diaries & connections to the past


I have been thinking a lot about diaries – especially the old, hand-written ones.  In our local news, there have been several recent articles about a Civil War diary that is being examined by local historians.  It chronicles the daily life and struggles of a young Union soldier as he passed through this area.  The story is fascinating, but for me it is even more remarkable to look at the images of those pages … his handwriting on the old paper, the scribbles in the margins, the entire personal image that is captured not only by his words transcribed, but by the physical pages themselves.

It made me contemplate my own journaling and diary-keeping.  The mark of my pen, the paper and the books I choose to write in, the ink, my penmanship.  While I know there are many distinct advantages to maintaining a digital record – and there are a variety of digital diary applications available (Day One being my favorite, and one that I sometimes use), not to mention blogging, etc. –  none of it compares to an individual’s handwriting on paper.  Call me sentimental, I guess.

Yes, the ink may fade, the paper may deteriorate, the diary itself may be destroyed or go missing; it is not a match for the “safety” of the digital record. But somehow it may be this fragility that makes it so very special.


Over the past year I have enjoyed reading the book “New York Diaries: 1609 to 2009” as compiled by Teresa Carpenter.  It is a fascinating read, day by day throughout the course of a calendar year, but not chronologically by year.  In other words, the entry or entries for September 23 may be from the year 1701 or 1992.   It gathers entries for each day, but jumps from era to era – which lends to an insightful contrast between times and cultural changes.

Yet as much as I enjoy reading the book, and think it is a most worthy endeavor to preserve those words in a format that can be universally shared, I can’t help but want to see the physical pages themselves.  The ink, the smudges, the penmanship, the notebooks themselves.


Which brings me to the diary of my great-grandmother.  She wrote in this small, partially-filled volume while making a trans-atlantic voyage from her new home in the U.S. to her birthplace and childhood home in Wales in the spring and summer of 1938.  It was an ocean voyage, and she was particularly interested in keeping notes about the meals on the ship, who they dined with, etc.  Her stay in Wales records the towns and places visited, the friends and family she stayed with, often trivial-seeming details which are so rich to me today.  I am also fascinated by the language and phrases she would use in her descriptions; slightly formal and very proper at times, informal at other times.

One of my sons has also read through many of the pages, looking on maps for the towns she mentioned.  Googling for images of chapels and places she visited.

But to see her handwriting and to be able to touch the pages she touched … it is a treasured connection that I get to make with her, a woman I never knew but wish I could have – my great-grandmother.  No digital or otherwise transcribed version could ever be the same to me.

And so I keep my own handwritten journals, diaries, notebooks … in hope that someday one of my own descendants will find the same fascination with touching the same pages I put my hand to.  To make the connection.



136 thoughts on “diaries & connections to the past

  1. Yes, you are absolutely right that a physical diaries creates a complete image of a writer. That can never be accomplished by a digital counter part. In the physical copy along with your hand and soul also participate in writing that is not possible with digital diaries.

  2. When I was younger and well known as a scribe and calligrapher I was commissioned to write the contents of an old journal using a typewriter so people could read the contents. I did that and in the process learned so much more about the horse and buggy days and how long it took to go from home to downtown Dayton, Ohio and then to get back home before dark. It was a revelation to me that people had to plan trips around the needs of their horses who not only got them there but also brought them back home.

    I have kept a diary for three or four decades — actually many different ones — starting with a Sports Illustrated calendar that had lines to write down anything you wanted to write. After buying a new calendar for several years in a row, I decided to invest in a cloth bound journal and that first one lasted several years. Now, I have a trunk filled with diaries. But none are as nice, in my way of thinking, than those I transcribed from before and just after the Civil War.

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  4. I love the art of keeping a journal. Nothing, in my opinion, can compare to reading what I wrote just a few years ago. Keeping a journal is an experience, and I only hope that someday mine will be as treasured as your great-grandmother’s is by you.

  5. Couldn’t agree more. I have a partial diary – a calendar, really – of my grandmother’s, and I love looking through it.
    I have dozens of my own – I’ve been keeping them more than forty years! I’m not sure how I feel about a descendant of mine reading them, though. I hold nothing back! I need to think about that and perhaps bequeath them to someone. Hmmm.
    Congrats on the FP!

  6. All of my books originated out of paper and pen, and not a keyboard. My pen gives my spirit the means to speak.

  7. This is reminiscent of a post that I wrote on slow writing. http://ripplesonthepond.wordpress.com/wp-admin/post.php?post=233&action=edit
    Then there was the following post on ‘In search of the fountain pen’. I bought myself one for Christmas, and I love writing with it. Somehow, it gives my writing an authenticity that it doesn’t get with a ballpoint pen.

    I don’t have any diaries of forebears, but try to keep up a journal of my own. I like reading back over all the daily minutiae that I’ve forgotten.

  8. I love your blog. The art of penmanship is a dying art. You are so right. There is nothing like caressing the pages of a good book or diary for that matter. Thanks for sharing.

  9. I too have journals from relatives past. One of them in particular has changed my life in wonderful ways. Here’s a link to my blog about it – http://wp.me/p2ycMY-s1 You are so right about being able to touch the pages that your grandparents have. I don’t think my grandfather had any idea what an impact his little weaving journal would have on anyone. Great, great post.

  10. How dear to have this journal from your great-grandmother! Most handwritten things from a long time ago were tossed out in the garbage. So you are very lucky to have this! Hold on to it and pass it on. This past weekend I tried my hand at writing and drawing with a quill pen. It was very difficult! We complain about our computers some times, not working or too slow. But can you imagine having to write with a quill and a bottle of ink?! Mistakes could only be scratched out or you had to start all over, only to make another mistake or get an unexpected blop of ink right over an important word!

  11. Hand-written vs digitally transcribed as you put it, what seems to matter most is that we make a record of our experiences. Perhaps we were not meant to imagine how the impersonal stone wall of a caveman’s dwelling felt as he or she left impressions of charcoal and natural stain upon it. And there is the Viet Nam Memorial in Washington, DC — the stone wall itself with countless names engraved upon it. When I visited the memorial, a very common-appearing hand-written journal was there in the open — a visitor’s log — in which people had shared each in his or her own handwriting, very profound emotions of loss and sacrifice. Having missed induction into the war by only days, I found myself profoundly unable to write anything at all. Having journaled for years, mostly with inexpensive fountain pens which are hardly even sold anymore, I would conclude that the human need to maintain a tactile connection is very real, if not all that is real. No matter how intellectually or technologically evolved we might become, it matters less that we merely understand and share with one another symbolically than that we have reached out — to touch and be touched — in a universe which otherwise must be so immensely void.

  12. That must be so fascinating reading about your great-grandmother’s life how she perceived it..in her own words. 🙂 I wish I’d find a diary like that.. I keep a diary myself and even going through one of my old ones is so fun..realizing how stupid I used to be, how much I’ve grown.

  13. I share your fascination with handwritten documents and have been photographing some of the letters and documents penned by my family members over the last four generations in an effort to create a series of artworks that captures just what you describe – not only the words we choose to communicate, but the ways in which we write them. I’m glad I’m not alone in appreciate the beauty of a dying practice, thanks for your post.

  14. Thanks for your post. The way people keep their diary’s has always intrigued me. I keep a dairy for each of my children. When I found myself struggling to find the write things to say to them I would often discuss the issue in the diaries. They do not even know about this. So please keep this secret. 🙂 Someone mentioned writing entries with a fountain pen. I use a fountain pen. There is something so intimate about using a fountain pen, a permanency if you will. The other thing is the penmanship. In older documents you see the care people took to write a note. Thanks again for a great post. Melba Christie

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  16. Just the other day I found my own diary from years ago. It was amazing to read myself in my own words, in my handwriting of that time (It has drastically changed since). Amazing post, and congratulations on being freshly pressed!

  17. I have loved journal writing since my mother gave me my first paper journal when I was 9 years old. I now have 30+ journals. Mine look like scrapbooks full of writing, photos, concert & plane tickets, stickers, etc. I love to look through them and remember those times that I wrote about. I hope that my daughter and, one day, grandchildren will get as much pleasure from reading them.

  18. Except the several blogs I have also a hand-written diary. You use this in such a different way than a blog.

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