Archive for the ‘American Diaries’ Category

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.

Creative Ideas for Journal Writing

May 4, 2010

Some years ago I read a chapter in a book on – shall we call them “unique” individuals – about a man who recorded what he did every minute of his life.   By most standards, that is a bit obsessive, a word he used to describe himself.  I believe this man may have been Robert Shields, who suffered from “hypergraphia,” an overwhelming urge to write.  He kept this diary from 1972 until he had a stroke in 1997.  He died in 2007.  His is said to be the world’s longest diary.  He left nothing out.  His diary is now in the archives of Washington State University.

What about a diary that records what you are doing at the same time every day?  I recall the 1995, independent American film:  “Smoke,”  which the late film critic Roger Ebert called “a beguiling film about words, secrets, and tobacco.”   The main character took a photo on the same street corner of New York at the same time every day of the year and put them all in a scrapbook.    Although not usually so meticulous in time or place, that is what we do when we keep a journal.

In another blog, I  mentioned a diarist who kept a journal of “to do” lists.  Can’t see doing this for a very long time, but it is definitely a creative solution to writer’s block.  I have actually uncovered a few “to do” lists from my past during ephemera archaeology.    Mildly fascinating, indeed.  This is a reminder that mundane minutiae  can become marvelously captivating as time passes.

Making lists is a fun exercise, especially if you are bored with your writing.  Once I wrote “these are a few of my favorite things,” in the back of one of my journals.   I keep adding to that list.  It works well as a self portrait.   Someday I will write a list of my dislikes (i.e. skunk perfume absolutely slays me).  The possibilities for lists are endless:  things you love or hate, hopes, fears, friends, foes, food you like or hate, things you think are erotic, things that repulse you, pets you have had, the many things you have experienced or witnessed in your life (birth, death, nature, accidents, pain, thrills, etc.)

You can write a lot on your memories.  The journal is a time-machine that has already been invented.   Go anywhere in your past that you’d like to go and stay as long as you like.  No need to worry about bringing back a butterfly in the cuff of your pants…or is there?

I am not sure how many creative journaling ideas are completely original because I see the same suggestions over and over again.  There are unsent letters, sketches, doodles, charts and graphs and maps, blessings, affirmations, and character descriptions.  Write a complete portrait of one of your friends or a family member.  I don’t do that very often because the people in my life are mentioned so frequently that their actions become  “character development,”  as in a novel.  I suppose I should attempt a physical description, though for some reason that is harder.

I don’t know that I’ve ever been at a loss for something to say, but an enjoyable exercise for me, and one that I suspect might be interesting for a future reader, is to write a “be here now.”  In that, I attempt to completely describe exactly where I am and what I see, hear, and smell.  I want the future reader to be in the room with me.   I don’t think I’ve ever run across this in anyone else’s diary.

A useful idea I have borrowed from someone else is to think of each day as a basket.  At the end of the day…what is the gift in your basket?  There is so much in a day, even an hour.  The true dilemma is to select.   I love the way we can choose telescope or microscope, cosmic themes or minutiae.

The primary focus of a diary is, of course, You.  And then all things as they relate to you.  The value of a diary archive is in being able to step into someone’s shoes and see life as they see it, to walk a mile in their moccasins.

For more ideas on what to write about see my blog “What I Write: Sturm und Drang” from May 14, 2010.



Green With Envy

April 30, 2010

                                                 GREEN WITH ENVY

The local paper was not interested in printing my article on building a National Diary Archive in this city.   However, they have run feature stories about the still wildly popular hobby and lucrative business of scrapbooking.   

Counter-intuitively, a local store that sells blank books for journal writing would not hang a flyer about my journal workshop.  I have canceled journal workshops for lack of interest.  I have felt the breeze of doors slamming in my face regarding the idea of creating a National Diary Archive to preserve the thoughts and feelings and stories of the common person. 

Meanwhile, on April 14, Doug Gross of CNN wrote: “Twitter and the Library of Congress announced Wednesday that every public tweet posted since Twitter started in 2006 will be archived digitally by the federal library.”  Matt Raymond, the Library of Congress communications director, is seemingly ecstatic by what might be learned through this “wealth of data.”  And Twitter itself gushes: “It’s very exciting that tweets are becoming a part of history.” 

Jealousy washes over me.  Save imbecilic tweets and not the mindful outpourings of self-discovery, not the handwritten records of personal history, work, travels or relationships?   I wonder what wealth of information could be gleaned by saving all of our phone calls.  

How about if we save our “to do” lists?  Ah well, someone has already done that in the journaling world.  She collected her lists.  I suppose there was a revelation there, if nothing else it would have been that we spend a lot of time on things that are, in the end, not very important after all.   Given one hundred years our lists might be a fascinating thing…if you needed background for a novel. 

So, if tweets are valuable as part of the history of social culture, why not journals?  Or is it a matter of the ease with which tweets have been collected as opposed to the money and tenacious work of collecting handwritten journals?

What’s In a Name?

April 30, 2010

What to call the new baby?

National Diary Archive, American Diary Archive, National Diary Repository, American Diary Repository, Diary Archive of America, National Diary Library, American Diary Library, etc. , etc., etc.   A veritable mad confusion of choices.

“Journal, ” a term I prefer, is too often confused with newspapers and magazines  (i.e. American Journal Archive). 

I like to tell people I keep a “journal”  and not a “diary” as I think “journal” conveys something more serious, something with depth and reflection beyond  a smattering of daily notes.   Truthfully, not all my entries have that much depth. 

I’ll be blunt about using the word “repository” in the name.  It reminds me of “suppository,” an altogether repugnant association in my mind.

Someone suggested going with “American” instead of “National,”  to distinguish it from all the other diary archives in the world.  Does anyone actually know of any other official diary archives? 

Any name suggestions are welcome.  Voting is encouraged.  Please don’t do the American thing…you know, what we are doing with baby names…Amairikan Dieree Arkive.

Are Old Diaries Worth Saving?

March 25, 2010

There are many reasons why all diaries are worth saving…not just the diaries of the famous. 

Have you ever wondered what someone else was really thinking or feeling?  Have you ever thought how intriguing it would be to know what was going on in someone else’s life, to tear away the masks we wear?  What is it like to be someone the same as you, or someone completely different – of the opposite sex, a different race or a different period of history?   What might it be like to be a mother, a single-parent, a handicapped person, a soldier, to have cancer, to be raped, or to be so angry you would take a gun to school?    

There are many voyeuristic fascinations in reading a person’s diary.   We want to peek, we want to know what it was really like. Dr. Irving Finkel, who has collected 1,000 diaries to begin a British diary archive, says we all have something of a “beastly sneak” inside us.    We want to see the naked truth that most of us suspect is not available in newspapers or public media, or in history books, or even in buffed up autobiographies.  

Old diaries are an alluring glimpse into the past.   What  were the triumphs and tragedies and even the mundane details and concerns of everyday life?  What did people do before television, computers, and cell phones?  We might not think our diaries are very interesting, but given one hundred years even the commonplace acquires a mystique.  

For a point of view that is unavailable in a standard history text, I love reading excerpts from diaries written about a historic event.  After all, history is usually written by the winners who distort things to illuminate their own brilliance.   A diary, however, is uncensored.   

Whether we should preserve diaries may become a personal decision when you are the diarist.   If you are like me, you never intended to write so much.  I began my diary when I was 16.  I just kept on writing and suddenly it was 46 years later.  At my age it is time to answer questions about what should happen to all of my stuff when I die.  Because I write with complete honesty, and often use the diary as a catharsis, I would not want the members of my family or my friends to read it when I die.   At the same time, since I have put so many hours of work into these journals, I would hate to throw them away just as much as I would be devastated today if they were destroyed in fire or flood.  

Offering them to an archive is a way to preserve my life’s work.  I would be giving them to future generations, for whatever purpose emerges, in all of their ragged uselessness or hopeful value.  I think it’s a bit  like donating your body to science, only in this case it’s like donating your soul.  

One never knows if it will end up on the anatomy table or in the woods of a forensic body farm.  That’s a chance I’m willing to take.    

To my future unknown readers: “Salut!”

We need a national diary archive!

March 3, 2010

 In an age where blogging is de rigueur for the young, and we baby boomers are approaching the end of the road, we are in danger of losing an important part of our cultural history: the diaries, journals and letters of the common person. 

As I write this I imagine hundreds of such treasures are being sent off to ignoble graves in the landfills of America, flung in the trash by unappreciative or overwhelmed heirs exclaiming: “look at all this junk Mom and Dad collected!” 

 Many people before me have envisioned a National Diary Archive – a safekeeping place where all those “common” folk (those of us who are not famous) might bequeath their diaries for the benefit or entertainment of unknown readers and researchers of the future.  Who, how and where are the major challenges.    

 Besides acquiring funding it will be necessary to find a location safe from natural disasters, accessible to the public, and suitable for long-term storage.  The archive must be capable of storing the diaries unopened until all persons in them are dead and will no longer be hurt by the diarist’s blunt honesty.  There will be a need for someone to work on cataloging and referencing these diaries for research when released to the public and possibly publishing them on the internet. 

 As you might have guessed, I have a personal connection with this cause and do shamelessly present myself for the position.  I began writing a diary in 1964 and have kept one (not always religiously) ever since then. The more than 50 volumes comprise a large part of my life’s work.  No, they are not great literature.  Neither do I want them to end up as compost. 

 I have arbitrarily chosen Fort Collins, Colorado, my hometown, as the ideal location in the heart of the country, for a national diary archive.  We seem basically disaster free and have a dry climate.

 I believe there is enough interest in old diaries and journals to support establishing an archive.  Recently on eBay a policeman’s log book from 1941 and a teen-ager’s diary from 1905 sold for over $50 each.  A schoolteacher’s uniquely “emotional” journal from 1872 – describing whippings and discipline problems – sold for $378.  One thing to remember is that what is commonplace today will in a hundred years or less become intriguingly, charmingly vintage. 

 Ultimately, we cannot imagine what use these diaries and letters will have in a distant time or what impact the small tidbits or deeply examined lives will have on future generations.  But if we don’t save them now, we will never know.

For comments, ideas, or donations of diaries and journals, contact Cynthia at

%d bloggers like this: