Tag Archives: journaling

Obama “goes high” with new journal

This column was published Dec 2, 2019 in The Washington Post’s “Made by History” section:

How Michelle Obama ‘goes high’ in the new Becoming journal

By Paula Vene Smith

Paula Vene Smith is a professor of English at Grinnell College and author of “Engaging Risk: A Guide for College Leaders.”

Dec. 2, 2019 at 5:00 a.m. CST

In November, Michelle Obama released a companion volume to her best-selling memoir, “Becoming: A Guided Journal for Discovering Your Voice.”

The new book is inspired by Obama’s discovery of a diary she had kept 20 years earlier. We got a glimpse of this diary in her memoir when she shared a passage from its opening entry, which explains why she decided to put pen to paper. “One, I feel very confused about where I want my life to go. What kind of person do I want to be? How do I want to contribute to the world? Two, I am getting very serious in my relationship with Barack and I feel that I want to get a better handle on myself.”

This is all we know about the content of her own diary. But Obama bases her guided journal on the same two purposes: framing one’s life story and preparing for activism. As readers make their way through the workbook, alongside standard personal prompts such as, “How does nature nourish you?” or “Write about a favorite photo,” they are asked new questions that seem simple, but that push toward ideas of justice, inequality and change: “Where did your ancestors come from and what challenges did they face?” “How do you connect with your community?” “What changes — whether on a local, national, or global level — do you wish to see?” “How do you bring your own history, culture, and experiences into spaces where they never existed?” “Have you ever considered taking on a leadership role?”

Like influential figures before her, Obama is paving the way for a new trend in personal writing that could have powerful reverberations for inspiring awareness and action both today and in the future.

Since its earliest appearance in English letters, the diary as a form of writing has continually adjusted itself to the cultural moment. But the diary has also produced examples in each generation that go against the grain. Such diaries have influenced the moment by using this flexible, easily overlooked genre in ways that challenge how contemporaries understand the world around them. Today, extending a project that began with her memoir, Obama is joining that tradition.

When the practice of journal writing first gained popularity, as Alexandra Johnson relates in “A Brief History of Diaries,” most examples followed a Puritan tradition that “stressed conscience and confession.” While myriad Londoners maintained somber records of spiritual self-examination, Samuel Pepys exuberantly took the opposite direction, conjuring up his own “portrait of seventeenth century life, both as participant and spectator.”

Calling up vivid details and a flair for storytelling, Pepys chronicled his marital strife and serial infidelities, shared his enjoyment of favorite foods and music, made sure to total up his net worth on the last day of each year and dished on what he heard and saw of political intrigue at the court of Charles II. Pepys made sure that his secret diary was preserved for posterity, but it wasn’t decoded and published until 1825 — and for a long time afterward, editions of the published book omitted many of its salacious details. Even today, Pepys’s diary remains among the most famous and frequently cited examples of the genre.

One notable reader inspired by Pepys was Virginia Woolf. She, too, challenged the prevalent model for diary-keeping in her time. Woolf developed an approach that veered dramatically from “the current vogue for confessional and lengthy intimate reminiscence.” Woolf noted how her friends treated their diaries as receptacles for their thoughts and feelings: “I haven’t an inner life,” she declared, and used her diary instead as a space to practice experiments in style.

Scholars of Woolf’s work, notably Barbara Lounsberry, have traced her use of the diary form through her career, connecting it with her development as a major modernist writer. Lounsberry’s three-volume study of “Virginia Woolf’s Diaries and the Diaries She Read” makes it clear that even as she steeped herself in the diary tradition, Woolf took the form in new directions and established a path for those who came after her. If the diary can be regarded as a serious literary endeavor, this is largely thanks to Woolf.

Throughout the 20th century, the diary form continued to adapt to cultural demands and, at times, to challenge norms. Religious diaries are more likely now to inspire and affirm faith than to confess and tally sins. Varied uses of journal-keeping to boost mental and emotional health have evolved in tandem with the advent of each new school of psychotherapy.

But diary-keepers with heightened respect for the powers of language are most likely to take the form in unexpected directions. Recently the poet Harryette Mullen published “Urban Tumbleweed: Notes From a Tanka Diary” based on an assignment she gave herself for one year. She took a walk outdoors each day and wrote a short poem about nature as encountered in a California city. The image of “urban tumbleweed” refers to wind-buffeted plastic bags.

Mullen’s work reveals how diverse journal-keeping has become, as people look for different forms to prompt and shape a sequence of daily entries.

That search has created a market for journal workbooks and how-to books about diary-keeping, as readers actively look for guidance. Obama’s new book provides such a model.

But she is also the latest writer to go against the grain, as her book challenges two dominant models that have emerged in recent years: the bullet journal and the gratitude journal.

Ryder Carroll’s bullet journal swept the Internet in 2013 as a new system for productivity and personal organizing. Incorporating to-do lists, calendars, planning charts and habit trackers, a host of online bullet journals try to outdo each other in artistry as users display their skill in calligraphy, ornamental borders and creative page layouts.

Improved efficiency, progress toward fitness and professional goals and ramped-up productivity dominate the world of the bullet journal. The gratitude journal, on the other hand, requires listing and appreciating the abundance of reasons one has to feel joy and comfort.

But there is one strong similarity between the bullet journal and the gratitude journal: Both focus on the writer’s personal satisfaction. The bullet journal helps get you organized, and the gratitude journal makes you feel better about how life already is.

It is this focus that Obama is challenging with “Becoming: A Guided Journal.” Her book encourages readers to identify key turning points in their life stories and to make their stories serve a larger purpose. The focus is not just on the self but also on social change. With this bold invitation to rethink the journal’s purpose, Obama joins a tradition of challenging what most people are doing in their diaries. She brings the political message of going high to her readers on a personal level, exhorting them to think beyond themselves. If it works, the activist journal could be the next trend in the centuries-long tradition of reflecting on one’s own life in a diary.

 

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One-sided

My sister Rosemary once told me about a journal she kept during her teen years. It served an important purpose. She could turn to this journal whenever she felt unhappy, and it would always provide a listening ear. Rosemary recalls, “I think that writing the journal became less important when I had a person with whom to share hopes and fears, or maybe when I became happier in my own skin. I remember that during those HS and early college years I was quite lonely.”

Writing in low spirits, telling the journal her woes, helped her to work through a difficult time, and this aspect was appreciated. But I was struck by what Rosemary said next: When she looked back at these journals, the picture of her life was distorted as a result of writing only when her spirits were low. This journal focused on pain: days that were tough to get through, weeks when she felt unsteady or overwhelmed. Rosemary had other memories to assure her that life as a whole hadn’t been grim or despondent—but unfortunately, that’s how it came across in her journal.

She adds, “It’s difficult to reflect back on that time–either I’ve forgotten the specific events or I only see it as one long period of growing up and figuring out how to speak for myself.”

Since then, other friends have relayed a similar story. They’ll acknowledge having kept a journal which, like Rosemary’s, served a helpful role at an important stage. But as they produced (and read over) page after page of sadness and dissatisfaction, the cumulative weight of negative emotion eventually sank the ship of the journal.

Whether or not they discarded the book and its memories, they certainly stopped writing in it. Rosemary has kept her journals, considering them a part of her life, but she continues to mull over the decision of when will be the right time to go back and read them through from beginning to end.

At the far end of the spectrum from this type of journal is the currently popular practice of the gratitude journal. Responding to prompts in a commercially published workbook or writing in a blank book, people are encouraged to make entries every day noting the abundance and joy discovered in their lives. This type of journal, filled with affirmation and positive images, can comfort the writer who looks back through it. The practice offers a reminder of the good things in life, commemorating all that we appreciate and feel thankful for.

But this approach, too, presents a one-sided picture. Instead of recording the current stage in the writer’s life, a gratitude journal tends to omit what’s not going well—unless the problem can be framed as “actually a blessing” or “a challenge that will test me and make me stronger.”

A one-sided journal can serve its purpose, whether to channel negative emotions in a way that helps the writer feel better, or to bank positive thoughts for a needed surge in emotional well-being. In either case, to guard against a misleading later impression for yourself or other potential readers, a simple solution is to label the book with a title page that clarifies—in whatever phrase resonates best for you—whether it’s intended as a storage place for negative or positive energy.

How might a journal-keeper gain the same emotional benefits while building a more balanced picture of the present chapter in their life? Such a challenge may entail less effort than it appears. I remember a stage in my career when I was working so hard that I simply couldn’t find time to write in a journal. Even so, I felt a strong need to check in with my life at least every day or two.

Driven by necessity, I devised a system that would take just a couple of minutes. I abandoned the idea of writing whole pages or even full sentences. Instead, I sketched out two rough columns on the page, one with a “+” sign and the other a “-“ sign. Under the “plus” and “minus” headings, I rapidly jotted brief phrases to summarize what I felt especially good about on that day and what in my life was creating stress, anxiety, or disappointment.

One immediate result was to discover, in clear visual form, that my “plus” list on a given day generally was longer than the “minus” one. Just seeing that pattern already made a difference and helped me get through the upcoming days with their new challenges.

More recently I’ve started reading about the multiplicity of human mental states—more complex dimensions than simply a polarized “good mood” versus “bad mood”—each of which could frame a journal entry in interesting ways. I’ll write a post about these ideas in the future.

Meanwhile, why not take a look at your own journal? Consider whether it leans positive or negative, and weigh the benefits of a journal that concentrates a single type of emotional energy versus one that widens to encompass the full range of your varied states of mind.

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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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Material diary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Parataxis and the diary

Two thoughts, side by side. In my mind, in the diary. Diary readers don’t expect a logical bridge across ideas, as with other prose forms. It’s more like poetry, at least when poetry tries to look artless. The two discontinuous ideas jostle each other as they might lodge inside one’s mind, seemingly random. Whoever comes later to read the diary may choose to infer (or invent) a connection. Or not.

“Non sequiturs are a charm of diaries from the first,” Harriet Blodgett announces in her book, A Century of Female Days. She implies that the clash of disjointed impressions is part of what diary readers enjoy. Similarly Rebecca Hogan describes diaries as “elastic, inclusive texts, which mix chronicle, historical record, reflection, feelings, descriptions of nature, travel, work accomplished, and portraiture of character rather haphazardly together” (“Engendered Autobiographies,” 100).

Hogan and other scholars apply the concept of “parataxis” to understand this key element of the diary: “Grammatically, parataxis describes a sentence structure in which related clauses are placed in a series without the use of connecting words (I came, I saw, I conquered) or clauses related only by the coordinating conjunctions [and, or, but].” Not ranked in a hierarchical framework of logic, “the clauses are ‘equal’ in grammatical structure and rhetorical force.”

Rachel DuPlessis came up with this idea of “radical parataxis” while studying women’s personal writings. Rebecca Hogan and other scholars find plenty of parataxis on the level of grammar and phrasing within diary entries. But they also seek to extend this idea of absent connectors to the larger structure of a diary—“the relationships existing from entry to entry, from month to month, from year to year.” Things in diaries, Hogan explains, “happen between—between entries, between events, between diarist as writer and diarist as reader.”

The parallel structure of parataxis can easily accommodate the vast range of material that diaries cover—the continually shifting personal attention that equally absorbs important and unimportant events. Virginia Woolf aspired, in her most famous passage on diary-writing, to make her diary “so elastic that it will embrace any thing, solemn, slight or beautiful that comes into my mind” (Diary, April 20, 1919). The all-embracing flow creates continuity, while the clipped separate entries and the peppering of varied thoughts within each entry seem to lend equal weight to what Woolf calls the solemn, the slight, and the beautiful.

As Hogan concludes, “which events to describe or experience to reflect on will be selected according to a different set of rules or impulses on each occasion. It is this kind of process which creates the paratactic nature of the diary” (105). Anna Jackson in Diary Poetics adds that parataxis “creates immersion in a world of perceptions where each impression has its own weight and is deserving of focus. Chronology may replace other forms of connection among the elements of a diary “ (158).

Does your diary play with parataxis? Use it to pull in material you don’t usually write about; mingle easily-overlooked details with whatever weighs heaviest in life’s current phase. A paratactic sequence can flow onward indefinitely or stop abruptly after the second item. Two thoughts, side by side.

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Journal method #1: Here and now

No journal keeper ever needs to stare at a blank page, wondering what to write. Yes, it can feel overwhelming to open the book to a new page and get started—to select an opening gambit when faced with a rush of thoughts and emotions tumbling through the mind—or, at the other extreme, when bogged down by a sense of having nothing to say. Has too much happened since the last entry, or has nothing seemed to change much since you last wrote?

One method for starting any diary entry has proven consistently reliable. Tristine Rainer, in her book The New Diary, named this method “a here-and-now exercise.”  To do it, you engage in describing your surroundings at the time of writing. Rainer advises that this method works best if you “re-awaken all the senses,” intentionally heightening your physical awareness to pick up on concrete details that people don’t generally notice.

Here-and-now starts with describing what appears around you, making the language vivid, to bring readers right into the place of your writing. To do this exercise, it helps if you don’t write in a habitual place at the same time each day. Vary the scene of journal-keeping; look for different times to write and scout new locations.

What does “vivid” mean? To bring your scene to life, most writing guides suggest avoiding abstract words that render judgment (gorgeous, boring, neglected, delicious) in favor of clear factual details that immerse a reader in the experience. “The best way to avoid the trap of dead words,” says Hannah Hinchman, “is to keep a firm grasp on the real stuff, prickly, slimy, or bony as it may be.”

Build a rich vocabulary of nouns and verbs; scrutinize adjectives and avoid piling them on; find out and use the precise names for everyday objects and the parts of things, like a lamp finial or a wall bracket. In my own journals, even as the writing unfolds across the page, I play a game of avoiding “to be” verbs—a page without a single “are,” “is,” or “were” means that I win for clear and pointed prose.

So, describe what you see—branches laden with shades of green outside the window, a fly swatter on the table, softening apples in a bowl—but also note smells, sounds, and even more subtle sensory experiences: The cidery smell and puckered skin of the nearest apple, the whine of the passing housefly, the white-noise hum of appliances around the house—bitter aftertaste of the last, cooled sip from the coffee mug, drape of humid air on arms and neck.

Jon Kabat-Zinn, who writes about mindfulness, describes the state of heightened observation where you might notice, for example, how even when you close your eyes, the sound of rain can delineate a landscape, bringing out the contours and perspective of the surrounding space as raindrops hit different surfaces to produce different sounds, creating a complex acoustic experience.

What surrounds you here-and-now offers a variety of textures, colors, objects, perhaps living things to describe. You may also note interior physical sensations: Kabat-Zinn suggests, beyond paying attention to what you see, hear, and smell, pausing to immerse your awareness in the fluid “airscape” against your skin. Even on a day without wind, or when sitting indoors, if you attend carefully you can train yourself to feel a subtle current or draft moving around, in, and out of your body: cool, warm, wet, dry?

Why bother to note such trivial things and write them down? A here-and-now exercise squarely places you in the moment of diary-writing, and diaries take it as their project to begin in the present. “Put yourself right in the present,” advised the venerable diary-keeper, Anaïs Nin, quoted by Marlene Schiwy in A Voice of her Own. “Start there and that starts the whole unravelling, because that [present moment] has roots in the past and it has branches into the future.”

As you write about what’s around you, the outer world comes into contact with your physical self and produces interior sensations. Stretch to consider the less obvious sensory experiences, like sounds and smells in your environment. Let the here-and-now exercise work to expand your idea of what’s involved in being here, and your awareness of how that feels now.

By starting with the moment of writing, the diarist opens space to move in a variety of directions that we can explore in future posts. Just to give one example, sensory details of the present can evoke intense memories after years have passed. By practicing vivid ways to write about your “now,” you offer a gift to the later self who reads the diary—for whom, in Curtis Casewit’s words, “some long-ago days may still gleam there as if you had just experienced them.”

In posts ahead, we’ll look at ways to use the here-and-now exercise as a springboard. Details observed in the present often spark memories and provide a gateway into writing about the past—how it still affects our lives, or what has changed since earlier times. A single object, once we’ve placed attention on it, can become much more—the choice of words reveals what the writer finds important and how they feel at the time of writing. Mental or emotional state shapes everything recorded in the journal.

And finally, in future posts let’s broaden our idea of the present moment beyond a single point in time—the minutes spent writing today—to consider, as suggested by Ira Progoff (creator of the Intensive Journal), an “elastic ‘now’” that expands the present moment to include the length of time that has passed since writing the previous entry, or even the current period in one’s life. The elastic “now” can open enough space to take a fresh look at present circumstances and envision where to go from here.

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Journal for the seasons: summer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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Invisible “I”

Leaving out “I,” especially when beginning a new entry, is one of the strongest style patterns of a diary. Scraps and fragments of writing seem to suit the form. These create an effect, in the words of Anna Jackson, of “postcard-like economy.” The casual way of dispensing with “I am” (“Having a great time; wish you were here”) comes across as simple and time-saving. Abbreviation suggests the need to cram a whole lot of experience into a limited space. To omit the “I” also assumes that “I” is the most likely subject of any diary statement. It’s so well understood, it doesn’t need to be said.

This stylistic feature goes back to the early history of the diary. Samuel Pepys framed entries with the same formulaic phrases—both often parodied since his time—each of which contains an implied but absent first-person subject: “Up betimes,” he would write to start his account of the day . . . “and so to bed” at the end. No need to specify a subject for those actions. Countless diaries since Pepys’ time have adopted the custom of skipping the “I,” especially as the entry begins, and so moving directly into the action that matters most.

Besides omitting “I,” three other types of sentence fragments are described in Anna Jackson’s book Diary Poetics (2010) as hallmarks of the diary style. We may explore these uses in later posts: sentence fragments in the form of lists, weather summaries, and a meandering creative “free play” of words used to “revise, rewrite, rephrase memories or thoughts as they are written, or which jab at a thought to try to pin it down.”

These playful non-sentences “come to represent not just the thought itself but the jabbing, circling, revising process of thinking it” (134). Jackson concludes that “it is not so much the sentence fragment itself which is characteristic of diary prose, but the movement in and out of complete sentences, and in-between narrative and descriptive lists” (138).

If you’re not already working in this mode, I’d invite you to experiment, taking your cue from many others who have let go in their diaries and liberated their writing selves from the control of complete sentences. Fragments allow the diary to move swiftly through a set of impressions and narrated activities, to explore nonlinear associations linking one thought to the next, even to establish a closer bond with the person who will eventually read the diary.

As readers, we come to know the “self” in the diary as an eye and a voice. The diarist’s point of view controls where the readers focus, what we see, and how it looks to us. We hear only what the diarist wants to tell us, and we hear it in that person’s words. In this way we get to know the person writing a diary—listening, watching, gaining familiarity with their attitudes, responses, interests and preoccupations.

The omission of “I” brings reader and writer together as they dispense with the formality of grammatical correctness and assume an unspoken question from the reader, a question to which the entire diary provides an answer. The imagined reader poses in an expectant attitude, prompting the diarist by asking the simple question, “and what’s up with you?”

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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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