On Keeping A Handwritten Journal In The Age of Social Media: How and Why

Last year was a good one to remember; a year filled with challenges and disappointments, serious milestone moments for family, for the kids, Kris and me, my siblings, my friends, my colleagues, the world. But I wonder, as 2010 already pours itself over me like torrent (have ten days of the new year passed already?), as memorable as it was, how much will I really remember? Should I have written more of it down?  And so, chagrined, I open the journal again, stab at the lines with the pen, and pledge to myself, I’ll write every day.  I doubt I’ll make it.  But maybe I can come closer than I have before.  Despite – or perhaps because – we are living in an age of blogs, social media, online micro-confessionals in 140 characters or less, quizzes, and literal and symbolic profile pictures and avatars, we no longer do much of a job keeping a diary.  Maybe we’re not sure what a diary ought to entail.  In my case, I’ve always over-thought a journal, assumed it had to be something greater, more elaborate or eloquent than it was; a sure recipe for a short lifespan in something I need to do daily.

A couple of recent experiences underscored for me the importance of a journal in recovering memories you wouldn’t otherwise even realize had been lost, and one gave me a clue as to how I might actually keep up with the a journal going forward.

A few weeks ago I was in the basement rummaging through an old filing cabinet, looking for a decades-old document.  What I found instead was a journal I’d kept during a few years in my 20s.  I stood there before the open drawer reading, and was struck by a couple of things. One was how embarrassingly sincerely I was trying back then to imitate Ernest Hemingway in my writing. The other was how sharply I suddenly remembered the days I was reading about, despite the fact I would not have even remembered them well enough to remember them at all (if that makes any sense) without this trigger.   Not too many days later I was rummaging again, this time in the archives of this blog (there were years, now long past, when I wrote here more than once a month).  I found an entry from April 28, 2004.  “David Says His First Sentence.”  Our seven-year-old was just a baby, still being toted in a backpack around Concord by me. And he said, “Run, Dada.” A command.  I’d noted it, with a few scraps of detail, and it brought back a flood of memories from that year, as well as a bit of remorse; I haven’t documented the other kids’ milestones like this, or even David’s later ones, though it would have been simple enough to capture many of them, if only I could keep the standards low.

Part of the problem with keeping up with a journal for me has always been the vain writerly assumption that each line is some sort of gem for posterity, an exercise in literary art that demands good writing and the presence of some sort of muse, and that the days I describe need to be as rich and fleshed out in the writing as they were in the living (ridiculous). So during the rare months in this whole life when I’ve had time to sit and write and the muse has been particularly forceful, and I haven’t felt like writing fiction instead, I’ve got journals.  For the rest of the time, the real time, the normal, crazy, life a million miles a minute, life like an X-wing fighter down the trench of the Death Star, life with all the obligations, responsibilities and distractions that require writing to be 90 parts discipline, 10 parts airy muse-ical, I’ve got no journals (unless you count the bits and scraps that wash up in social media streams, and the odd scribbled poem in the back of a notebook).

Earlier this summer I came across a news story that gave me a clue as to where my primary mistake was in my efforts to maintain a journal.  It has to do with John Quincy Adams and Twitter.  On August 5, 2009, the Massachusetts Historical Society began tweeting on behalf of Adams,  using his short journal entries (they average 110 to 120 characters) as material. Adams began the journal August 5, 1809 as he set out from to St, Petersburg, Russia. The posts are simple, and reference the weather, what he was reading that day, etc. But they also serve as pointers to longer pieces of writing he did in other formats.

I was immediately struck by this, and realized that while I may not have time or discipline (nor perhaps the skill) to sit and craft a meticulously beautiful and in-depth journal entry each day, I can write a sentence or two. And among those sentences, I could note topics that I’d like to expand into longer essays (such as this one).  And, reacting as swiftly as a striking trout, some five months and five days later, I can finally cross this line off my essays-ideas list: “John Quincy Adams diary entries resemble tweets; group to post them. Reminds me, meant to start journal again.”  I did indeed resume keeping a short-entry, handwritten journal at that time, though not faithfully. So given that it’s close enough to New Year’s so a resolution is not entirely anachronistic, here it is. Each night, I resolve to add a line or two in my own ugly handwriting to that little book.  Too late to jot down Sofia or ‘Bela’s first sentences, perhaps, but there’ll be plenty of things yet to come. What day in a life, especially in a life filled with busy children, doesn’t bring a milestone with it?

I’ll share here are the rules I’ve given myself for this endeavor. If you find them useful, let me know.

  1. Don’t write it for posterity or for the public. This includes avoiding feeling as though everything you describe needs to be put into context so that a reader unfamiliar with all of the intricacies of your life would be able to understand it.  You’re not writing your autobiography in real time, you’re taking notes.
  2. Don’t insist on writing well.  Nothing wrong with good writing, beautiful prose, or even great handwriting. But if it’s not coming, forget it. Just put down the facts that seem most important to you right now.  They’ll be enough to trigger your memory (and the poetry) later.
  3. Don’t insist on writing long. See above.
  4. Write one thing. If others occur, write them too; if not, let it go.
  5. Just as social media users often have to decide what should be a Facebook status update, what a blog post, what a Tweet, whether a photo should be on Flickr or Facebook or Twitpic, whether that video should… anyway, you get the point … your journal should not have to compete with all of these in terms of priority. Because it’s private, and therefore likely to be the bluntest, most honest, assessments of your life, give it primacy.  This initial expression of high emotion in a personal journal may also help prevent unseemly, ill considered outbursts in social media.

Happy New Year.

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