Thursday, June 6, 2013

Keeping a Journal

Title page from Isaac's journal
The spring of 2010 I found Isaac's journal and began the experience that has formed the basis of this blog.  One of my earliest posts described that discovery.  (See "Finding Isaac's Journal" in the blog archives, October 23, 2011.)  Isaac began the journal that forms the core of my manuscript in 1870, as a young druggist in his mid-20s living in Rossville, IL, but journaling was apparently something he had done most of his life, for that journal is labeled Vol. 5th.  Following an interruption in 1871, Isaac resumed his journal writing in 1884 and continued filling 480 pages of closely written daily entries until 1891.

Working with Isaac's journal--reading, transcribing, annotating, and eventually writing my manuscript about him, his community, and the period about which he wrote, I came to see Isaac as someone I knew very well.  However, most journals are meant to be private, and probably Isaac could never have imagined someone like me devoting months and years to his journal as I have.

People keep diaries and journals for different reasons.  Computer journals are now quite popular.  In my October 23, 2011 blog I describe the influence of Henry Ward Beecher on Isaac's method of journaling, an influence that changed Isaac from his youthful style of expressing his opinions and judgments of others to the more restrained style of his middle age.

Why do people keep journals?  In her book, Slouching Toward Bethlehem, Joan Didion examines that question in an essay, "On Keeping a Notebook."  She writes:  "The impulse to write things down is a compulsive one, inexplainable to those who do not share it.  ... Keepers of private notebooks are a different breed altogether, lonely and resistant, rearrangers of things, anxious malcontents, children afflicted apparently at birth with some presentiment of loss."

Since I have intermittently kept journals during my life, I read her words with a personal interest.  Am I lonely, an anxious malcontent, a rearranger of things?  I think not.  The diary I kept in high school would have satisfied Rev. Beecher's suggestion that I should describe what I did each day, people I saw, and events in the community, although I don't believe I included the weather, as Beecher suggested, and I'm quite sure my teenaged activities would have bored anyone but me.

Joan Didion offers the best reason for consistently keeping a journal:  "We are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive or not."  If I had the courage to confront my teenaged self, it might be interesting to see who I was so long ago.  I hope I would like that young girl, but I doubt that I would recognize her as myself!

Isaac's Journal
Was Isaac Werner lonely and resistant?  Yes, I believe he was.  Was he an anxious malcontent?  Well, he was often impatient of those he found unwilling to learn, lazy about their work, and neglectful of their commitments, but after venting his annoyance in his journal he was more likely to launch a campaign of educating, lecturing, or organizing than he was to indulge in anxious discontent. The 1800s were an era when many people kept journals, so perhaps their motives were different from Didion's assessment of modern journal keepers. 

I have a friend who writes letters to those who have angered or hurt her, expressing her feelings without restraint.  It helps calm her own emotions, although the person to whom the letter is addressed never knows how my friend felt, for once the letter is complete, my friend destroys it.  Sometimes, I believe that was what Isaac accomplished with his journal entries, although he did not destroy what he had written when he finished.

My journaling is the way I reflect on matters that concern or interest me.  I keep a review of every book I read.  It is very structured, opening with a section in which I identify Setting, Plot, Characters, and Theme.  That is followed with a section in which I analyze the writing itself under headings titled Literary Techniques and Structure & Style.  Next comes a section titled My Comments, concluding with the final section, Favorite Quotes.  I have often finished books still wondering why a particular book is considered a classic or was praised by reviewers.  By forcing myself to write the review and complete all the sections, I reflect more thoroughly on what I read and discover themes and symbols and richness in the writing that the original reading of the book had missed.

I have also taken issues that concern me and spent weeks or months researching, studying, and journaling to reach an informed personal judgment about the topic.  In other words, I tend to journal as a way of thinking deeply about a subject.  I think Isaac also used his journal to think through ideas he was considering, although he generally left the emotions out of what he wrote after falling under the influence of Rev. Beecher. (See "Advice from Henry Ward Beecher," Dec. 7, 2012, in my blog archives.)

While reflecting on Isaac's journal and why he wrote daily for so many years, I encountered a quote written by Virginia Woolf in The Death of the Moth and Other Essays. Woolf wrote:  "Since the only test of truth is length of life, and since words survive the chops and changes of time longer than any other substance, therefore they are the truest.  Buildings fall; even the earth perishes.  What was yesterday a cornfield is to-day a bungalow.  But words, if properly used, seem able to live forever."  (I found this quote in a wonderful website at

Isaac's house and the school house he helped to build are gone.  Nearly all of the trees he tended with such devotion have died or been bulldozed to make way for crops.  Even the pinnacle hill he climbed to watch fireworks in distant towns has been carved away until it is now no higher than many other hills nearby.  What remains are Isaac's words--those published in newspapers and those written in his journal.  But for the words he wrote, Isaac and his deeds would be forgotten.  They are his truth.



The Blog Fodder said...

If journals are kept by people who are "lonely and resistant", what about some of the more personal blogs? If you ever find volumes 1-4, you are going to be busy.

We found my Mother's 5 year diary when we were cleaning out the old house. She kept it up until she and Dad were married in 1945. Most of it was pretty mundane stuff but some was interesting, nothing scandalous. And some of the comments taken in today's meaning were hilarious. "Went to bed, plastered" (mustard plastered.

Lynda Beck Fenwick said...

Larry Fenwick shared a note from the online AP News: "New York (AP) Some might find it strange that Joss Whedon's first movie since 'The Avengers' - his 2012 megahit about a team of Marvel Comics superheroes - is an independent adaptation of Shakespeare's 'Much Ado About Nothing.' But it makes perfect sense to him. The man who created TV hits like 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer' and its spinoff 'Angel' says his dramas all have a bit of the Bard in them."