Monday, February 16, 2009

Journal Entry or Personal Essay?

Where lies the line between telling too much and saying too little?

One can build an essay around personal details, that give the context to the essay's target ideas, deepen it, enrich it. This grounds what might otherwise be a too-intellectual, too-abstract, too-remote general essay in the truths and events of real life. Raw journal-entries themselves are neither finished essays nor finished poems. Yet personal detail, detail out of life, any kind of life, paradoxically is what evokes shared experience in writing, making it more vivid to the reader. The reader needs to find himself or herself in the writing, find a way to enter the writing, to be able to connect. Details are what make things universal. Speaking in generalities rarely connects. One can build an essay, of course, with no personal details included. One still needs to find a way to connect, of course, or else it's a purely mental exercise, a form of verbal self-stimulation.

Revealing the events and relationships of one's life in an essay is a balancing act. Tell just enough to give context and body and weight to the essay, but don't write a diary entry. I've never liked diary writing. Who cares about what I ate for dinner ten years ago? Who but me cares who I loved?

I make a distinction, perhaps artificial, but I think useful, between "diary" and "journal." A diary is what some people write every day that includes all of the daily events of their lives: the minutiae, the events, the relationships, the feelings. Few diaries are interesting to anyone but the writer. Diaries can be important to young people, when they're sorting out who they are. A journal, by my definition, is written in when one feels moved to; when one writes some idea or event out in order to understand it; a journal is a place to write things out in order to discover what one thinks about them. Some writers have said that they don't know what they think until they've written about it. Sometimes we see them thinking out loud, in their personal essays, and their journal entries.

I've kept a journal since I was in college, since 1980 or 1981. There are numerous volumes now, between 20 and 30, stored away. I generally don't go back and re-read them. When I do, what I discover is my own psychological development, how I got from there to here; and the occasional idea for a new bit of writing. It can be an interesting kind of personal archaeology, in certain moods. I use photographs to look into the events of family history, because for the most part none of that is in the journal. Most of the journal is unreadable and uninteresting to anyone but me, I'm certain, because it's mostly thinking-aloud. It's disorganized, it's random, it's often angst-ridden (everyone needs a safe place to vent), and without clear reference to events in daily life. It's an internal history rather than external.

But my journal is also where, for many years, writing practice and creation took place. You can find first drafts, dated, of most of the poems from the last twenty and more years; usually just the first or second drafts, though, as my habit became to transcribe to and revise on the computer. I can locate seed-kernels of larger ideas in the journal, that eventually became essays or larger projects. There are notes towards artwork and musical projects, too. There's a lot of writing practice: description, detailed sifting and self-analysis, attempts at developing voice and style. But very little of it is publishable. Some of it not even I am interested in, later.

I have no problem revealing personal details if it serves a purpose, or supports the thesis of an essay. Two models of thinking-out-loud are Michael de Montaigne and PL Travers, who described her own process of rambling discourse as thinking-is-linking. I do a lot of that. Montaigne was of course one of the inventors of the essay, and his example still looms large. Montaigne's essays expanded with each edition, rather than contracted, as he included more of the world in each, as he brought in association after association, side thought after side thought.

A good personal essay can be like a wander through a labyrinth, leading one through turn after turn until one realizes that one has walked a crooked path indeed, but it all makes sense when you turn around and look back on it. Where were we going? Now we know. Sometimes discovery is half the fun, when you set out not knowing where you'll end up.

So, when we look at the personal essay, the journal entry, and the diary entry, what we must consider is their relative amounts of polish. Sometimes I prefer to leave a journal entry unedited: a raw field note, neither prettied up for some wedding nor made less spontaneous by revision. Sometimes I revise my thoughts into more structured forms, and they become essays. Both seem valid forms to me, the field note and the personal essay.

An essay form I use a lot, which I see very often, is the recursive spiral: the subject keeps coming around again, after we've wandered off for awhile. But you don't walk in a circle, because each time you touch a new piece of ground, you have the memory and history of when you were here last. So you're up a level, on an overlay, walking a spiral, rather than a circle. Or dancing.

What the diary and the journal entry both share is that they're undigested. Both are momentary. Timebound. Not necessarily ephemeral, because there may be something there to look back on later, but of-the-moment. They're not really intended to last.

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