Dear Diary

One of the key takeaways from my most recent research trip—a non-unique one, I’ll admit—was realizing how important it is to keep personal records.

In the course of two days I read approximately six years’ worth of film scholar and AIDS activist Vito Russo’s life. How much of it do I anticipate will make it into my dissertation? Frankly, not all that much.

Vito Russo

The ten-ish hours I spent pouring through Russo’s journals were nevertheless some of the most valuable that I’ve logged in my career thus far. Historians use primary and secondary sources in their work, but we also use intuition, emotion, and other intangibles we can’t fully account for in our footnotes (whether we like it or not). Russo’s journals steeped me in the ethos of the AIDS crisis in a unique way, and it’s left an imprint on both my mind and my heart that I know will follow me throughout the research process.

This isn’t the first time I’ve read somebody’s personal remembrances in an archival setting—every single time I do, though, I find myself sitting there wondering why there aren’t more historians in the world. It’s just so cool. The “intimate connections” that happen in the archive are a huge part of the reason I’m motivated to do this kind of work, and every time I encounter another life on paper, I start thinking about journaling, and the fact that I suck at it.

I am notorious for buying—nay, collecting—fancy notebooks in which I intend to write my life story, only to decide that writing in them would be a desecration. If I actually do write in them, I immediately re-read the content I’ve created and criticize everything from my handwriting to my sentence structure. In so doing, I determine that I’m the biggest jerk on the planet and who the hell would want to read about my life anyway so why don’t I just not and say I did? It’s intense.

At least, it was. I’ve been on the journaling wagon for a whopping six days now, and am happy to say that I think it’s going quite well.

There are two reasons I think I might be able to turn journaling into a habit this time around:

  1. I’m writing with a different goal in mind.
  2. I’ve changed the process by which I write a journal entry.

The former is largely a result of engaging with Vito Russo’s personal writing. I’m eventually going to devote an entire post to his journals, but for now I’ll just say this: while Russo a heroic figure in both LGBT and HIV advocacy, his journals reveal all of his deepest flaws. Every once in a while he’d write something that stopped me in my tracks, because it was so self-centered, or whiny, or arrogant, or etc. etc. etc. That was awesome. The stars, they’re just like us!

I used to imagine my great great grandchildren reading my journals and telling all their friends about what a great woman I was. After reading through Russo’s journals, though, I now imagine them gathering together to talk about the myriad ways in which I was kind of a jerk. We love the people we love not just despite their flaws, but because of them. This realization has helped me to stop worrying about the quality of what I put on the page.

My new technique for journal writing has helped me in this quest to uncensor myself, but there’s still the issue of carving out time to write yet another thing. Taking a cue from Greg McKeown, who advises that you should always write less than you’d like to, I decided that I would only allow myself to write for ten minutes. Can I plumb the depths of my soul in ten minutes? No. Can I give a basic account of my day and how I felt about it? Yeah. I certainly can’t claim that my journal has a wonderful voice, as it’s comprised of lots of super abbreviated sentences, but who cares? Writing is both my hobby and my job. If my great great grandchildren swing a dead cat and somehow don’t find my blog posts, articles, and (fingers crossed) dissertation, they just need a bigger dead cat.

Do you journal? Any suggestions for getting started/sticking with it?

“The Six Million Dollar Scholar” is the personal blog of Andrea Milne, a Ph.D. candidate in modern U.S. History at the University of California, Irvine. To get the story behind the blog’s name, click here.

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