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Monday, February 20, 2017

“Not keep a journal!”

“Not keep a journal!”

Thus exclaimed Henry Tilney to Catherine Morland in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey. “How are your absent cousins to understand the tenour of your life in Bath without one? How are the civilities and compliments of every day to be related as they ought to be, unless noted down every evening in a journal? How are your various dresses to be remembered, and the particular state of your complexion, and curl of your hair to be described in all their diversities, without having constant recourse to a journal?”

Jane Austen thus satirizes young ladies’ stereotypically frivolous behavior, recording every trivial instance of their lives in their journals—something like we see today on social media. (In fact, Henry Tilney would surely revise his speech for the modern woman: “Not post on social media! How are your 582 best friends to understand the tenor of your life without social media? How are the meals allowed in your current diet to be fully described as they ought to be, unless photographed and posted every day? How are your Pinterest images to be remembered, and the particular achievements of your internet games, and the latest jokes in all their diversities, without having constant recourse to a posting timeline?”)

And yet, suggests Henry to Catherine, you do want to be able to use a journal to develop a thoughtful little piece of writing about the kind of life you may be leading while you are visiting a certain city. Maybe that life is trivial, and without a journal to tell you so, you might miss the quality of your days. (As you might if you spend all your time on social media.)

I have been keeping a journal for decades. I threw away a number of years’ worth, to the horror of my journal-writing-class-teaching relative, because they were the years of my depression and were way too painful to ever go through again. And I don’t wish that on anybody else, so I don’t regret them being gone. To me, throwing them out was symbolic of having successfully overcome the depression itself.

People have a lot of reasons for keeping a journal or a diary. My grandfather’s diary recorded the temperature every day along with the weather, what he ate, what he wore, and everything he did. They can make for very boring reading, but if you are patient and tenacious with them, you discover some tiny gems of humor along the way. He rarely commented on people or events, but when he did it was always something worth finding.

My grandmother on the other side of the family was a budding writer when she started keeping a journal at the age of 13. She recorded the witty and clever things she thought and conversations among her friends, along with her growing powers of analysis. By the time she was in her twenties and having all kinds of fun adventures, she was a talented writer for the immense practice she had had, and when she became a newspaper reporter, she was very good at her job indeed.

Naturally my grandparents wrote in longhand. My grandfather always wrote in ink, which was a pity, because the year the creek behind their house overran its banks and flooded the house, one of his boxes of journals was ruined. The ink had run so much that the pages were washed almost clean, and my aunt threw them out. He started writing in tiny wire-bound notebooks, sometimes bound on the sides, and sometimes at the top. Later on he wrote in standard page sized wire-bound notebooks, always on ruled paper. The ones that weren’t water-damaged are easy to read today. My grandmother wrote in pencil. It has not smeared, fortunately, nor faded, and so it is as good as the day she put the words down in her little books. She always had small, leather-bound books, rarely with ruled pages, but her writing is also easy to read.

However, it’s cursive writing. What are people going to do when they no longer can read cursive? Will they lose the ability to read charming entries in the diaries of their ancestors?

The other day I was reading a syllabus for a class on writing a personal history that includes a section on keeping a journal. The professor advocates using longhand to the exclusion of the computer. I disagree with the professor’s view, although I myself keep writing in longhand when I record things in my journal. However, there are too many people for whom that’s impractical, or awkward, or impossible to keep up the habit if it involves having to find a pen, a book or paper, and a writing surface. People who are good at typing and not so good at handwriting find it much easier to write at a keyboard. I know I do, but I make myself keep in the habit of what now feels clunky in comparison—writing by hand in a little book.

I try to make it more attractive by buying cool-looking books to write in. One year I had a journal with a cover that was illustrations reproduced from the Book of Kells. Another year the cover was a print of a Pre-Raphaelite painting. I have used tiny books, medium-sized books, and one or two large books. I used binder paper one year and the computer one year. I don’t like this year’s book, one with a pretty cover but with stupid philosophical quotes on every other page with which I don’t even agree. I may have to abandon it and start over in something else so as not to outrage my feelings every time I turn the page.

I used a fountain pen until it got all clogged up and no amount of soaking in ammonia would coax it to behave nicely again. I love fountain pens, but they are an awful lot of bother.

I once attended a talk by David McCullough in which he suggested that if you want to become famous in a hundred years or so, write a journal every day in longhand, and have your heirs donate it to the Library of Congress when you die—as it will be the only longhand journal of your generation, it will no doubt be accepted and read and referred to extensively by the historians of tomorrow.

I reread last year’s journal the other day. It was very interesting to go back through the year and relive the feelings of the moment. The memories become a lot clearer when I do that. I reread 2008 a little afterwards, and I decided that I need to work on my writing identity somewhat.

I may not seem like the same person if I write in an optimistic attitude as when I write in a pessimistic mood. I am certainly not the same persona when I write more negative things than positive things. When I forget to pay attention to some important area of my life in my journal, then my persona changes. It’s interesting to see who I was in any particular time based on what I was either subconsciously or consciously choosing to write about. But I definitely enjoy my writing a whole lot more when I focus on more of the positive things than the negative things. Not that both are not the truth, but naturally there are biases that change the shade of the truth ever so slightly.

“What is truth?” is the classic question. It’s in my journal, I hope.

My favorite journal quote is by Oscar Wilde, from The Importance of Being Earnest: “I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read in the train.”


  1. I would add to Wilde's quote another one that I have seen numerous times, but never with an explanation of who originated it: "Boring women have immaculate homes."

  2. Part way through this, Wow Marci, you are an excellent writer.

    Throw as a way old diary, I did that too. I don't feel so alone now.


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