[diary] Reading About Diaries 2: The Books

2938.In missive the last I mentioned reading three books about keeping diaries or journals. I’ll list those out now. I haven’t completed them all; but I have a ver solid sense of the three. Either one of these three books will give an aspiring diarist the inspiration to start, but each speak with a slightly different voice, and one may speak to one louder or with more coherence than the other.

Thus said, to the shelf.

Samara O’Shea

The first one I read was Note To Self: On Keeping A Journal and Other Dangerous Pursuits, by author and Huffington Post blogger Samara O’Shea. This is a very personal account of her diary-keeping over the years, and goes into such deep personal territory that at times I felt as though I were reading Into The Author’s Bedroom With Gun And Camera. I’m torn about that. But she had a whole range of useful insights into starting, stopping, how frequent, inspriations, and sharing your diaries with others, and how to look into your own life for diary subjects – including hopes, aspirations, writing when happy as well as when sad, and, of course, sex. She specifically bares her journaling soul by including several excerpts from her various diaries as kept over the years, which are as small gems scattered throughout the book

This book, while well-done generally and thorough, spoke to me the least of all the others. The author gave me a valuable POV on her urban, sophisticated lifestyle, but at times I felt like I was out of place trying to make sense of her narrative. But then, she’s the kind of writer who’d worked for magazines like O, Harpers Bazaar, and Esquire, whereas I’m more of a Parade, TV Guide, and Time sort, though I have Utne Reader pretensions. De gustibus non disputandum, and all that.

So, in short, upsides: Unafraid, frank, sophisticated, well-written. Downsides: A little too unafraid for the beginner, a little too urban for the non-HuffPo reader. If you’re the fashionable sort, this would be a good starting book; if you’re not the fashionable sort, this would be more of an advanced study.

Recommendation: Go in ready to be amused and a little surprised and a little unsettled, if you’re a tyro.

I do indeed notice that O’Shea is also famous for trying to bring back the art of letter writing to a wide audience. As someone who used to write letters ceaselessly, I have some idea of what we’ve lost, so she’s indeed doing the Lord’s work here, so to speak.

Sheila Bender

Sheila’s book is Keeping A Journal You Love. This, the most densely-written of the three books, dives right in with what she calles the ‘Seven Sisters’; writing tactics that are writerly explorations of the world around you. This is a book rich in technique, expressed as a writing teacher might do it. This book supplants this with examples of the journaling and diary techniques of other diarists. The result is almost a manual, a shelf-reference that you can go to again and again, with ideas of how others do it so one can either copy a style until they find their own feet, or combine into something new or useful. Overall it encourages the sort of introspection that diaries are famous for being a laboratory for, with the writerly approach incredibly useful.

Upsides: Thoroughly written, wide-angle field of vision provides for a range of viewpoints and inputs for inspiration, encouraging a writerly approach to the diary. Downsides: might encourage too much introspection, the multiplicity of voices could encourage too much copying and masking of one’s own voice.

Recommendation: Better for the absolute tyro than the O’Shea work, but might come off as too dry and intimidating for the newbie. Good to go with as a beginner, but one might find oneself working a bit too hard to find ones own voice amongst all the excellent examples.

Alexandra Johnson

Lastly we come to the humbly-titled Leaving A Trace: The Art of Transforming A Life Into Stories, by Alexandra Johnson. This takes a seriously deep approach to the art of the diary by drilling down, finding patterns hidden in all journals, and identifying what she calls the ‘through line’ to your life. The objective is to coax a story from your life, and is useful if you’re the kind of journal writer, as I am, who fancies themselves a fiction writer.

The book draws several lines that I’m deeply impressed with. It draws the line between brief and thorough  between short and containing multitudes, and between direct and gentle. It delivers techniques with a breezy air that is still informational, an easy read with a definite message. The techniques come quickly but are friendly, and one can apply them quickly.

Upsides: to me, this book is all upside. Small yet large, simply-written yet informative, it gifts the reader with tactics to create a diary or journal that goes just as far as you want it. If you want to keep it introspective you could; if you want to knit a narrative out of your life and use the lessons to create a more compleat writer out of yourself, it’ll take you there too. Downsides: I love this book! I’ve not stumbled on a real downside yet.

Recommendation: This is the book you should start with if you want to really come up with a diary that will mean something to you. The above two are good, but they’re the sort that I think the experienced diarist will want to use to kick it up to the next level. This book is the beginner’s book of the three.

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