The Joy of Journaling
My grandson’s kindergarten teacher announced, “It’s time to write in your journals.” Shrieking with delight, the children raced for their pencils and started to print. It was apparently a highlight of their day, this time to write whatever they pleased. I’d like to think at least some of them will keep this joy alive into adulthood.
Daily or sporadic, morning or evening, pen or keyboard, matter-of-fact or filled with angst—there’s no one way to journal. Do what brings you joy or peace or clarity, if you choose to do it at all. My practice involves pen on yellow pad, usually in the morning, usually three pages from top to bottom. (Partial credit to Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Way.) If my mind is spinning in circles, writing helps move it forward. If my mind is blank, some buried issue tends to surface about the middle of the second page.
Historians draw on diarists from Samuel Pepys to Anne Frank for invaluable information about major events and daily life. Genealogists must feel they’ve struck gold when they uncover a diary to flesh out the raw data. How do we weigh this archival value against the presumption of privacy in diaries that were never intended for posterity? I’m torn. I’ll read a journal with a clear conscience after the diarist’s death, but share only what seems harmless to survivors, like my mother’s notation from early in her marriage: “Accidentally locked myself in the basement. Puttered and carpentered for two hours till H. came home and let me out.” As for my yellow morning pages, the question won't arise; every few months the latest batch goes out for recycling.
Rules of Grammar
“Her English is too good,” he said. “That clearly indicates that she is foreign.” Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady was identifiable as an impostor because her speech followed the rules too closely. Is that because even well-educated native speakers aren’t educated enough? Or are some “rules” the real impostors?
Latin and logic, not usage, underlie the rules in Robert Lowth’s A Short Introduction to English Grammar (1762) and Lindley Murray’s English Grammar (1795). Lowth’s and Murray’s books were reprinted for decades, carving their biases into stone. Double negatives, prepositions at the end of sentences, and split infinitives became wrong because grammarians said they were wrong.
Grammar does matter—when it rests on usage and clarity. Good language communicates clearly and unobtrusively to a literate native speaker. Double negatives have appropriately disappeared from standard English not because they violate mathematical logic—language isn’t math—but because they create confusion. (Does “I don’t want to do nothing today” mean I want to be idle or busy?) On the other hand, “Who should I give it to?” is as clear as, and less jarring than, “To whom should I give it?” Insisting on “To whom” has no value except snob appeal.
What makes it such fun to immerse oneself for a day in a make-believe past? It’s sheer escapism, filled with unexpected treats and totally removed from everyday life. Unlike romanticizing the past, relishing the fair doesn’t mean supposing life was better in 1574. Instead we get the best of both worlds. Sword fights break out and we know they’re scripted. A plague cart rolls by and we laugh as we shiver.
The Bristol Renaissance Faire, in Bristol (Wisconsin) between Milwaukee and Chicago, plays at connections with Queen Elizabeth I’s visit to Bristol (England) in 1574. The earlier King Richard’s Faire at the same site in the 1970s played on the name of the original owner. Workers at the fair play their parts in every interaction. John Dee chats about astrology at the Queen’s Court; a wench thanks “My Lady” for the tip on a bottle of water. Fairgoers role-play as much or as little as they wish while they soak up Celtic music, cheer at a joust, visit a pirate ship, or gnaw on a turkey leg.
As for the fairgoers who come in costume, my sense is that they used to lean more toward authenticity. Today the mix extends to elves and fairies, belly dancers and wizards. The Kids’ Kingdom has dragons and hobbit houses. The fair echoes role-playing games and popular fiction in blending fantasy with medieval motifs (same as Renaissance for fantasy purposes), a trend that took off with Tolkien and Dungeons & Dragons. The occasional steampunk costume serves as a reminder that fantasy knows no bounds.
Celebrating a Document
Colonists in British North America celebrated the king’s birthday with bells, bonfires, parades, and speeches. After 1776, similar events honored the birth of the United States. John Adams wrote to his wife, Abigail, that July 2 “will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival . . . with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.”
He was right—apart from the date. “July 2” wasn’t a slip on Adams’s part or a typo on mine. That’s the date the Continental Congress voted in favor of independence. In a secondary measure two days later, the Congress adopted a written justification for that vote. Copies were printed overnight and sent out July 5. The document wasn’t actually signed until August. What we celebrate on the Fourth of July is the vote to adopt a piece of writing created in a cumbersome group process.
Congress had appointed a five-man committee in June to draft a formal statement on the break from Britain: Jefferson, Adams, Franklin, and two others. Jefferson wrote a first draft, the committee met to review it, and then Congress made change after change. I suspect many writers can sympathize with Jefferson’s frustration. Franklin told him, “I have made a rule, whenever in my power, to avoid becoming the draughtsman of papers to be reviewed by a public body.”
Whether all that revision improved or weakened it, the Declaration of Independence served its purpose and made a lasting mark. Philadelphia held its first annual Fourth of July celebration in 1777. George Washington marked the date in 1778 by giving his troops double rations of rum. John Adams refused to participate in Fourth of July events, however; he insisted the proper date to celebrate was July 2.
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.