Archive for February, 2011

Whether Weather

February 27, 2011

Whether or not we should bother writing about the weather in our diaries, most of us do.  Whether the weather is a backdrop or an actual character in our writing probably says more about our connection with nature, or lack of anything else interesting to write about.  Unquestionably it influences our daily lives. Weather changes our moods, our activities, sometimes our lives.  I consider it a major player in Fate:  icy roads, sub-zero temperatures, the extremes of hurricanes, tornadoes and floods, create hardship and tragedy.

It is easy to forget how frail we become if we should lose the security of modern technology.  Experience one power outage in the dead of winter and you will have a new outlook.   Become trapped once by a change in the weather and you will be a wiser human.  Battle for your life against the elements and you will test your limits.   I  snort in disbelief when I see college students in flip-flops in sub-zero weather.  How naive they are, how trusting in their fate.

The older diaries in my possession all record the weather:

Josephine Conklin’s 1880 New York diary mentions the weather in the first sentence of every three sentence entry.  9-1-1880: ” It has been awful warm today and I have washed the colored clothes and baked bread…”  And 11-13-1880: “It has snowed some. I have baked pies and a cake and made applesauce…”

My great grandma, Olive Sophia Barnard,  says in her Wayne, Michigan diary on 7-3-1902: “Began raining last night and continued all night – heavy thunder showers, garden and Lena’s place entirely under water.  Cows had to swim on the flats this morning.  Took pictures of river.”

My great great grandma, Pamelia Pattison Chubb says in her 7-17-1873 entry (also from Wayne, Michigan): “Rain with high wind, picked berries made current wine.”  And 5-16-1873: “Rather pleasant but a cool wind, missed our usual rain, water getting rather low in cellar.”

Mrs. Herbert Abbott (I presume), from Coloma, Michigan, says on 6-5-1934: “Still very hot and dry.  Strawberry crop almost a failure.”  On 5-9-1934: “Terrible electric storm before we were up.  It struck our radio.”  Later she said, “got our radio fixed.” On 3-19-1934: “Washed a 2 week washing and did nearly all the ironing.  Quite a nice day to dry them.”

Obviously, in “the olden days,” weather had a more direct impact on a person’s life.  Too much rain or too little could change many things.  Today it is the farmers and gardeners who pay the most attention to the weather.

I looked for weather in my own journals.  Mostly it appears as a mood changer, occasionally as a phenomenon:   5-13-2004 “38 degrees this morning and snow is falling.  It turns to water as it touches the earth.  A quiet morning because of muffled sound from the heavy overcast sky and the dis-spirited animus of the living things.  We all want to sleep.  Zoe-cat is in my lap, croodling.  We are close, clinging against the weather-change back to winter.    On 3-5-2004  the farm was inside a snowglobe, a lovely sensation –  “This kind of snow quiets everyone, like a lullaby.  Even the young males do not race their cars down the street.”

Because I did not start an index until recently I will have to search for the day I witnessed the birth and ephemeral one minute life of a 30 foot snow-tornado only yards from where I stood.  This was a private showing – just between the universe and me.   Or the time it snowed rectangular snowflakes.  Or best of all, the day in Arizona that I saw the end of the rainbow.

I think too much weather can be boring, but how important an element in some  lives.   If nothing else is happening, at least the weather is.



February 21, 2011

I made the comment recently that antique diaries express very little emotion.   I am curious if this has been other people’s experience and what theories they have on “emotionless” writing.

“Saw man struck by car ahead of us.” …  ” Took Don to his house.  Saw man run over.” …  “Dead cat episode.”…  “Hitler declared war on Poland.  Extra!” …  “Grandma just stopped breathing at 2:45.  Funeral Tuesday.”

These are stray sentences tucked into page-long entries in my mother’s 1939 diary.  That’s all you get, the suspended animation of what could be deeply emotional experiences.   You want to scream “Then what happened?” or “How did you feel about that?”  but there is nothing more.

The 1873, 1880, 1897, and 1934 diaries I have in my collection are similar.  “Flora died today.”  Who was Flora, what was their relationship to her, what significance was the loss?  The style of writing of that era was predominantly to record the event and nothing more.  I don’t know if either a housewife or a farmer would have been able to justify much time on such a self-focused task.   I think letter writing was far more acceptable and necessary.

Reading this first of my mother’s diaries has been an exercise in frustration.  She mentions many “episodes” or “incidents.”   There does not appear to be any intended audience for her writing except possibly her future self.  That could justify the mere mention of an “episode,”  because she obviously felt she would remember it later.  (And would she, after 71 years had passed?)  I regret that I did not read these before she died.  There are so many things I would like to ask her.

Are journals with full-bodied emotions rare because most people do not live “emotional” lives?   Or…is everyone full of feelings but think they should be kept private?    What would be the purpose of keeping a journal without using it to express some of what is unacceptable in normal social situations?

I am looking for feedback on this aspect of self-recording.    Those of you who keep a diary today – do you reveal your feelings and opinions or do you record events only?  If so, why?

A Spider Story – On Keeping a Diary for Your Child

February 18, 2011

Back in 1976 I decided that a unique gift for my daughter’s first birthday would be a journal in which I would write down the happenings, the new experiences and the milestones of each day.   I petered out before I reached the goal of her third birthday.   We still have these two diaries and there are many treasured stories in them.  It is hard to say whether she will enjoy them as much as I have.

To the people who say “I couldn’t do that, I’m not a writer,”  I would reply: “You’re not a photographer either and yet you fill the baby books with photos.”

Here is a passage I will share with  you.  My daughter was two and a half:

“I was changing M’s diaper at bedtime when she looked up at the ceiling and noticed a spider walking about.  She was immediately worried that the spider would come down on top of her.  I laughed at this and said that it would not be coming down on her.  Seconds later, as M. jumped up in great fear and clutched me, (more fear than she has ever exhibited), I saw the spider descending gracefully on a silken string just inches from our heads.  We moved and I did the best I could under the circumstances to convince her the spider would not hurt her.  We watched the spider go all the way back up again and come down.  She was starting to overcome her fear with amusement and curiosity but I thought it would save some trouble if I just killed the spider.  (I have never liked spiders myself–I am a beekeeper who worries about being bitten by a spider!)  So, when she wasn’t so intense on the spider, I squashed it.  This caused her to wail in grief, and shout at me, with big crocodile tears in her eyes:  ‘You messed him up!!!’  I had to hold and  rock her beyond this new crisis.  It was quite a learning experience.”

A few footnotes here:  This illustrates the unexpected challenges and learning experiences of being a parent.  The entire story never ceases to intrigue me.  How wrong we can be sometimes, when we think we are doing right.

This was also the point of origin of one of those family expressions or insider jokes.   For years we used “you messed him up,” in our familial humor.

And a happy ending for the spiders of the world:  As a child I had a spider phobia.  Illogically, as an adult I have had no trouble putting my bare hands into a hive of 60,000 honeybees, most of which have a stinger they will use if you upset them.   I have finally overcome my huge fear of spiders, having lived several years in my basement bedroom, a spider mecca which no one  wanted to rent.   I still don’t like spiders…but now they get to live at least half the time, if I can transport them to the great outdoors.

I would recommend all parents  jot down some of their children’s  stories in a special book for them.  It will have more meaning than a photo.  Or you could combine a photo with a story.  When you are gone who will be there to tell the stories?

A Criminal Act

February 17, 2011

Since, as with most baby-boomers, my life is already crowded with too much material “stuff,”  I had the brilliant idea this past holiday season to ask for one thing for future “presents”:  handwritten diaries for the archive I hope to establish.    Santy Claws fulfilled my wish with two diaries purchased through eBay.  I mentioned them briefly in a blog.  Shortly afterward, I received an email from someone who had also purchased a diary by one of these women – Josephine Conklin of Mount Morris, Livingston County, New York.

My first reaction was a happy excitement.  We could transcribe the diaries and share.   This was followed by a second reaction of slow-burning rage at the eBay seller.  Why?  Because two thoughts occurred to me.   The owner of the other diary told me that the seller had even more by the same woman.  This means that the seller took the entire collection of Josephine Conklin’s diaries and split them up, possibly figuring she would make more money that way.

I don’t know about you, but as a diarist myself I think this is about the most horrible thing someone could do.   You can take someone’s artwork and sell each piece separately because each piece is a work unto itself, but a diary kept over many years is all part of the same work.   To mutilate it in this fashion is criminal.  Would anyone tear apart a canvas and sell off the fragments?  Would anyone take a book and sell it by the chapters?   A collection of journals is a complete tapestry of someone’s life…why, why destroy it?

It is true that both of the diaries I received were part of a larger collection.

One other thing disturbs me about these eBay sellers.  So many of the ads for handwritten diaries use these phrases:  “Amazing!!,” ” one-of-a-kind,”  “fabulous piece of Americana,” ” private window into American History.”   I don’t know why, but “amazing” disturbs me the most.  Mrs. Conklin was just recording her  ordinary day-to-day  activities.  What was  amazing was her dedication to that,  a point belittled by the behavior of the seller in destroying the integrity of the work by dividing it for increased profit.

Those advertising slogans remind me of circus barkers.  They cheapen the hallowed recording of someone’s life story.   “One of a kind” is also a lie when there is a box-full by the same diarist which are about to be torn apart.  Have these profiteers no conscience?

The Catch-22 of Setting Up an Archive

February 15, 2011

Ok.  Here it comes, a whine.  In my pursuit of the goal of setting up a national diary archive these stumbling blocks have emerged:

First of all, there  is the total disinterest of the two local newspapers in publicizing the idea of this project.   Apparently they do not recognize any value in such an archive.  Do you suppose they archive all the blatherings of their pitiful press?  What exactly is the repugnance for this form of writing?  With funding, I can envision this archive growing into a magnificent jewel-in-the-crown of this city at the middle of the country, already touted as one of the best places to live in America.

Is their lack of enthusiasm merely the backlash from their intuition that the printed word is dying…that their own jobs are disappearing into the (I like this word!) viral world?

I, too, understand that the handwritten private journal is becoming extinct.  Which is precisely why we must preserve the last of this species.

Now here is the catch-22:  To create such an archive you must first conjure up interest before you are entitled to financial or social support.  No interest=no non-profit organization.   On the other hand, I am told that unless I establish it as a non-profit there will be no interest.  You need a few courageous  souls who will be the  board of directors and who love to write all of  that gobbledygook and the tedious reports that are required (so that you don’t have to) to prove you are a viable entity.

The rules for setting up a non-profit give me the same sense of dread as going to the dentist.  Perhaps a lawyer…

Pursuing the line of materializing some support, I called the library last week to set up a room for a free journal writing workshop and presentation on creating the diary archive.  Guess what?  You cannot schedule a room unless you are  a non-profit organization!

I distinctly remember two events I attended recently at the library.  One was a free chat by a local  author.  In the back of the room a local bookstore was selling her books like hotcakes.  Wasn’t there a profit in there somewhere?  The second event was a lecture on how to start a blog (the journal writing extinction committee).  The presenter would not answer my question at the end.  Instead, she handed me a business card.  This is also a non-profit?

I am sitting back on my haunches trying to figure out strategy.  I am not a political princess.  I am not a rah-rah fund raiser.  I am not young and pretty. I am Boxer, the workhorse, from Animal Farm.  Hmm.  So how do I do this?

I haven’t given up.  I haven’t quit.  I can find another room to rent for a lecture.   I can pay for advertising.  I can hire a kid one third my age to teach me more about how to drive a blog.  This is just a flesh wound.

All y’all out there can send your moral and financial support. And ideas.

Oh…and I have one last complaint.  It’s about the weather.  I called the weatherclown this morning and he said it was going to be a sunny,  50s day.  Trickster.  It is 39 and totally overcast.   Feels like snow.  My sister-who-is-always-right says the weather forecasters are always right.   Have I ever told you about my sister?



More About: A Diary of the Century by Edward Robb Ellis

February 15, 2011

I suppose I am drawn to the diary of Edward Robb Ellis because of his insatiable curiosity about everything and his desire to learn more about whatever came into his life.  He certainly had a reporter’s eye for news and what makes an interesting story.  Yet he went beyond the average reporter with “behind-the-curtain” observations on “the real story.”  I enjoyed his descriptive vignettes of the people, famous and not, that he met in his life.  I, too, study human behavior and find how people act endlessly fascinating.

He was fond of saying that an intellectual is a person excited by ideas, a concept he attributes to his wife, Ruth.  This 556 page edited diary is a page-turner for the intellectual reader.  I think the best diaries not only tell what happened, but how the diarist felt and what the diarist thought about his/her life and the world they lived in.

Ellis and I agree with Robert Louis Stevenson who said “There are not words enough in all Shakespeare to express the merest fraction of a man’s experience in an hour.”  The best diaries, like the best writing, know what to leave out.  But I am always stunned when someone tells me “I can’t keep a diary because I just don’t know what to write about.” Now that would be a person who is dead long before their death.   Ellis seemed to know what to leave out and what to bring in focus.  Some of the entries are long descriptive passages and others are short reflections only a few sentences long.  The impact can be the same.

I know that taking nearly 70 years of someone’s journal and reducing it to one book would show you only the cream of the writing.  What I suspect was left out was what I desired to read more of – the personal.  I could have been satisfied with less of the famous people and more sketches of the average.  What was kept in, that leapt from the pages, was his love of his wife Ruth and the extreme sense of loss he suffered for the 33 years without her.   Overall, this is a big, beautiful book and I highly recommend it to those who are attempting to record the story of their life.

Here are some samples of the reflections of Edward Robb Ellis:  “I define knowledge as a body of facts, and wisdom as knowledge of oneself.”  “The only thing that is really shocking is cruelty.”   “The most beautiful sound in the world is the laughter of children.”   “Occasional solitude is as necessary as food and drink.”   “As one ages time flows faster.”   “A single detail may reveal the universal in the particular.” “Years ago I made heroes of men and women with brilliant minds.  Now I admire people who are compassionate.” “Tragedy is unfulfilled potential.”  “I give you my all when I give you my attention.” “The only evil is hurting another or yourself.” Ellis believed “the invisible more significant than the visible.  For example – love.”  “Never in my life have I had an original thought.  The artist creates nothing; all he does is rearrange the pieces of reality that were born when the universe was born.  Truth slumbers within everyone.”

In 1976 Ellis published a plea for setting up an “American Diary Repository,” long before I had the same idea.  A Diary of the Century was published in 1995.  I read it in early 2001 and immediately wanted to fly to New York and meet him.  I was a few years too late.

Favorite Published Diary: A Diary of the Century by Edward Robb Ellis

February 10, 2011

I would like to begin talking about a few of my favorite published diaries.  I think my absolute top choice would have to be A Diary of the Century by Edward Robb Ellis, which contains selections from the diary he wrote for over 70 years.  Ellis was born in 1911 and died in 1998.  He was a newspaper reporter, diarist, and author of several books, most notably on New York and on the Great Depression.  His diaries are now archived in the Fales Library/Special Collections  in New York City.  The published diary is available through

A Diary of the Century opens with an introduction by Pete Hamill, whose first paragraph is a simple and  extraordinarily beautiful description of why we write:

“The diarist has one essential goal: to freeze time.  With each entry, he or she says that on this day, a day that will never again occur in the history of the world, I lived.  I lived in this city or that town, upon which the sun shone warmly or the rain fell steadily.  I ate breakfast, walked city streets or country roads, drove a car or entered a subway.  I worked.  I dreamed.  Other human beings said witty things to me, or stupid things, or brutal things;  or I the same to them.  I laughed.  I wept.  The newspapers told me about the fevers of politics, distant wars, and who won the ballgames.  I experienced a work of art or read a novel or heard music that would not leave my mind.  I was bored.  I was afraid.  I was brave.  I was cowardly.  I endured a headache.  I broke my leg.  I loved someone who did not love me back.  I suffered the death of a loved one.  This day will never come again, but here, in this diary, I will have it forever.  Casual reader, listen:  I, too, have lived.”

Pete Hamill has been a novelist, essayist and journalist for over 40 years.  He is also a New Yorker.  (

Although Edward Robb Ellis does not fall in the category of the “common” man and his diary has many entries about the rich and famous, I am drawn to the style of his diary,  perhaps because that is the type of diary I write.  Ellis writes like the reporter that he was – a record of the events of his life, with a background of the history taking place around him.  Unlike a reporter, he reveals his true feelings and emotions about those events, and says things about famous people that could not be printed in any paper.   I am especially intrigued with the deep insights that come to him through the discipline of writing for so many years.

In May of 1932, his elder sister tried to talk him out of keeping his journal. He wrote: “As usual, I’m going to ignore her advice.  What must be kept in mind is the fact that someone should have the courage and integrity to put down on paper all his life’s happenings precisely as they occurred.  It is my belief that the historian of the future will thank me.  In these pages he will not find a record of world deeds, mighty achievements, conquest.  What he will discover is the drama of the unfolding life of one individual, day after day after day.”

The Shadow Side of Keeping a Journal

February 3, 2011



Our happy face is not a side we are ashamed to show, our demons are another matter…


There is a local pundit who has been making money on the idea that “a thousand things went right today.”  I cannot imagine recording such stuff in a diary as: “ I am still above ground and breathing, the sun shone today, my car started, my job is still there, the office staff is getting along great, the cat did not puke on the carpet, I have food on my plate, it rained on the garden, I was on time for ____.”  Next day: “ditto.” Interesting, huh?


Then there are books with psuedo-journal entries just bursting with wisdom for each day.

How did these people get so smart, so kind, so loving and so wise in a single lifetime?  Are they channeling all the greats…Jesus, Buddha, Lao Tzu, Confucius, Muhammad, or Dale Carnegie?  For some reason I am suspicious.


I suppose we have to admit that journals are like newspapers.  They are far more captivating when there is a bit of gossip, some scandal, a little protest, and a dose of tragedy.  We want the dark side.


If we are reading a novel, let’s face it, we must have an engaging conflict or the book is just a flatliner.   An honest diary would be willing to talk about life’s little lessons – the con artists, the betrayals, nasty politics, irresponsible people, and Mother Nature’s cruelties.  And yet…how would it be if we endlessly wrote “a thousand things went wrong today”?


If you use your journal for self-analysis then your writing should reveal at least a glimpse of wrestling with demons.  Or should that be “dances with demons”?  Private journals being the truth serum that they are will often expose your secrets even if you do not intend to do so.  Who you are comes to the surface in spite of your deceptions, just as how you dress, how you drive, what you eat, the books you read and every job you do is a reflection of who you are.


Although it reveals our shadow side, wrestling with demons is not a negative aspect of keeping a journal.  I have an expression that I like to use:  “Go to meet the monster.”  It reminds me to face something that is difficult, rather than hide.  How could that be a negative behavior?


What, then, is the shadow side of keeping a journal?  Not, I say, in what we write about IF we learn to keep it all in balance between that sweet positive and dour negative outlook.  I see two potential dangers:  1.  More time writing about than living your life.  This is as foolish to me as watching hours of “reality” tv when you could be doing some real living of your own.   2.  Self-absorbed, narcissistic thinking.  We all need to bounce our ideas off someone else…someone who just might oppose our way of thinking or provide a new way of looking at a problem, otherwise we will be perpetually caught in the whirlpool of incestuous thought.   To be stuck in our own thinking, with no challenges, can be a dangerous thing.   Step carefully around the fly-paper of these perils.

What’s Under the Covers?

February 3, 2011

As recently as a couple of years ago I was reading of a tragic murder with ties to my hometown.  The murderer was described as a “loner” with problems, “who kept a journal.”  The implication was that all persons who keep journals are immediately outside the realm of normal society and probably harboring all sorts of anti-social plots and extremist behavior.  Definitely people to mistrust.

There is a pervasive scorn for people who keep a journal, as if that automatically describes you as a secretive loner, self-absorbed and narcissistic, and—dare I say?—evil.  All the world distrusts the loner, the sheep which stands away from the flock, the individual who is not afraid to think for themselves, anyone who dresses or behaves in a manner that does not conform.

Certainly today’s diarist is being somewhat secretive.  Since virtually everything put on a computer is public information, the only privacy we have left is in our handwritten diaries.  Think about that.

Before the age of the personal computer, keeping diaries and writing letters was, if not commonplace, at least not suspect.  Up until the 1800s the only way to communicate, record and preserve information, or capture an image of what life was like, was to write it down or paint it.  (Photography evolved during the 1800s.)  The diaries I am reading from that era are short and simple records of the tapestry of daily life: “baked three pies, did washing, Herbert went into town, Mrs. Jones died,” and so on.  Many entries are only a sentence long.  Life was busy with work and I suspect there was little time for the “frivolity” of keeping a diary, especially in lower class homes.

The late 1800s witnessed the birth of contemporary psychology, and with it the gradual acceptance of emotions, (even the dark side of our nature), and a feeling of freedom to express them.  It would be interesting to research the change in the content of diaries from about 1900 to the 1960s.  Alongside the turmoil of the sixties and the “free love” and experimental happenings in this country, I believe the substance of journal writing changed drastically.  We were free not just to record what happened but how we felt about it.

I consider the late sixties and the seventies as the golden age of the journal.  The journals of Anais Nin were published and transformed the diary into an art form and a tool in self analysis.  They established the legitimacy of the diary as a genre of literature.  Tristine Rainer (who worked with Anais Nin) published The New Diary: How to use a journal for self guidance and expanded creativity.  Christina Baldwin published One to One: Self-Understanding Through Journal Writing.  The diary became an accepted, even encouraged, medium for deepening the experience of everyday life.

So, what has happened to the diarist since the advent of the personal computer and why are we once again scorned?  I see a movement toward “all things public” — we blog, we text, and it is all out there.  I think this is a step toward superficial and shallow thinking.  Undoubtedly there will be less self-examination or revelation of truth, both personal and otherwise.  What can you say when you know the boss could read it?

Despite the risk of being judged an anti-social personality, if you want to be free to express your innermost thoughts, to report life as you see it, I think it is best kept between the covers…of a journal.

Note:  Tristine Rainer and Christina Baldwin, two founding mothers of the golden age of the diary, are still actively involved in helping people tell their stories, write their memoirs, and deepen their lives with journal writing.  For more information visit:  Tristine Rainer’s – Center for Autobiographic Studies and Christina Baldwin’s – Storycatcher.

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