Archive for the ‘diaries’ Category

Anais Nin: A Legend of Journal Writing

September 6, 2011

Passionate, intense, emotional, deep, lyrical, magical,  intuitive, highly perceptive of the subtleties of human behavior, deceptive, sensuous, exotic, erotic…these are all adjectives I would use to describe the writings of Anais Nin, queen of the diary.  There are so many complexities to her life that Anais Nin will remain forever a tantalizing mystery to her biographers, as I suspect she was during her life to her friends and lovers.  One of her favorite words was “labyrinth.”  Nin was a labyrinth! I have read that no one is lukewarm about Nin or her writings.  You either love her or hate her.  Put me on the side of love.

In 1971, in a dusty used bookstore in Point Reyes Station, California, I reached for a slim volume of prose: Under a Glass Bell.  In that moment I connected with the woman who was to become a major influence in the way I thought about women writers and the diary.   At the time, I scarcely knew there were women writers, and I had been keeping my own diary only eight years.

Under A Glass Bell (published in 1944) was an astonishing discovery for me.  Even in 1971, women writers were rarely acknowledged and their work and their way of seeing the world was dismissed as frivolous, rarely admitted as serious literature.  I know because I was an English lit major and we read only male writers.  In a college course in 1968, my textbook of 100 poets had only one woman poet, and that was, of course, Emily Dickinson.

As for keeping a diary, such writing was considered of little merit, particularly if you were a woman, were not a famous artist or writer, and were not involved in a historic event.  Until the early seventies, and the dawn of the Women’s Movement and the promotion of women’s writing, I don’t believe diaries were  even considered a “genre” of writing.

It is still a struggle to find acceptance for this style of writing.  Keeping a diary is frequently believed to be more of a self-indulgence than a serious attempt to deepen life and expand the boundaries of experience.    Just try saying, if you are among a group of writers and are asked what you write,   “I am a diarist,” without being met with a dismissive indifference or superiority.

Anais Nin liberated my thinking.  I soon found her diaries and began devouring them.  I was in my early twenties and I wanted to be Nin. (My own diaries began changing – deeper, more explicit. )  I was most impressed with her analysis of people and relationships and the way she described the nuances of interaction and the layers of meaning in experiences.    Next I read her continuous novel: Cities of the Interior.  In my 40s I returned to Nin and read her pornography, and then Henry and June, the unexpurgated version, (made into a very erotic movie  with look-alike Maria de Medeiros.) Last of all, I read her thought-provoking essays and lectures (she was a popular speaker on college campuses).

I deeply regret that I was never able to meet her.  (I do have an inscribed copy of Cities of the Interior.)  Recently I listened to a tape of an interview she did in 1971 with Studs Terkel.  What a beautiful voice.  There are many interviews available on the internet.

For those already familiar with Nin, I have found A Cafe in Space: The Anais Nin Literary Journal, online.  I think most of her books are available as ebooks as well as real books.

There are websites devoted to Anais Nin quotes.  As a collector of quotes over many years, here are some favorites:

“We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospect.”

“Each friend represents a world in us, a world possibly not born until they arrive, and it is only by this meeting that a new world is born.”

“There is not one big cosmic meaning for all, there is only the meaning we each give to our life, an individual meaning, an individual plot, like an individual novel, a book for each person.”

“…Beware…love never dies of a natural death.  It dies because we do not know how to replenish its source, it dies of blindness and errors and betrayals.  It dies of illness and wounds, it dies of weariness, of witherings, of tarnishings, but never a natural death.  Every lover could be brought to trial as the murderer of his own love.”

“War is the great pleasure of people whose love is atrophied, who need war to feel alive, who find in violence and clash a semblance of relationship.  Relationship by hatred.”

So, here is my second favorite published diarist, and if you have never experienced her writings before then you are missing a truly unique writer who can transport you to the “cities of the interior.”

What You Can Do to Support a National Diary Archive

April 6, 2011

“What can those of us near you in heart but not geographically do to help?”

One of my readers asked this question and I will try to answer it, based on where the archive is now in its formation progress.

First of all, tell your friends about it, especially those who keep diaries.    You never know what connections might be made. If you teach journal writing, inform your students that there may soon be an archive.  If you keep an on-line diary you could ” blog” about the archive.  Everyone who keeps a journal should think about what will eventually become of them.

Assuming you are a diarist, stipulate in your will that you would like your diaries/journals to be donated to an archive upon your death and include at what point they may be open to the public.   If you wish to protect friends and family who are still living from reading what you truly felt about them, then consider stating how many years the diaries should remain closed.  You might allow staff of the archive to prepare them by transcribing them or digitizing.   You may want them to be available only to those visiting the actual location of the archive and for research purposes.   When an archive is opened in the United States, you could specify that archive in your will.

If you keep a diary/journal, give some thought to organizing and preserving it.  (See my post on that subject: “Now Where Did I Put That?”)  At the very least, put your name in each volume and where it was written.  If possible, create an index for each volume, each year, and the sum total of your work.   This will also make it easier for you to go back and re-read, which is an important benefit of this genre… an opportunity for self-insight and depth.

For all who would like to see a national diary archive I would recommend collecting diaries.  It is an expensive hobby so you might think of asking for “handwritten diaries” as presents, as I did.    Becoming the caretaker and  conservationist of someone else’s work gives you a sense of the importance of your own writing.   It might also show you how to improve your own writing.

If you begin your own collection of handwritten diaries you could transcribe them and put them online, or allow an archive to put them online.  The actual diaries could be kept by you and donated upon your death.

If you live near this archive of the future (Fort Collins, Colorado?) you are more than welcome to volunteer your time.

And, if none of the above works for you, you could always donate money.  So, keep watching our progress.

Progress on National Diary Archive

April 2, 2011

No blogs for some time and not even a single entry in my private journal!  Life has grabbed me by the throat and not let go since my last post.  But there is progress to report:

After my first rejection by the Fort Collins Public Library, I decided to try again.  I was attempting to reserve a room at the library for a free in-depth journal workshop followed by a presentation on the National Diary Archive.  I was told that only non-profit organizations or programs supporting the general purpose of the library could use the rooms.  It seemed to me that journal writing and a diary archive fit that description.  (The archive has not yet become a legal non-profit, although that is the intention.)

On my second try I gently complained that the last two lectures I attended at the library appeared to be by private citizens making a profit on their event.   One was a talk by a local author.  A local bookstore was clearly making money selling her books at a table in the back.  The second lecture was about blogging.  The blogger would not answer my question, instead she handed me her business card and said she was available for consulting for a fee.

I walked a fine line in presenting my case.    I could feel that I was close to stepping on toes but the initial resistance at the front desk gave way and I made it to the next level, and from there, on to the top administrator, who actually was interested, even excited, by the idea of an archive.

So, on April 10th I will be giving my first presentation in Fort Collins, Colorado.

Although my city is proud of being consistently named one of the top ten cities in America, I remember the days when it would not suffer a coffee shop to live. The attitude was that a coffee house was a place akin to an opium den.  We’ve come a long way, baby, as now there’s a coffee house or petit drive-through dispensary on every corner…and for other things as well.

Since 1983, Fort Collins has killed 14 used or new bookstores, including mine. And although the main newspaper has no interest in a story about the archive, nor the higher quality “local news” paper which specializes in human interest stories, I still have a modicum of hope that this idea might someday thrive here.   Perfect climate, low threat of natural disaster, easy access, and situated in the heart of the country.

Truly, I haven’t tapped but the surface of the possibilities here.  The support may need to be on the national level but the team for the non-profit needs to be local.  Already I have found someone who has taught journal writing for many years.  I am searching for others wishing to get involved.


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?

Searching for Handwritten Diaries

January 21, 2011

I think now that anyone searching for old diaries might have better luck in heading for eBay than estate sales, although the price tag may be drastically different.  I have searched garage sales for 28 years and never found any diaries.   For my solstice/birthday present this year I asked for original handwritten diaries and low and behold I now have two more.

Prior to the holidays I scanned the items for sale on eBay and my hopes plunged as common things were bid over $50.

There was a set of diaries from a Michigan woman, late 1800s-early 1900s.  She visited Detroit (where I grew up) and Belle Isle and other locations I would be familiar with.  I thought it spoiled the historic value for the seller to divide them up.

There were diaries from New York from the 1800s.   The best of those was the diary of a housewife who was something of a busybody, but that trait made for great reading as she seemed to know everything that was going on.  The bidding rose to $180 and then I lost track of it.

Those diaries from the late 1800s and early 1900s vividly depicted how close life and death were back then.  Once a week, a death to report from accidents, childbirth and disease.   Sometimes Death just ran through a whole family.

I was also stunned to read about a horrific murder where someone broke into an old couple’s home and killed them, cut them to pieces, then set their house on fire.  I just didn’t think that kind of crime  happened back then.

I read parts of a diary from WW II — a soldier with a low opinion of the military who was offended by drunken soldiers, swearing, prostitution (especially a married commander sleeping with a girl), and appalling warnings about syphilis.

There was a sketchbook/journal from the Civil War.

There was a 1936 diary written by a 16 year old girl who had an insider’s view into the world of British diplomacy and the roots of terrorism in the Middle East.   The bidding on that one was up to $435,000 when I quit my search.  Obviously she had a reporter’s sense of history.  When I assume that there are enough people writing about local, national and international events I forget the value of an insider story.   I once had the chance to record a social phenomenon I was a part of and did not have the sense to do it.

The new diaries I was given will become a part of the diary archive.  The first was written in 1880 by Josephine Conklin of  Mount Morris, Livingston, New York.  She was born in 1850.  It is only 3 by 5 inches.  There is a lovely tintype and a photo with the diary.  The second diary was presumably written by Mrs. Herbert Abbott of Coloma, Michigan in 1934.  It is nearly 4 by 6 inches.

The Art of Slogging Through the Downpour

September 1, 2010

In the beginning there was no particular plan.   I cannot remember being inspired by any person or event to keep a journal.  Although I tried keeping a diary in 1959, my oldest existing journal is from 1964.  I was 16.  It mentions school, friends, special events and horseback riding lessons.  Nothing exceptional. 

By 1968, when I had dreams of becoming a writer, my journal turned toward practice in creative writing.  Important events were happening in the world which were ignored in my journal. 

By the early 70s I was beginning to write about relationships and the entries had more depth and insight.  I recorded a variety of experiences I had while working on a ranch.  I was struggling to find my place in the world, my “work,” and to find the right man.    There was much inner turmoil while the place I lived was a tempest of a social environment.

After 46 years of writing, the journal has become almost a living entity, a companion of sorts.  My relationship to it has changed as I have changed.  The focus of the journal has shifted as the stages of my life have progressed.   Marriage and child-bearing are no longer even an idle thought.  Companionship and grandparenting have taken the frontline.  Relationships still predominate.    The world is the tempest. 

How Has My Relationship With My Journal Helped Me?…

The journal shows me who I was and who I am now and traces the paths I chose.   Looking back is like seeing a photo of that gangly kid in the mismatched clothes sitting proudly on the new bike.   Embarassing.  Poignant.

Re-reading helps integrate my life into a whole.   I love re-reading.  The journal has provided a “photograph” of my past, preserving both  the best and the worst moments.  To erase the sad times and the battles also erases the journey.  To suck all the marrow from life you must savor the full spectrum of your experience.  At the end you can say “I have suffered and come through”…lending meaning to the pain.

The act of writing has been an anchor during stressful experiences and a soothing meditation during the blues.   If I feel shattered, the simple act of moving my pen across the page represents a going forward.  Shaping an experience into words can organize my thinking and allow clarity and insights.  It can vent and deflate anger.

The journal can be an escape (only if it replaces action), but it also allows one to live more deeply.

Has my journal  really changed anything in my life?  Yes, I think it has a couple of times.  When I lived in a communal society – which evolved into a cult – my diary and letters allowed me to voice “negative thoughts” that were not allowed public expression and to retain a clandestine critical thinking  that was necessary for my eventual escape.   

A similar experience happened during a tragically wrong marriage when I was fooled into thinking my husband was what he was not.    The journal told the complete story and helped me survive this dark episode. 

Has writing in a journal made me a better person?  Can’t say.  I have had the same moral code of honor for as long as I can remember. 

Will it be of value to anyone else someday?  Can’t say. 

Mostly it has given me the opportunity to say “I  have lived, and this is my story, and these are the characters and the events of my life.”

The Road Not Taken

June 13, 2010

Life has been overfull lately.  Facing financial crisis and surgery,  the madness of spring garden work, and the death of a friend, I battle fatigue and mild depression.  I continue to write in my journal what has been given to me because it overflows the boundaries just as in the natural world the local rivers are breaching their banks.   I struggle to live more deeply by finding meaning in this chaos and to simply survive it by letting it out. 

My journals are not self-improvement work.  Nor gratitude books.  (Though I once tried to write a sentence a day blessing book.)  They are my stories, my personal newspaper, my life. 

Sometimes I think I am shallow not to include more news and world events and  I drag my attention back to oil spills and mass shootings for a while.  Then I get selfish again and think “we have places to write about those things.”  There are newspapers, magazines, books, and blogs for those events, but there is no one writing the story of Cynthia Manuel as seen through her own eyes. 

I do regret not saying more about historic events but I did not begin a diary to record history.  What is curious is my strange selectivity.  At 20 I wrote a silly “creative piece” about the 1967 Detroit race riots as the tanks rolled past my neighborhood.  Did I write about hearing Martin Luther King speak?  The first moon walk?  I had not yet  begun my journal when JFK was shot.  That had a big impact on me but I never wrote one word about my reaction.  During the better part of the sixties I used my journals for creative writing.

At 51 I wrote about the Columbine High School massacre.  Today I neglect to report many shootings.  I am no longer shocked and I don’t know what to say or what I can do about these recurrent tragedies.

I did write about the first World Trade Center bombing and predicted it would be attempted again.  I was effusive on 9-11-01 and predicted we would use it as an excuse to start a war someplace.  

There are two experiences I have had where I very much regret my lack of exact reporting.  What I mean by this is that I feel my diaries would be of  greater value to the future had I made it a priority to record as much  as possible – with precise dates and names and my reaction to events as they unfolded.  

The first is my eight years in Synanon, a drug rehabilitation organization turned utopian community turned cult.  I have letters, diaries and other ephemera from that experience.  All incomplete.  I had no sense at 20 of what an opportunity I had to record the history of a fascinating and unique social phenomenon.  Alas, I saw myself as a participant and not an outside, objective reporter. 

The second experience I missed recording in the same way.  I worked four years in a greenhouse.  Production line to small time manager.  I saw a working class job from the inside.  I saw the truth behind the image of the “green industry.”   I was a careful observer of the soap opera and social politics.   Some of it made it to the pages, most did not.  What if you approached such a chapter of your life as a reporter, an anthropologist? 

All diaries are different, and should be.   I’d like to stir up some discussion and ask my journal writing companions what they think we should write about.  Should we feel a responsiblity to record history or merely personal history?   And for you – what is the road not taken, the writing you regret not doing?

A Hound Dog on the Wrong Trail?

May 14, 2010

                                A Hound Dog on the Wrong Trail?

Of all people, you’d think I would have a treasure trove of old diaries.  After all, I’ve been a book dealer for 27 years.  The number of boxes of books I have pawed through numbers in the thousands.  How many diaries and journals have I found?   None!  Nada.  Zero.  (Not counting the inchoate diary I pulled out of the trash once.)

I am usually at a book sale when “the starting gun” goes off.  As a book hound I’ve been on my hands and knees crawling under tables.   I’ve sniffed through book collections dragged out of basements and attics.  I’ve even tried willing diaries to come to me. 

Like a near-sighted person trying to find a contact lens on the floor, am I looking in the wrong places?  Perhaps I should attend more auctions and estate sales.   Where exactly do you find these elusive things?   Anyone want to share their secrets?

It has seemed to me that there has been a steady interest in journal writing since the seventies.  Art stores and bookstores often have dazzling displays of blank books …even today when I would expect the popularity of handwritten journals to decline as the computer takes over and a new generation of writers is pained by the turtle speed and physical effort of producing readable handwriting.  (Do they even teach handwriting anymore?)   

With all these journals being written – where are they?  Maybe the problem is that we are not dead yet.   We baby boomer diarists are still plodding along happily filling up our blank books.    If we have neglected writing a will with instructions for the cremation or burial of our diaries is it because we are in denial of the inevitability of our death? 

Years ago there was a book dealer who specialized in handwritten diaries and journals.  Today you can buy diaries on eBay.  Obviously, creating a national diary archive will require either a generous budget or some ingenuity in finding the lost diaries of America.  Anyone willing to tell the tale of how they found a diary?

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