Tag Archives: persona

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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Dashing

Diary writers have an affinity for the dash, a fluid and flexible punctuation mark used to propel spontaneous writing forward.  Hinged on a dash, the sentence pauses before starting to swing in another direction. Or a voice momentarily interrupts itself, cutting off an unfinished thought to launch a new idea.

Physically, when writing by hand, a dash is quickly accomplished by scooting a horizontal mark across the page, even before figuring out whether you’re ending a sentence there or planning to extend the same sentence in your next phrase.

Consider how Frances Burney writes in her diary, upon learning that the great Dr. Samuel Johnson has praised her first novel, Evelina: “But Dr. Johnson’s approbation!—It almost crazed me with agreeable surprise—it gave me such a flight of spirits that I danced a jig to Mr. Crisp, Without any preparation, music, or explanation;—to his no small amazement and diversion” (August 3, 1778).

According to Anna Jackson, who devotes a full chapter of her book Diary Poetics to the dash, a dash-filled passage conveys the sense of prose flowing at a rapid pace. With a series of dashes, the writer may easily leap from one idea or item to the next without having to explain the connection or insert a logical transition. The resulting series of images or details can pile up into a list, strung together into an indefinitely long series.

The relationship among items on a list separated by dashes doesn’t need to be spelled out. If each new diary entry starts afresh, juxtaposed to the last entry but holding no expectation that it must refer back to what was said before, a sentence containing dashes does the same thing on a smaller scale, mirroring in miniature the diary’s formal parataxis.

Especially when combined with exclamation points or question marks, a habit of using the dash can produce an effect more like natural speech than like formal prose. Before completing one thought, the dash leaves off to take up a new idea, as in conversation with a close friend, where mutual understanding makes explanations unnecessary.

In this casual mode, the dash can suggest that we’re following the writer’s thought process in real time. Dashes imitate a mind at work, as each phrase seems to prompt the next by association or proximity. Sometimes the dash is followed by a correction or comment on what went before, or it prefaces the discovery of what Jackson calls “the perfectly chosen word” to crystallize what the diarist has, up till this moment, been attempting to say.

As for mood, depending on the subject matter a profusion of dashes may convey a sense of agitation and lack of focus—or conversely, the dash could create a deliberate pause or gap, to slow things down where normal syntax would shove the message onward. As an example, Anna Jackson cites the reflective and delicate mastery of this punctuation mark in Emily Dickinson’s poems “to open up an interior, emotional space” (121). Whether that space in a Dickinson poem holds reflection open at the end of a line or inserts a gap in the middle of a line, it compels the reader to pause for a moment and think (or feel) before going on.

Because a dash, like taking a breath, can be followed by almost anything, it seems (again, like the diary itself) to resist finality and closure. Toward the end of her chapter on the dash, Anna Jackson suggests that these moments point toward what can’t be contained, and so befit themes and material that exceed what the writer is able to express. In this sense, the dash gestures toward the limits of language.

Katherine Mansfield recalls seeing a foaming wave “suspended in the air before it fell” and writes: “In that moment (what do I mean?) the whole life of the soul is contained. One is flung up—out of life—one is ‘held,’ and then,—down, bright, broken, glittering onto the rocks, tossed back, part of the ebb and flow” (Journal, p. 150).

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Self-centered

A personal journal brings the reader completely inside the writer’ s head, taking this process to such an extreme of self-reverberation that the reader can see the world only through the diarist’s eyes and hear nothing but the voice of the diarist talking to itself.

“For those who object to a diary’s being a self-portrait, I suggest that the diarist must be present in his own diary as a barometer, indicator, receptor, thermometer, and echo-sounder, as a compass, commentator, footnoter, reporter, documentarist. His presence there is indispensable” (148). In this passage from her book The Novel of the Future, Anaïs Nin lists numerous metaphors of the diary as a tool or instrument to illustrate how a diary frames its writer’s distinctive way of perceiving the world.

Not just the eyes, but the whole body of sensation is shared with the writer as the reader takes in through the language of the diary a world of heat and cold, tastes and smells, discomforts and delights. The reader partakes of sensory experiences perceived through the lens of the writer’s emotional attitude. The same place or event might be felt by different people as exciting, disgusting, ordinary, unusual, satisfying or frightening—specific language used by the diary writer guides the reader in how to react and respond.

In this way a constructed self or “persona” (original meaning: mask) makes its first appearance, gradually takes on a fuller shape, and proceeds to develop layers of complexity as pages of diary unfold. An initial impression formed by the reader after the first few entries—maybe of giddiness, piety, or lack of imagination—is modified as later entries contradict the attitudes originally expressed.

Maybe the writer encounters new experiences that moderate an earlier attitude, or realization sets in that the writer has slipped up in keeping resolutions articulated at the beginning of the diary. With time a young diarist may gain a more mature viewpoint, an idealist may become disillusioned, or journal-keepers highly critical of others may inadvertently reveal their own hypocrisy.

It’s hard to say which we appreciate more as readers: the blossoming of conscious self-awareness, or an insight that the writer misses entirely, even though it’s clearly evident to whoever reads the diary. When reading fiction we might label this experience either dramatic irony or an unreliable narrator, because we know there’s an author pulling the puppet-strings behind the narrator, in control of the effect. The reader of a diary potentially plays a more central role in creating its meaning—that is, it’s up to us to make sense of what happens on the page. We may fill in what the writer never does see, or bring to the diary our privileged knowledge of what will happen after the final entry was written.

As we look through the eyes of the diary and listen to its voice, we temporarily become that self and follow its entries along a path of continual response and adaptation. The following comment by Eudora Welty in her book On Writing could apply to this feature of journal-keeping: “The frame through which I viewed the world changed too, over time. Greater than scene, I came to see, is situation. Greater than situation is implication. Greater than all of these is a single, entire human being, who will never be confined in any frame.”

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Your diary in one word

When journal-keepers try to sum up how their diary works, or what it means to them, they’ll often use a metaphor. If you want to see a book that pops with diary metaphors on almost every page, Alexandra Johnson’s Brief History of Diaries (2011) provides a good starting-point.

From Johnson and other sources, I looked at more than 250 diary metaphors from nearly three centuries of English-language writers. Taken together, most fit into just a handful of categories, and from this pattern an interesting picture of the diary begins to emerge.

To start with, many people think of their diary as a tool—an instrument for observing, measuring, and navigating through life’s experiences. These writers might portray their diary as a camera, a thermometer, a magnifying glass or microscope, a time machine, a compass, or a map.

And what unknown territory do they claim to discover or chart with these instruments? Possibilities include measuring progress toward professional goals, gains in mental health, health and wellness habits, or the spiritual growth of the journal-keeper.

Related to this type of description is the diary as a formal record: a set of data to consult later, perhaps at some point of reckoning that requires evidence or proof. From this perspective the diary may look to its writer like an account ledger, a ship’s log, a witness statement, a field notebook, or an inventory.

An even broader view of the diary describes it as a miscellany: a big comfortable container into which the writer can toss the raw material of life. The writer may hope that while stored inside, the contents will undergo transformation and clarification. In this class of metaphor we find objects like a specimen case, a tote bag, or a storage bin. Virginia Woolf’s famous passage describing her diary as a “deep old desk or capacious hold-all” exemplifies this category, especially as she goes on to say:

I should like to come back, after a year or two, and find that the collection had sorted itself and refined itself and coalesced, as such deposits so mysteriously do, into a mould, transparent enough to reflect the light of our life, and yet steady, tranquil compounds with the aloofness of a work of art. (Woolf, Diary, April 20, 1919)

Beyond gathering and sorting random experience, some people experience their diary as a place to develop skills and produce new work. This type of metaphor may depict the diary as a creative refuge where writers feel free to experiment with style. “For a writer,” Kristine Dugas writes on the first page of her doctoral thesis on Literary Journals, “a journal is a work-space.” Metaphors of the diary as a sketchpad, studio, crucible, workshop, or playing-field convey how they put their diaries to use.

Metaphors describing the diary as an inanimate object like a tool, container, or workroom don’t tell the whole story. The perception of a human presence, a person inside the diary—perhaps seen through a lens, window-frame, or mirror—may strike the journal-keeper even more strongly.

Gail Godwin, in her essay “A Diarist on Diaries” (Antaeus 61, 1988) explains how she has “found many sides of myself in the diaries of others. I would like it if I someday reflect future readers to themselves, provide them with examples, courage, and amusement.”

Parallel to this image of a mirror, writers have compared their diary to a portrait or a shadow of the writing self. These writers may address the diary as their alter ego or companion. The diary develops a personality, often with more freedom to air its views, desires, and attitudes than the writer may feel comfortable expressing outside its pages.

These categories don’t exhaust all the possible diary metaphors. You can devise a unique image that expresses how you see your diary—this is an exercise I’ve sometimes asked students to do.

James Boswell probably wins the prize for the most quirky and unforgettable diary metaphor. In 1783 he published a newspaper column (“On Diary”) in which he tried to persuade readers of the value of keeping a diary.

Boswell worried about the problem that even the most ordinary life offers vastly more experiences than a writer possibly has time to record. “I do not think it possible to [keep a diary],” he acknowledged, “unless one has a peculiar talent for abridging.”

To convey his idea of condensing the multiplicity of life into a concise journal entry, Boswell confided, “I have thought my notes like portable soup, of which a little bit by being dissolved in water will make a good large dish; for their substance by being expanded in words would fill a volume.”

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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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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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What diaries don’t know

Unlike most artists, the writer of a diary can’t begin with even a preliminary vision of the completed project. It’s impossible to outline the diary’s key moments, its dramatic scenes and thematic patterns, ahead of the creation. It’s a basic condition of this form that the writer, no matter how observant and accomplished, has no way to foresee where the diary will go.

Even where a specific diary has its foreseen endpoint—for a prison diary, say, the scheduled date of release; for a travel diary, the day of coming back home; for a diarist near the end of life, the point when they can no longer summon enough strength to keep the diary—the person writing the diary can’t control how that ending will be reached, nor predict the emotional significance it may hold for the writer or the reader.

This formal feature of diaries has real implications, including the fact that a reader, much later, very likely knows more than the writer did about how things will turn out. Moreover, the limited visibility of the path ahead may be one of the reasons for keeping a diary.

Each entry in a diary reflects the view and voice of the writer who, at a specific time in their own life and more broadly a specific moment and place in history, expresses by writing a diary the intention to explore, observe, grow, reflect upon, or preserve a set of personal experiences for rediscovery at some point in the future.

It’s not like reading a novel, where the writer holds the cards and only gradually lets us know the ending. The diary writer writes in a state of uncertainty, with no choice but to face an unknown future. Sure, the diarist can express hopes, dreams, and fears about the future, but it’s the reader who more likely knows the outcome, and we often read a diary, from its earliest pages, in that light. Anne Frank’s diary is probably the most famous example. But it can be seen everywhere. I recently paged through the diary of a college student from the 1880’s as she met an attractive classmate and wrote about him in many entries—and all the time I knew, though she didn’t, that she would eventually marry someone else.

So, while it can relate the story of a life, the diary is neither written nor read as one long, smooth arc of narrative plotted and controlled by the person writing it. Rather, diaries consist of a series of separately-written entries (usually dated) that iteratively record where things stand at the time of writing. By using this periodic structure, the diary stays close to the writer’s individual perspective as it evolves through time—again, and very importantly, without knowing what time will bring.

By reading the diary we retrace their journey, appreciating their reactions and discoveries of the moment while layering an extra dimension of thoughts and feelings over what was originally written—however much we admire their insight and their voice. We read their words in an ironic light of knowledge they didn’t have, knowledge that can only come with time.

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