Tag Archives: structural paradoxes

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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Cyberdiary?

Today’s diary-keepers face a decision: Will you make marks on paper with a hand-held writing implement, or enter typed text from a keyboard into an online file?

Both sides have passionate adherents, and while there aren’t too many things you absolutely can’t do in the “other” format, the time and effort involved may differ tremendously. In short, some things that you might want to do with your diary come more naturally with a physical book, while other desired results come more rapidly and easily in a digital environment.

Ten points to keep in mind as you weigh the pros and cons of a cyberdiary:

  1. Electronic text documents can be configured as easily searchable. If you want to find every occurrence of a place-name or a person through all the volumes of your diary, or tag entries with a keyword/category so you can pull out all the entries that have something in common, these processes can be accomplished much more quickly and easily with an electronic document. It’s not that a notebook can’t be indexed, as Bullet Journal devotees will attest. But indexing by hand has severe limitations compared with the facility of these features common to text-processing programs.
  1. The electronic diary may easily absorb digital photographs, image files, and audio and video clips. It can readily incorporate hyperlinks, too, for the diary’s reader to explore. Upon the page of a physical book, on the other hand, you can easily affix little pieces of real life: a postage stamp, a bar napkin, a train ticket, a receipt, a pressed flower. For some diarists, the reproduced image of an autumn leaf does not possess the same power as the brittle-textured, faded leaf layered over with cellophane tape in the hands of the original writer. People who value the creation of a unique material keepsake may find the look-and-feel of an electronic journal too generic and impersonal for their taste.
  1. For those who like the idea of sharing, an online post accomplishes this task instantly and effortlessly. Copies multiply and get distributed with miraculous ease compared with the amount of work and time involved to stand before a copy machine, scanning or reproducing (especially a hardbound book) page by page. When my friend Hanna lived and worked in Japan, she relates, “I wrote almost every night on my computer. It was quicker and then I could adapt my journaling into letters.” But even in places with scarce connectivity she maintains the habit, instilled by her mother ever since she was a teenager on her first trip abroad: “When I travel, I keep a diary and handwrite my adventures every night.”
  1. A public online diary, especially if focused on a trending topic, can instantly build virtual community among people who were strangers to each other seconds earlier—something that, for a book diary, entails the time and effort of bringing a book to publication.
  1. As well as writing words, some people sketch and scribble in their journals. This process can now be approximated with a tablet computer and plastic stylus. Yet some people still find those tools less nimble and pleasurable for sketching than an artist’s pen or pencil held between the fingers.
  1. Even if made entirely of words, a diary written by hand reveals the writer through varied lettering. The personal stamp of handwriting can represent either a plus or a minus. Seeing the letters waver and fade in a fatigued hand, or grow large, intense, and bold when the writer gets wrought up, might enrich and flavor the experience of reading. Studies suggest that writing by hand may benefit memory and emotional health. Conversely, typing offers relief for those who find writing by hand a tedious and muscle-cramping travail. And that frustration may grow even more when they try to decipher their own illegible words.
  1. A diary’s privacy may be more safely guarded through password protection and encryption than by trying to conceal or tuck away a physical notebook—not to mention the level of security offered by the flimsy padlock on a classic stationery-store diary.
  1. The book-diary can remain rooted in the place of its birth, perhaps never leaving the rooms in which its writer lived and wrote. By turning up in that place long afterward, the book might become part of the place’s history. The scenario of discovering an old diary in the attic, or among a trove of inherited material, grows more likely if that diary was created and stored as a material artifact. A cloud-based diary is more likely to “turn up” long afterward by means of someone’s intentional web search for place names or people mentioned in it.
  1. If you want to generate entries on the move, carrying a physical diary around everywhere may feel cumbersome. And the practice of pulling out a notebook in a public place and starting to write in it may create a more attention-getting spectacle than typing into one’s mobile device or even—as some apps allow—dictating an entry from voice to text.
  1. And finally, the evanescence of electronic text means that the document lends itself much more easily to revision. Deletions, insertion of new text, re-ordering of passages, and other editing can take place any time after the initial writing, ultimately leaving hardly a trace of the earlier draft. If you see your diary practice as a commitment to impressions formed in the moment—a first-take preserved, the hot-striking iron valued—you may prefer a diary that actually makes it harder to cross things out or add annotations without leaving evidence of such changes upon the page.

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Does your diary need a code?

Nothing signals “keep out” to potential readers more than a cipher, shorthand system, or code. Since the earliest years of the genre, writers have guarded their diaries with barriers—whether on every page, or only in selected entries—by using abbreviation, elements from other languages or alphabets, and symbols.

These codes don’t just make the diary challenging to read; in some cases they may render it invisible. During the Second World War Donald Hill, a British pilot held in a Japanese prisoner of war camp, disguised his diary as a mathematical grid that looked like a multiplication table.

Beatrix Potter, who later wrote the famous “Peter Rabbit” series of children’s books, kept a childhood diary written in a code she invented. In its pages she could record her frustrations with the social restrictions placed upon privileged young girls in Victorian England, without fear that her mother would punish her for expressing such inappropriate views.

Anne Lister, whose bold and rakish life was recently made famous in the “Gentleman Jack” BBC television series, kept a 19th-century diary even more voluminous than that of Samuel Pepys. Lister encoded the diary in what she called her “crypt hand,” a personal cipher based on letters of the Greek alphabet and other symbols. She devised the code in her early teen years to communicate secretly with her first love, a girl she met in boarding school.

Other examples abound. Pepys himself used a secretarial shorthand system to keep his diary safe from casual prying eyes; he added further layers of opacity by translating the more graphic details of his sexual exploits into a school-boyish mélange of Italian, Spanish, and French words. While this move probably wouldn’t do much to hide unfaithful behavior from his (French-born) wife, scholars have speculated that the naughty spice of foreign words may have enhanced Pepys’ own enjoyment of the memories upon re-reading.

Diaries kept entirely in code can prove nearly as cumbersome to generate as to read, and people wishing to conceal a whole diary nowadays have plenty of options for password protection and software encryption to keep the whole thing secret. But even pen-and-paper diarists can boost their level of privacy at special moments with a light touch of coding—perhaps by recounting events in indirect or elliptical language, inserting a symbol, or leaving strategic gaps.

Betty Jane Wylie, in her book Reading Between the Lines, points out that many diaries, especially those kept by women, “have a code of their own—subtle hints, ellipses, or deliberate omissions that force us to speculate or make educated guesses” (p. 26). While it’s relatively easy for the writer herself to recall the full story with help from her diary’s hints, or to fill in the omitted material based on the content of her memories, those readers who are farther away in time and not directly acquainted with the writer may never be able to crack the code.

In this way, the writer restricts a thorough reading of the diary to her own future self and to those close to her, who already know enough to fill in the gaps. As for strangers, only those who care enough to pursue the clues and conduct research will prevail: “Reading between the lines, rereading after other facts are revealed, breaking the diarist’s code, and perceiving other facts or contrary emotions with hindsight or with outside knowledge of her life and times, the reader begins to feel like a detective” (Wylie, 27). Even more, the reader begins to emulate a family member or close friend of the diarist, thus earning the right of access to the diary. (I’m indebted to Kaitlyn Goss-Peirce for this last insight.)

Based on her study of midwestern diaries, Suzanne Bunkers found that when a diary speaks evasively—or even remains silent—about something emotionally charged, like a taboo subject, the writer may in fact be expressing something very difficult in the only way possible. Such evasions and silences constitute “encoding” because they attempt to “transmit a message in an oblique rather than direct manner” (“Midwestern Diaries,” 194): “Indirection, contradiction, deviation, and silences” are paradoxical ways “of breaking silences, that is, of finding ways in which to speak” [italics added].

Arthur Ponsonby in his classic English Diaries (1923) is referring to material censored by an editor when he grumbles that “stars, blanks, initial and dashes are often very annoying and tantalizing to the reader.” The use of symbols, gaps, and abbreviations can also serve the diary’s original writer when they wish to track something in their lives that they prefer not to spell out. They may be summarizing material that honestly means more to the diary-keeper than it would to any future readers and that might be dull to read about in repeated detail, such as the current state of their digestive system, the day’s weather, or how often during a given period they paused to pray. In some cases, readers have nonetheless been intrigued enough to make extensive efforts to devise a legend and find what was hidden behind those encoded marks.

For the contemporary journal-writer the option to encode parts of a diary may offer a useful tool—one that has earned a place in the diary tradition. When an experience, topic, emotion, or relationship feels uncomfortable or even perilous to discuss explicitly, it can still find a place in the diary if noted indirectly, in disguise, or in a fragmentary way. Include just enough information to jog the memory and preserve what matters to the writer’s ongoing life. Ingenious use of codes can minimize the risks of betraying privacy or planting a landmine that others (such as the writer’s descendants) could trip over in the near or distant future.

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Your diary in one word

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Will there be a daily diary?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Journal method #2: Lists

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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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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