Reading Archives

With this blog, I am planning to offer, as regularly as possible, critical observations on the scholarly and popular literature analyzing the nature of archives or contributing to our understanding of archives in society. I hope this blog will be of assistance to anyone, especially faculty and graduate students, interested in understanding archives and their importance to society.

Friday, April 03, 2009

Finding Your Sense of Self: Popular Advice on Creating Personal Records

Stephanie Dowrick, Creative Journal Writing: The Art and Heart of Reflection (New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin, 2009)

Samara O’Shea, Note to Self: On Keeping a Journal and Other Dangerous Pursuits (New York: Collins Living, 2008)

Margaret Shepherd with Sharon Hogan, The Art of the Personal Letter: A Guide to Connecting Through the Written Word (New York: Broadway Books, 2008)

The sections on personal writing in good bookstores are beginning to overflow with advice manuals about the construction of journals, diaries, letters, and other document forms. Some provide interesting insights into how and why such personal records are created. Stephanie Dowrick discusses the values of journaling, privacy issues, choosing the physical journal forms, the motivations for these documents, and how to observe and describe events in one’s life. She also provides exercises for learning how to journal. Samara O’Shea, who is an avid diarist (although she prefers the notion of a journal, seeing the diary as a daily log and the journal more as an emotional log), also attempts to provide a lot of practical advice, from the premise that there is no right or wrong way to approach this task. There is no topic off limits for compiling journals, with the grand intention that a journal mostly assists you in “finding your sense of self” (p. 61). She includes many examples from her journals, as well as examples from many other famous writers, including Anne Frank, Sylvia Plath, Joyce Carol Oates, Tennessee Williams, Lewis Carroll, Samuel Pepys, Thomas Paine, and Louisa May Alcott. Shepherd’s book strives to demonstrate that letter writing is still alive in the digital age, and she provides advice in choosing a format for the letter, selecting tools for writing, personalizing letters and electronic mail. Shepherd also enumerates the ingredients of a personal letter, although most of her book is a description of the types of letters, an approach reminiscent of the letter writing manuals extending back over the last several centuries.

These self-help books provide insight into the nature of modern personal records creation and maintenance. Dowrick advises, for example, “Perhaps you feel that you must write your journal on the computer so that you can get your thoughts down fast enough, but I would suggest that you at least experiment with handwriting. For many journal writers this increases the sense of intimacy and makes a clear differentiation between the writing they do for work or for more public consumption and their creative journaling” (p. 56). Sometimes the commentary suggests the value of such personal records systems, such as when Dowrick states, “As a creative journal writer, you are always free to go beyond the mere recording of facts” (p. 131); archivists may recognize that this is true of all personal record forms, but it is interesting to see this stated so candidly. O’Shea also makes similar assessments with additional insights, such as “It’s not in the rereading where one finds solace but in the writing itself” (p. xv) or “A journal, rather, is the path of pebbles you leave behind you, so you have the security of knowing you can always return to where you’ve been” (p xviii). Shepherd likewise contributes reasons why such efforts as letter writing are important, such as “Our yearning to connect has not gone away, nor have we outgrown most of the materials for writing or the occasions for letters. We can still write many warm, engaging letters in e-mail and printed-out pages as well as with pen and ink” (p. xvi).

Some of the descriptions in these volumes come very close to capturing real examples of diaries and letters sitting in archives. O’Shea, for example, suggests, “I think we all know or know someone who knows that person – the person who keeps a daily, very meticulous diary. They end each day with a cup of tea or perhaps a scotch on the rocks. They sit in a large velvet armchair and pull out a black leather hardcover journal with their name imprinted on it – very Masterpiece Theatre. Then with a majestic black fountain pen poised over a blank page, they relax and write. They record the day’s events in the order that they happened, and they do this devotedly each night before bed” (p. 1). This is an almost perfect description of a set of diaries (28 volumes) created by historian, archivist, and documentary editor Lester J. Cappon that I have read (the diaries are located in the archives and special collections at the College of William and Mary).

There is, of course, a growing scholarship using earlier variations of the manuals and guides created by these three authors. Likewise, I believe that a contemporary reading of these new advice volumes can assist archivists understand persistent or new trends in personal recordkeeping. What is interesting with these volumes is that the authors are all women, mirroring what scholarship has told us about women being primarily responsible for polite or social correspondence. Are men mostly writing the business versions of these aids? Perhaps this is a pattern that extends back over two or more centuries.