I welcome all this logistical talk about journals. I think the computer is the only way, because it establishes the text, but technology is such and computers are so disposable that a hard copy is essential and may be what lasts. Burning a CD is an interesting idea, but that technology may also be limited. I keep a month’s entries in a single computer file, adding to it each day. At the end of the month, I print the month out, punch holes, and put it in a binder, and I begin the next month. What to print it on is my current question. For several years I have used the back sides of the beautiful stationery my parents left, but I am now out of several reams of that. I may have to get some expensive rag, bond, archival paper to show that I value the project. Which I do, although I never go back to reread.
I avoided keeping a daily journal for years until I had an epiphany. I was driving from Delaware to Maryland to deliver a presentation to the people at an old folks’ home on the diary of Mary Chesnutt who was everywhere and knew everyone during the Civil War. Lightbulb! Here I was spending a couple of days preparing a presentation on this haphazard collection when my own busy life was unrecorded. She lives because she kept notes. I would disappear because I did not.
Someone questioned whether what I wrote was really a diary. But let us not be at the mercy of others to define our genres. A diary is a sort of daily record of events and observations. Everything is fair game. When people ask me what to write, I say whatever they want. Although today’s historians wring their hands about topics missing from past journals, we cannot know what hundreds of years hence that fickle group will wish we had written about. I sometimes suggest that people look at the lives of their grandparents and parents and write about themselves what they wish they knew about past family.
One good reason to write a journal is because it gives importance and shape to our lives. We can easily say that nothing ever happens to us and our lives are dull, but if we wrote two paragraphs a day, would there be nothing to say? What would be in those strangled entries? They might be more compelling than the pages of the voluble.
But enough about journals. I have another topic. Last night I went to an off-Broadway show Mysteries in its first preview presentation. The first act was stories from the Old Testament from the York, Wakefield, and Chester Mystery Play cycles, all adapted by Tony Harrison into elegant and comprehensible speech, and maybe for drama too. The familiar stories of the Creation, Adam and Eve, Cain and Able, the flood, and Abraham and Isaac were just enthralling in their drama. The last vignette was as horrifyingly dramatized as I have ever seen it, with heart-breaking dialogue between father and son and a knife three feet long. But at the climactic moment, Jehovah stayed Abraham’s hand and provided his own sacrifice, a swaddled infant, His own Son! Richard tells me that that connection would have been common in the middle ages, but it has always been more distant, more intellectualized than that for me.
This was a terrific production with all kinds of great effects. The characters all wore heavy dark overcoats and mufflers–when they were wearing anything at all. In the second act they wore chinos, tank tops, suspenders, and tool belts. The floor of the central acting area was covered with straw and a few basic tables were pushed around. The Tree hung upside down in the center. The Arc was also hanging in the air. By the end of the first act the floor was covered with bushels of apples, and a blue plastic sheet with several gallons of water on it.
The second act was more difficult for me. The short dramas of modern writers Dario Fo, Borislav Pekic, and Mikhail Bulgakov subverted the stories of Lazarus, Pontius Pilate, and the Crucifixion into comedy and character studies which were painful to watch. Then the show finished with The Harrowing of Hell from the York Cycle to sort of bring it around to the earlier tone, and a recitation of some of the actual wisdom of Jesus from the Gospel of St. Thomas as found in Elaine Pagles’ book (and the Dead Sea Scrolls). It was all very Christian while also being produced and performed by a clearly Jewish group. Was this the colonization of Christianity, the appropriation of Jesus Christ as a wise leader for secular purposes? And finally, could we retell these stories for our purposes without sentimentalizing them or making them painfully didactic? What successful efforts have we made in this direction? I remember A Day, a Night, and a Day from some years ago. Is this effort worth attempting? Should we put our dramatists to work?