investment in yourself and your ideas, concluding that people should allow themselves to splurge on journal supplies: “What’s the pricetag on feeling like a badass?”

. . . Or spiral-bound?

Other writers swear by the virtues of a spiral notebook, which keeps all the pages together and in order, but costs far less than a bound volume. “The 79-cent therapist” is Kathleen Adams’ nickname for her journal. In her book, Journal to the Self, Adams appreciates that “they’re inexpensive and come in a rainbow of cover colors and designs. I buy them by the dozen. You may keep the notebooks intact or tear out the pages to file in a 3-ring binder” (45).

A spiral binding conveniently lies flat and–at least for right-handed people, whose writing hand doesn’t bump against the spiral—allows writing up to the inner edge of the page, something that can be difficult with a stiff sewn or glued binding.

For those who don’t like lined pages, Adams acknowledges that it’s a little harder to find blank books in a spiral format. Also, the paper quality and durability may be cheaper than what you want, if you envision keeping your journals for a long time.

What’s the ideal size?

“Smaller notebooks can be tossed in a tote bag or briefcase; larger ones are bulky to carry around,” notes Kathleen Adams. Consider whether you plan to keep your journal on the go. Christina Baldwin says, “My journal goes with me nearly everywhere. . . When I’m driving around town, it’s on the car seat beside me, waiting for a few minutes when I can catch up with my thoughts. When I fly, it’s tucked in the seat belt next to me, waiting for the tray table to be pulled down.” (Life’s Companion, 11). If you plan to carry it around and write with others present, Stephanie Dowrick mentions that you may want to look for a book whose unobtrusive appearance “won’t attract others’ curiosity” (Creative Journal Writing, 55).

Ron Klug prefers a larger book: “I don’t generally carry my journal around unless I’m on a vacation or a trip” (28). If you write mostly at home, a large page may appeal, as it offers a wider canvas on which to compose. But Klug doesn’t turn off the journal-writing even when the book itself is not at hand: “If I have some idea or quotation I want to capture while I’m away from home, I jot it on some scrap of paper and later transfer it into my journal” (28).

Looking over past journals, Stephanie Dowrick sees that “most of my journals have inserted pages that I have scribbled when I have had some spare moments, old envelopes with notes, postcards, tickets, and other very precious memorabilia placed between pages. If I have a ‘journal-writing moment’ when I am far from my journal, I certainly don’t want to waste it” (57).


Above all, when selecting your journal make it a priority to choose a book that appeals to your senses and encourages you to write. Looking at the book’s cover design, the texture of the paper, and your writing instruments should lift your spirits and put you into a writing mood. “When I pick it up and feel it in my hands,” says Tristine Rainer of her journal, “I immediately feel anchored, centered, at home” (18).

Some journal-keepers decorate a plain book to individualize it, perhaps selecting a picture or photograph to place on the front cover. Fold-out pages can be inserted, or the book’s inside covers can be personalized with stickers or inked designs. Christina Baldwin, in One to One, encourages journal-keepers to “create a form uniquely our own. Beginning a journal or starting a new volume is an excuse to indulge yourself a little . . . This is not about getting fancy or expensive; it’s about creating a pleasurable link to the object you’re writing in” (30).

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Lunar cycles

People know little about the moon. Popular astronomy and planetarium websites report that to many in their audiences, it comes as a huge surprise even to learn that the moon is visible in daylight. How can we reach adulthood so unobservant of our surroundings that never once did we look up to notice the moon out during the day?

Hollywood audiences apparently take no issue, either, with outdoor establishing shots that tell us a scene takes place at night—and in which, by some unwritten rule, the moon always appears full. I love how the smugglers in “Poldark,” who you’d think might have wanted to move their goods under cover of darkness, always work under a full moon. Then a show’s plot will advance by a week or two, until another scene takes place at night—can you guess whether the moon has changed its phase?

In earlier times, paying attention to the moon held higher stakes than it does today. It could be useful, or even affect survival, to know and predict the lunar cycle. Archaeologists have studied coastlines in Africa with intertidal zones where early humans dependent on molluscs for their food supply had to have a “sophisticated knowledge of the relationship between lunar-driven tides and intertidal foraging.”

Those “early modern humans could recognize the relationship between lunar cycles, tidal systems and [availability of molluscs] and thus design symbolic calendar systems that allowed them to time their visits to the coast so as to make productive use of the coastal zone.”  Attunement to the lunar cycles mattered a lot, as foragers could risk drowning in the rising waters if they ignored or miscalculated the lunar—and therefore tidal—cycle.

Often throughout history, too, armies seeking to conduct post-sundown warfare have selected a date when the moon was full to enhance visibility for their nocturnal foray, or a new moon to ambush the enemy under maximum darkness.

Scientific studies still support the validity of relationships between animal behavior and the moon. But does the lunar cycle directly affect human behavior?  Anecdotal evidence abounds, especially in places like police stations, crisis hotlines, birthing centers, and emergency rooms.

But hard evidence for the connection tends to crumble in the face of large-scale statistical analysis. Formal studies, many summarized in a Current Biology review article “Human Responses to the Geophysical Daily, Annual and Lunar Cycles,” examine claims of a monthly spike in so-called lunacy, rates of criminal behavior and traffic accidents; these claims, along with supposed correlations between lunar phase and stock-market performance, have all been soundly debunked.

Study after study has failed to support a causal connection between lunar phases and human physiology. Scientists explain that, to begin with, the gravitational force that generates the tides depend on the alignment among earth, moon, and sun, rather than specifically the moon’s phase in relation to earth, “so a full moon does not mean a specific gravitational effect on earth.” Secondly, the idea that our bodies are mostly made up of water and therefore we might host internal “tides” is contradicted by the fact that the moon’s pull is actually a very weak effect, not strong enough to stir most bodies of water (lakes, even the smaller oceans), much less to govern ebbs and flows inside a human body.

Even the most obvious monthly human rhythm—our menstrual cycle—shows no clear evidence of direct influence by the position of the moon. Yet based on the coincidental similarity in the average length of these cycles, cultures around the world link femaleness with the moon in their mythologies, legends, and spiritual practices.

Some evidence does suggest that people’s sleep can be disrupted when the night sky displays more light (such as the three or four nights closest to the full moon). As certain psychological conditions are exacerbated by sleep deprivation, this effect may partly account for anecdotes about the resulting incidents. Such an effect, hugely reduced by the advent of bright artificial lighting after sundown, may have been great enough in past times and still in remote places to keep lunar-phase myths alive.

We choose which cycles to focus on, to note in our diaries, and to invest with significance. Knowing that seasonal changes and circadian (daily) rhythms deeply affect our bodies—sleep patterns, appetites, activity levels—it makes sense, as a practice of self-awareness, to keep daily cycles in mind, a connection that the original meaning of the words “diary” and “journal” already invites.

Some calendar points constructed by culture, too, like weekdays versus the weekend, record-keeping and financial deadlines pegged to the turn of the month, or recurring tasks on a work calendar, tend to fold themselves in to the account of a journal, corresponding to rhythms that matter in our lives.  Diaries kept by observant Christians often punctuate their week with Sunday (First Day or Sabbath); in diaries I’ve studied, especially if the writer is a churchgoer, Sunday’s entries may provide a pause to express religious sentiments or reflections.

The question of the lunar month holds a place of quixotic tension in this calendar. Like many journal-keepers, I’ve often followed an impulse to track lunar phases and even let my awareness of the moon’s current phase (last quarter, new moon) prompt the shape or direction of a journal entry. For no rational or scientific reason, I enjoy starting a new volume on the day of a full moon or a new moon.

Paying attention to the moon, even if it doesn’t directly control our physiology, may still have value. Observing your surroundings, such as to notice the moon visible in the sky at morning or midday, and to know where we stand in the lunar cycle, connects you with something beyond yourself.

Humans who menstruate, if attuned to the unfolding sensations in our bodies, can learn to take better care of ourselves by recognizing and working with the inherent “monthliness” of hormonal/menstrual cycles rather than denying or resisting them. Discovering a pattern that may be highly individual, we learn how different points around this cycle are associated, for us, with changing emotional states and physical sensations in semi-predictable ways.

Like the similarly odd fact that our sun and moon appear to share an almost identical diameter as viewed from Earth, the preponderance of scientific evidence suggests that any link between lunar phase and human physiology is nothing but coincidence. And links with other perceived connections, such as higher incidences of “lunacy” or crime, simply don’t hold up under statistical examination.

So, let’s accept that the moon exerts no effect on us, and only stirs large bodies of water like the oceans. Maybe as journal-keepers we simply observe those forces the moon exerts on Earth—the ebb and flow of tides, the fluctuation of crescent and gibbous moons, of lighter and darker night skies—as stations that usefully mark our own path through the seasons and the dozen or so full moons that make a year.


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Proximity or posterity?

To figure out a diary’s intended audience, start by examining the amount of background information a writer includes. If the diary, especially in its first few entries, appears to introduce itself to a stranger by explaining basic facts that everyone around the writer probably already knows, that creates a different effect from a diary that jumps right in with comments on people, places, and situations assuming a reader who already has familiarity with them.

The history of diaries includes plentiful examples of both. Samuel Pepys begins his diary by summarizing the previous year. He lists the members of his household and shares with the reader the address of his home, the primary assets he owns, the name of his employer, the “condition of the State” and some notes on his own recent health. Other diaries omit such introductions and take the reader in hand with a familiarity that suggests prior acquaintance and no need to explain the life’s context.

People who come along and read the diary can be divided into two groups: those who know the writer personally and those who lack direct acquaintance with the writer. (This useful division between an initial group of intended or unexpected readers and a secondary audience that inherits the diary later was developed by Kaitlyn Goss-Peirce in her 2019 research on Iowa diaries.)

For the first group, whom we’ll call “proximate” readers—including the diarist’s spouse or intimate partner, friends and family, neighbors, acquaintances, co-workers, teachers and others—the diary will never represent the whole person. This book, however revelatory, remains a single item among many sources of knowledge, including their own personal interactions. The diarist may describe events that the two of them attended together, conversations they had—the diary may even comment on their relationship. Proximate readers could have memories of the same events—perspectives that may not match what’s recorded in the diary.

And somewhere in this group of proximate readers—whether or not they ever actually read the diary—may be found individuals who have in real life the close, trusting connection that a diary narrative tends to establish with an implied (or imaginary) reader. For proximate readers, we see that the very existence of the diary begs a question: “If your relationship with me is truly close and trusting, why would you need to keep a diary? Why not simply share your ideas directly with us, your friends and family?”

The existence of a diary may uneasily suggest that the writer has certain thoughts and feelings they aren’t comfortable revealing to friends and relatives. Just knowing that a member of the household keeps a diary can feel odd, even a little threatening.

Some journal-keepers write with proximate readers in mind, thinking of them as the intended audience. These journals may even take the form of a letter addressed to a spouse or family member. A long tradition of the journal-letter—sometimes with entries initially drafted in a bound book, then copied and mailed to the recipient—blurs the line between letter and diary. Or a pair of writers may agree to share and exchange their diaries for each other to read.

In other situations, it’s easy to understand why proximate readers may have their access restricted. Depending on what’s selected to include, the writer may realize that to come across this diary may lead to strife and hurt for proximate readers who don’t understand or agree with what they find on its pages. A proximate reader could challenge the writer’s account, feel shocked to find their own secrets revealed in the diary, or believe that their behavior or words were misrepresented. To avoid such potential confrontation and conflict, the diary may be hidden, locked, or otherwise made off-limits to them.

But even when kept secret, the diary is composed in acute awareness that one of these potential proximate readers, especially living within the household, might come across the diary and read it. (Of course, this particular threat can shrink nearly to zero in the age of the password-protected electronic diary). For proximate readers to find and read the diary could undermine the intimacy, confidence, and trust that the two individuals enjoy in real life.

Such considerations affect the diary by leading to entries that are encoded, elliptically written, self-censored, or phrased in a careful way that partially conceals their meaning. Potential proximate readers, then, have a shaping influence on the diary’s composition even while a writer exerts effort to avoid having them read the diary—and even if, in fact, they never do end up reading it.

All other readers might be called “posterity” readers. They’ve never met the diarist in person, though they may feel that they come to know this person intimately just from having read the diary. Their relationship, their entire acquaintance, is conducted by means of the diary. Posterity readers may fish for supplemental context in other personal documents and historical records, but for them, the totality of the person they know is the voice speaking to them through the diary. They have no comparisons to exercise between a flesh-and-blood human being and the diary’s persona or narrator.

The diary may be encountered by a posterity reader long after the diarist’s death, or as a published book. Either way, when a posterity reader opens the diary, they have no choice but to step in and occupy the space opened for them through the diary’s construction of an implied reader.

If a diarist uses the strategy of addressing a confidant—real or imagined—the posterity reader absorbs the diary material by “standing in” for that addressee. As Goss-Peirce puts it, these later readers have no choice but to take on the role, to “format themselves to the space” created for the diary’s intended audience (11). From the first page, the posterity reader experiences the closeness and trust set up by the diarist—arguably in a more immersive way than a proximate reader, who will inevitably be distracted by their own real-life relationship with the writer of the diary and can’t help but project onto its pages extraneous details, conflicting views of the same events and conversations, and their personal opinions and attitude toward the diarist.

Note that I’m writing about the diary as a literary form—as a genre. Otherwise I’d admit what seems obvious: that the proximate reader doubtless knows the diarist much better than the posterity reader. After all, they’ve met the person in real life, and spent time together. No matter how much a posterity reader tries to fill in with external information, parts of the diary will never make sense to them. As Goss-Peirce writes, “because no amount of research can fully substitute the contemporary knowledge drawn from experience, [posterity readers] must settle some of the gaps as a loss” (12).

But for this very reason, it might be easier for a posterity reader to make the full leap into a special, intimate connection with the diarist. The posterity reader has no personal ties to complicate the reading experience. While a proximate reader may worry about coming across an entry that could disturb, anger, or hurt them, a reader who never even met the diarist can reach out unhesitatingly to trust this connection. This later reader may even feel flattered or privileged to gain access to another person’s most private thoughts, reflections, and feelings—those that the diarist couldn’t or wouldn’t express to their own family and friends at the time—but that they willingly expressed to the diary.

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Writing for Elderly Virginia

Diaries intrigue us because by looking inside one, we cross a threshold into private space, with a sense that maybe it was written solely for the writer to read.

In the middle of an entry, we might even see the writer pause to envision an older self who opens the book and reads it. At the age of 36, Virginia Woolf imagined this scene, and defined her future self as “Virginia Woolf at the age of 50, when she sits down to build her memoirs out of these books [the diaries]” Contemplating that moment, she added, “How I envy her the task I am preparing for her! There is none I should like better. Already my 37th birthday next Saturday is robbed of some of its terrors by the thought” (Diary I, 234).

As Barbara Lounsberry notes in Virginia Woolf’s Modernist Path, at this moment “a new persona enters the diary, an appreciative future reader and working writer” (20). This overseeing persona lends a new sense of purpose to the diary for the next several years, as Woolf writes:

Partly for [the] benefit of this elderly lady (no subterfuge will then be possible: 50 is elderly, though, I agree, not old) partly to give the year a solid foundation I intend to spend the evenings of this week of captivity in making out an account of my friendships & their present condition, with some account of my friends characters; & to add an estimate of their work, & a forecast of their future works. The lady of fifty will be able to say how near to the truth I come” (Diary I, 325).

From her vantage point across the years, old Virginia or elderly Virginia (as Woolf calls her) encourages the diarist to keep on writing: “I fancy old Virginia, putting on her spectacles to read of March 2020 will decidedly wish me to continue. Greetings! my dear ghost; & take heed that I don’t think 50 a very great age. Several good books can be written still; & here’s the bricks for a fine one” (Diary 2: 24).

As Lounsberry explains, Woolf envisions a future self who “will not only relish but also use Woolf’s diary prose. In that, this projected older self spurs the diarist on” (Lounsberry, 35).

The concept of addressing the diary to your future self comes recommended by many journal-keeping guides. Christina Baldwin, author of One to One, acknowledges that “most of the time, I write to the self that is just ahead of me in evolution—the person I am becoming” (51). Baldwin advises calling upon this “internal [projected] self” as a “friend,” “mentor,” and “guide.”

The author of The New Diary, Tristine Rainer, agrees: “In most cases, the best audience is your future self. If you think of your reader as the person you will be in five, ten, or even fifty years, it will encourage you to write concretely and to include details that make the experience interesting to reread. In ten years you won’t remember the situation unless you capture all its sensual vitality now” (24).

While some diary-keepers claim that they never look back at old entries, others frequently reread their diaries or plan to do so. Frances Burney insisted to a friend in a letter that she needed him to return the diaries he had borrowed, which she wanted back because “to you they can only furnish entertainment . . . but to me, who know all the people & things mentioned, they may possibly give some pleasure, by rubbing up my memory, when I am a very Tabby, before when I shall not think of looking into them” (The Early Journals and Letters of Fanny Burney, 58).

For those preparing to revisit their own diaries, authors of journal guides suggest numerous ways to “harvest” past volumes. Alexandra Johnson’s Leaving a Trace lists ten patterns to map as you go back through a set of journals. Johnson also gives examples of how writers use their diaries as sources for published work. Ron Klug, in the revised edition of How to Keep a Spiritual Journal (2012), discusses methods for indexing, “gleaning,” creating end-of-year summaries, and “bringing things forward”: “When you find some especially interesting insight while rereading a journal, copy it in your present journal and add some thoughts, showing how your thinking has been reinforced or changed” (125).

Most guides to journal harvesting describe the diary as holding scraps of insight, image, and memory that gain significance as they accrete and form thematic patterns. But the value of addressing a diary to one’s older self also connects with the special time-axis of a diary. The future reader will inevitably know more than the present writer about how current issues and situations will play out.

“Elderly Virginia,” then, will possess not just the general wisdom of experience that Woolf could just as well seek from her older friends and acquaintances, but also very specific answers about Woolf’s life, based on her later position in time and its retrospective capacity.

In 1924 Woolf described her diary as a place to “practise writing; do my scales” for her work as a novelist. She imagined that “[I] shall invent my next book here; for here I write merely in the spirit—great fun it is too, & old V. of 1940 will see something in it too. She will be a woman who can see, old V.: everything—more than I can I think” (Diary 2, 319-20).

The diary’s perpetual existence in the present that can’t see ahead helps to explain why one’s future self, “who can see,” represents an ideal reader. Cutting through a fog of uncertainty about the future, a diary writer can invoke the clarifying spirit of this reader as a balancing presence, one that hovers lightly over the page with yet-unseen wisdom—who offers (or at least will accrue) a more mature perspective.

Someday, this presiding presence implicitly assures us, more will be known about the future that preoccupies the diarist, clarifying and settling everything that matters to them.

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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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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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Journal method #7: Reflecting

Clear rural pond at sunset reflects a horizon of trees and light.While thousands of journal prompts ask us to launch into reflecting on something specific, this post will examine reflection itself as a tool—one that you can pull out to enhance your journal even after you’ve started writing a new entry.

Consider prescribing yourself a dose of reflection whenever you find your diary reverting to a bland factual account of daily weather and completed tasks. Conversely, reflection can also fruitfully intervene when you’ve hit a rough patch and find that these days, your diary seems to serve only to vent a geyser of negative feelings, often in unoriginal, heated language.

Reflection works differently from other journal methods because any time while writing in a journal, you can pause and reflect. Stephanie Dowrick, in The Creative Journal, comments that “the process of journal writing gives you an invaluable measure of distance between yourself and your thoughts . . . I cannot emphasize too strongly how helpful this [measure of distance] is.” She describes reflective writing as a process of “’making room’ inside my own mind so that new thoughts can arise” (15).

So, how do you go about reflecting? To reflect means to break off and make sense of what you see. You give yourself a chance to examine what was just written, identify connections, patterns, or contradictions, and relay these findings in the next few sentences, as annotations, or in a later entry.

In contrast to journal methods that ask for concrete, immediate observation or a lightning-quick sequence of unprocessed thoughts, reflection takes more time to think before writing and involves intentionally stepping back. The “stepping back” matters most—yet another spatial metaphor for that process of creating “a measure of distance” or “making room” for focused work.

That new space opens within the mind of the journal-keeper. In a way the writer splits into two selves: one that can experience while another makes sense of the experience. Two common stylistic indicators of reflection in a diary include introducing the pronoun “you” and phrasing ideas in the form of questions. Both these linguistic moves give rise to implied dialogue between two subjects.

On the surface, these moves may appear to shift power toward a person other than the writer—an implied reader who is directly addressed as “you” or presented with a question to answer. But given the tradition that a diary is private and has no reader, reflection in a journal takes place within the writing self alone. A version of talking to oneself, it allows the writer’s mind to entertain and develop more than a single perspective.

In her book Diary Poetics Anna Jackson persuasively shows how the “you” in many examples of modern journal entries make more sense if “you” is taken as referring to the diarist, rather than a hypothetical reader. Instead of “I” (the writer) addressing “you” the potential reader, the second-person pronoun instead lets the writer build mental distance between an experiencing self and a reflective consciousness. (Sometimes the diarist may feel a need to protect the self at even greater distance by using third person to write about themselves.)

The use of questions likewise implies the two-sidedness of a conversation—or at least a sense that someone (outside or within) is listening to the journal-keeper and invited to respond.

Overuse of the reflective method may call out for its own counterbalancing. Analytical language can begin to feel detached and generalized, so a lengthy reflective passage may find itself giving way to “juicier” stylistic methods like specific descriptions, action scenes, or language that evokes direct sensations, whether emotional or physical.

Remember, too, that the insights gained in reflection only represent your thoughts at the current time. In the triumph of figuring something out, it can feel tempting to view that new interpretation as the final word on a subject, especially an emotionally complicated issue that matters deeply to you.

So even as you round off the reflection, you’ll want to leave the door open to re-question, reframe, and possibly someday replace today’s conclusions as the flow of time continues and the pages of future experience unfold.

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Journal method #6: Snippets & scraps

Readers savor the collection of miscellaneous odds and ends that form the collage of the diary. We expect a diary entry to travel freely across the writer’s thoughts, without regard to logical or grammatical transitions.

If you’ve been writing long discursive entries, consider breaking it up:  Do several different things on the same page, and don’t even try to connect the series. Give voice to a brief expression, leave some blank space, and move on.

A single image, a succinct comment, a quick recap of a recent incident, a rapidly sketched verbal portrait of someone you met or saw today, a check-in with your physical body, a flashback to the hour before dawn when you woke during the thunderstorm, the salient question on your mind—you can give a moment of attention to each little piece as you inscribe them, one after another, in your journal.

For this method, aim to keep each burst of writing energy brief and self-contained. The jottings may vary in length from a handful of words to a couple of sentences. Fill a page, attending with fresh attention to the vitality and sharpness of each piece.

Don’t confuse this method with an exercise in automatic writing or freewriting that requires you to keep the pen moving without lifting it from the page as you pour out an unedited stream of consciousness. Rather, while forming these scraps take all the time you want to pause and consider what the scrap will include, to think about your wording and the shape of a phrase. Sentence fragments may feel right for some of the bits and pieces, while others will tend to speak themselves in sentences.

Possibly a few of the scraps will consist of material other than words. Your exercise in miscellany may open space to sketch a small picture, set down a line of music, or tape a preserved memento like a ticket stub, pressed leaf, recipe, or news clipping, on the page.

If you go about it mindfully and clearly, setting down each scrap as it occurs to you, a fuller picture made up of these disparate pieces may later emerge, revealing connections traced by your imagination and memory as you wrote. Such patterns become visible only with time. Virginia Woolf refers to this process in the well-known passage where she describes the ideal diary as

some deep old desk or capacious hold-all, in which one flings a mass of odds and ends without looking them through. 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. The main requisite, I think, on reading my old volumes, is not to play the part of a censor, but to write as the mood comes or of anything whatever; since I was curious to find how I went for things put in haphazard, and found the significance to lie where I never saw it at the time. (Diary, April 20, 1919)

When vignettes stand out separately on a diary page, we think of the most highly condensed literary forms: the haiku, aphorism, imagist poem, couplet, or epigram. Maybe your own scraps will assume one or more of these shapes—or maybe your own favorite examples will weave themselves in among your own writing as quotation and counterpoint, in the age-old tradition of the “commonplace book,” a diary that consisted entirely of other people’s words.

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Journal method #4: Loosen the bounds–work outside the book

Some journal prompts bring up a strong feeling of resistance. Why? For me, it’s the loose and sloppy ideas, like free-writing for 20 minutes without ever lifting your hand from the page, experimenting with the pen held in your non-dominant hand (reviving the awkward stage of learning to write), or scripting a dialogue between yourself and some imagined entity, such as a person who once wronged you, a spiritual wisdom figure, or your own body.

I recognize that formal experiments generate material you wouldn’t get otherwise. They make you loosen up and try something fresh, even risky, in your journal. Like anyone, I feel tempted to see what may emerge from my subconscious mind if I try such methods.

But when I imagine those “loosening up” activities on the page of my journal, I come up against something I am reluctant to admit: I view my journal as not just a process, but a product.

I know. Most schools of journal-writing caution us against holding our journal to any standard. In a journal, they say, “anything goes.” You can’t do it wrong. The journal creates a place of freedom from our inner critic, release from the perfectionism that too often creeps into our writing.

Besides, to see journal-writing as pure process feels therapeutic. A free and open-ended diary offers great value in helping to sort out ideas and feelings. The practice of writing a journal settles the mind, and often brings new clarity to a confusing situation. I’ve found every one of these claims borne out in my own experience. But . . . that’s not all I want from my journal.

I want to go back and read the journal someday. Maybe others will read it too. And speaking for myself as future reader, I don’t relish the prospect of wading through illegible pages poured out in a rush as the stopwatch ticked away. I don’t want to revisit those embarrassing efforts to speak in the voice of my body or of my nemesis. I don’t want, in a word, to cringe.

Fortunately, I have a solution. Turns out you can have it both ways. How? Simple but radical: You can engage in journal-writing that doesn’t end up in the book.

When a journal-keeping prompt gives you that doubtful feeling, yet you can’t keep from wondering what the process might reveal, take up a loose sheet of paper, and get down to writing on it. That piece of paper may end up getting inserted into your journal as an entry, or it may get filed in a folder that feeds other writing projects—or it may end up in the trash. Even if you crumple and discard the page, you’ll know something you didn’t know before.

Maybe in your journal, you’ll reflect on the insights gained from writing in this undisciplined manner, this cheesy format or this kooky style. If it opened your mind and widened your perspective, the investment has paid off. At the same time, you don’t need to preserve something that was never intended as a product. Developing a skillful and versatile style for your journal may entail some detours that boost stylistic experimentation and personal growth, but these don’t have to become part of the journal that lives on into the future.

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