Thursday, July 07, 2005


"Cold and cloudy. The wagons are all crowded up to the ferry waiting with impatience to cross. There are 30 or more to cross before us. Have to cross one at a time. Have to pay 8 dollars for a wagon; 1 dollar for a horse or cow. We swim all our stock...."

-- Diary of Mrs. Amelia Stewart Knight, Wednesday, June 29, 1853 entry, as quoted in Lillian Schlissel's Women's Diaries of the Westward Journey, NY: Schocken Books, 1982. (The above link has some detailed reviews if you scroll down a bit.)

Prior to Knight's section, Schlissel writes, "What is not mentioned at all is the fact that at the start of her journey she is already in the first trimester of another pregnancy....Amelia Knight delivers her eighth child by the roadside and comes into Oregon with a newborn infant, in a canoe and then a flatboat, across the Columbia River."

In the introduction to her book, Schlissel states that, in general, the 19th-century diary was a family heirloom, not unlike a Bible handed down across generations. Diarists wrote for a limited audience: their kin.

Diarist's Journal, geared specifically toward publishing diary excerpts from everyday people, began in the days before the Web. It seems to be still active and operating out of Kentucky (see Kentucky Periodicals, Magazines, and Journals).

For all their similarities, private diaries and blogs have their differences. I generally would not blog passages like, "Am pretty much caught up with filing receipts, though not paperwork. I have 2 items left on my To Do list, down from 8, not counting the tapes to transcribe or the invoice to do up. Won't worry about any of it tonight," yet it's in my journal notebook.

Neither would I post the copious notes I scribble for my writing projects: character interaction diagrams, who should do what, which point of view to use, where to direct the plot, and all those times when my best-laid plans twist into something I never expected. My journal is a hodgepodge; sometimes it takes writing minutiae before my brain clicks over into something I can use: "Truth be told, I'd rather be napping. Should have brought the Conlon with me to read, especially if I find myself waiting here until 2:30. Oh, well, lesson learned. So -- what do I want to accomplish with Chapter 3?"

Then there are the passages I do post, or polish into something to send, or that provide details I use in other writing projects. Snatches of conversation. Observations of my environment and of people's behavior. My own moods good, bad, and ugly. Rants and cattiness. Anything goes. My view is that no matter how piddly, anything is useful and nothing is wasted. It's all raw data that can be used as is or transformed.

The following excerpt is from a story of mine called "Cog," published in Tales of the Unanticipated (Fall/Winter 1988).

He joined his cronies on the loading dock out back. They sat with sandwiches, dangling their legs over the edge while further down the guys passed around specimens from a cache of pot and liquor.

"So I says to Suzie, see I'm not an alcoholic." Voices reached Bud's ears from afar. "I don't have to drink every day."

"There are different kinds of alcoholics," someone else said.

"Yeah, an alcoholic sees six bottles of beer and can't stop at number five."

"No, no, hey you got roast beef? Hey I smell shrimp, who the hell's got shrimp?"

"An alcoholic can't hold his liquor..."

"I told you -- shrimp chow mein!"

"You know they send you to drunk school? And you gotta pay to attend. And if you don't pass you gotta pay again! boy I hope I pass..."

The actual journal entry, detailing a Christmas dinner I attended, provided the fodder:

During talk on drunk driving legislation, V spoke of her own incarceration for DWI -- "driving while intoxicated" -- complaining how they send people to "drunk school" that the offender has to pay to attend. She added, "And if you don't pass then you have to pay again! Boy I hope I pass." Her hand rested on her flask as she said so. She added, "See, I'm not an alcoholic. I don't have to drink every day."

"There are different kinds of alcoholics," S said.

The adults went round-robin, then. "An alcoholic sees 6 bottles of beer and can't stop at number 5." "An alcoholic needs a drink first thing in the morning." "An alcoholic can't hold his liquor...."

I encourage all my students to keep a journal. A hardcopy one. One that requires no electricity and is completely portable. One that can be disorganized as all get-out but where you still get the words down on paper. One that can't be accidentally hacked into or inadvertently erased; and one that affords you complete privacy.

The first diary I kept, at age 6, was in an old New York City Board of Education booklet that my mother brought home from her teaching job and my father covered with gold and white striped wallpaper, artfully printing my name on the cover. It had wide-ruled paper on which I printed my entries in pencil. (July 4, 1965: "We ate outside like Pigs. At night we lit sparklers." Already that says something about family culture.)

When I was a teenager I used a small 3-ring binder that I filled with lined paper -- the small lock-and-key “diaries” sold in stationery stores never had enough room for me. (From 1973: "It's crazy -- I'm only (although I hate to admit it) an adolescent, but I know the difference between a crush and a strong attraction. And I don't mean love as caring or such -- I mean it mentally. And even then I'm not sure -- unless I run into the poor guy's arms! It's nutty -- I mean, just the thought that a high school freshman is falling in love with her French teacher -- yeech! It sounds like a crummy movie....") In-between passages like those I wrote my science-fictional fantasies down, as well as attempts to contact my French teacher telepathically. Along with less exotic interactions one would expect in a high school.

Today my journal is in an artist’s sketch book with unlined, acid-free paper. Sometimes I will draw in addition to writing: my cats, a coffee cup, a crude outline of objects from a dream. I have written journal entries on planes, trains, automobiles, boats. I have written them on hiking trails, in doctor’s offices, in restaurants, by candlelight during power outages, in hotel lobbies, in hospital waiting rooms.

On a hiking trail: "Everywhere there are carpets of moss. Beside me a fly sits, studying me; an occasional bee checks out my yellow shirt to see if it is nectar."

Vacationing in Australia, 8/20/91: "GORBACHEV CRUSHED. COUP IN SOVIET UNION. GORBACHEV DEPOSED. I was on my way to the Esplanade when I passed a newsstand whose window was plastered with headlines from the Cairns Post, the Australian, and several other papers. I stood for a moment and stared dumbly at the window. Then I went inside and bought a copy of the Australian. I read the paper as I breakfasted at the Rose & Thistle Cafe, across the street from the Kee Kong Chinese Restaurant and the Taj Indian Restaurant. A large ham and cheese croissant, black coffee, small salad, and water cost me $4.10 (US $3.28). I had a table on a white patio, sitting under a black umbrella that read, 'The House of Robert Timms: The Home of Fresh Coffee' in gold lettering. Morning traffic bustled amidst the palm trees. The cafe's proprietor swept the inlaid gravel of the patio while a loudspeaker sent the mellow songs of John Denver soaring among the tables. Sitting in my quiet corner, reading the Australian's analysis of the coup, I was hit intensely and for the first time with the reality that I was half a world away from home."

Some people are more comfortable with spiral-bound notebooks, or with loose sheets of paper. Some may use a leather-bound blank book, others large index cards or napkins. Some use pencil or black pen; others use colorful gel pens, fountain pens, magic markers. Some tape or paste pictures onto the page, or newspaper articles that catch their eye.

I tell my students: Use what is comfortable for you. Experiment.

I save a file to my hard drive before I post here. Blogs are literally ethereal -- unless printed they are pixels on a phosphor screen, code beamed to and from satellites. One well-placed electromagnetic pulse can zap them out of existence. (Hardcopy is not immune, either; who knows what we lost when the ancient library at Alexandria burned down?) It's like prehistoric fossils: the bones last but not the soft tissues that also defined the biosphere. We keep modifying our guess as to what the dinosaurs really looked like but in the end we still rely principally on their skeletons. Our collective Internet brain is a kind of "soft tissue" -- powerful but vulnerable. Digital code is not bones. Hardcopy comes closer. Writing longhand in a portable diary offers an extraordinarily flexible alternative to sitting in front of a computer.

Both have their place -- the collective, public mind that we engage in up here; and the private ruminations scribbled on the fly.


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