The Last Word
Journals and blogs — audience of one, or more
Faced with this oblong of bare white space, two things come to mind. The first is, whatever am I going to write that will be interesting? Secondly, what an opportunity. Every blank screen is an opportunity to speak without being spoken to. A soliloquy.
In the same way, a blank sheet of paper lodged between the covers of a personal journal is an invitation to talk without interruption. A journal is not meant to be shared, but to be a safe house for secrets. Things you'd never say to your friends, naughty thoughts, your real feelings about your best friend's choice of wall paper. A journal-keeper writes for an audience of one.
According to Webster, a journal is: 1) a daily record of occurrences or transactions, or 2) a personal record of experiences and reflections; a diary. A third definition of journal writing has evolved, not as a diary or collection of private thoughts, but as a writing tool. Journaling is a highly regarded exercise among writers and often the first thing writing teachers recommend to their students. The idea is to loosen up the writer's thoughts, a little stretching before jogging down the road of hard work. A poet can jot impressions, feelings, emotions, and observations without the constraints of meter, rhyme or stanza. For a fiction writer, imbedded within three pages of jottings can be the beginnings of the next story; the act of journaling is to reach deep into the waters of the sub-conscious to access the imagination.
As a pre-teen, I was a pretty dedicated diarist. I had one of those little white books with the locking clasp, its narrow lines filled with green ink, chronicling the daily routine of a sixth grader, as if it mattered. I confessed that Paul McCartney was my favorite Beatle, and used the tiny pages to practice different styles of handwriting. The tiny lock represented the safe-keeping of my adolescent hopes and desires, and the idea of anyone seeing those unabashed diary entries was horrifying.
Since then I've kept a journal, on and off, particularly when I'm not working on a novel. I log weather and list in the inside cover the books I've read, giving them thumbs up or down as earned in my private opinion. I scribble frustration, anticipation, and - when the Red Sox took the World Series - elation. My handwriting hasn't improved, and some of the entries are pretty hard to read, but when I look back at those pages I am sometimes amazed at how a journal is, for me, a way to kick-start memory, and so I'm glad that I recorded some of the more mundane events, things that would not come to the surface without written reminders. But once I'm working on a new piece of fiction, the journal thins out, trickling into something opened once a week at best. Where the free flow of thought and the exercise of putting words down on paper, actual paper, might mean two pages for each day, now whole weeks are recorded on one page. I don't have enough energy - or time - to do both.
Logbooks, an example of Webster's first definition, are highly regarded sources for historians. These meticulous records are the databases of their time, and information from tides to weather to economics can be gleaned from their pages. Logbooks were meant to be used. Often illustrated by their keepers, logbooks are more than the dry recording of expenses and income, they define a lost commercial enterprise and extinct society.
Like logbooks, journals are extremely valuable to biographers and historians. Those of celebrated journal-keeper Dorothy Wordsworth, William Wordsworth's sister, offer the researcher insights that other types of resources can't. Civic records, however useful in tracing the life of someone from birth, marriage, and death, cannot reveal the essence of an historical figure. Only letters and journals can do that, and Dorothy Wordsworth's journals are among the best example of primary sources for biographers. Generally, neither personal journals nor private correspondence are written with a larger audience in mind, thus can be achieved with a minimum of self-consciousness. To imagine that one's personal observations were the stuff of public consumption would be exceedingly inhibiting. Could Dorothy have ever imagined that her private diaries would become the public pages they have? That generations of Wordsworth scholars to come would look at her private musings as clues to the work of her brother?
So, what of blogs? Web logs, the two words, one a recent coinage, the other with an older connotation, are elided to make the new term that my computer, which isn't particularly old, highlight as a mis-spelling. The blogger puts his or her thoughts out there for anyone to see. Quite the opposite of a personal journal, a blog is written with the idea that someone will see what's expressed, opinion, routine, cant and rant. Bloggers, and I don't count here the folks using the web to tout good causes, or share information, are vulnerable to commentary. Is the web such a vast land of anonymity that sending our words into cyberspace is the same as writing them in a journal hidden in our underwear drawer? Is blogging true journaling, or is it exhibitionism?
In this increasingly un-private world, where phone conversations of a highly personal nature are commonly held in public places, and where our privacy is threatened by our own technology, the personal journal - the one in the underwear drawer - remains a vessel for private thoughts, meant for the audience of one.
Susan Wilson is a freelance writer and novelist. She lives in Oak Bluffs. Visit her web site at www.susanwilsonwrites.com.