Aug. 21, 2022: Private Writing
I have been thinking a lot about journals and diaries and notebooks lately. This week I “took custody” of my paternal grandfather’s notebooks. He was born at the turn of the century and lived through two world wars, the Depression, the Cold War, the Civil Rights Era, and both the Industrial Revolution and the Technological Revolution. He was formally educated at the Boston Museum School of Fine Arts, yet worked as a ship designer, an engineer, machinist, craftsman, artist, and was an all-around great man! Even though he has been gone for almost 30 years, holding these notebooks and reading through them, I could hear his voice as clearly as if he was sitting in the room with me.
Those notebooks are now sitting on my bookshelves next to my maternal grandmother’s journals. My aunt sent those to me after my grandmother had passed away and she was clearing out her home. She was not sure what to do with them. Apparently, I am the family “keeper of the writings”.
While an argument could be made that neither one of them intended for these writings to be read by others, I also believe that private writings, like notebooks and journals, can be extremely powerful. They help us to understand the thinking of another. They give us a glimpse into their ponderings and help us to see a more genuine version of who they were. They also help us to feel and stay connected when they are no longer physically here, as they live on in these writings. And these writings must be handled with respect and grace.
As an author of historical fiction, I also find these types of private writings to be one of the most impactful tools out there when I am researching. Being able to immerse myself in an historical time period by seeking to better understand how historical events impacted those living through them, allows me to understand history on a personal level. Letters and diaries provide some of the most honest and authentic reactions to life circumstances and events.
Yes, some of these writings can be so personal and soul-bearing, that they can be difficult to read. Some writings, like letters, can be intended for only the eyes of the recipient. However, I wonder- even if the writing was not intended to be public, with an historical perspective, does it becomes valuable? I think, for example, of the letters between George and Martha Washington. Shortly before her death, she burned them all. Clearly, she viewed them as private writing, but just imagine what we might have learned about our first, first family, if those letters had survived.
With the prevalence of social media and the ways we all live our lives today, I also wonder if the concept of private writing is shifting. With the ability to share our thoughts and opinions so easily with the world, have posts and blogs replaced journals and diaries and notebooks? What will the archives of the future look like?
In the meantime, I will continue to be the family “keeper of the writings”.