A couple of weeks ago, I teased you with a passage from Nichole Bernier's debut novel, The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D. Yesterday, I reviewed the book. Today, I'm pleased to welcome author Nichole Bernier to Beth Fish Reads as a guest blogger.
As I mentioned yesterday, The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D. features two women who have husbands and young children. Kate's story is told in a traditional narrative style, but Elizabeth's is revealed through the personal journals she kept for over 26 years.
One of Nichole's readers asked her a very interesting question about keeping journals and using them in a novel set in the 21st century. Nichole address that issue here.
Thank you so much, Nichole. I can imagine it's not easy for journalists who write about their own lives to sort out the many public/private issues. But I think I'm drawn to the personal essay precisely because it straddles that line.Are Blogs the New Journals?
Shortly after my novel came out in June—it's a portrait of two women, including one revealed through her journals after her death—I got an interesting email from a reader.
She said she hadn’t been sure she would like a book half written in the form of journals but had been grabbed by the point of view: the private side of a woman, in her own words, that made her public self look like a facade.
"No one hears about journals anymore, now that everything is about blogs," the reader wrote. "Were you afraid it would seem dated?"
To be honest, that never occurred to me. Certainly blogs have become enormously popular: personal and professional blogs; hobbyist blogs; blogs about illness, health, and parenting. But have they taken the place of writing people used to keep for themselves privately? In this age of everyone trying to have their platform, are blogs to journals what banks are to money that used to be hidden in mattresses?
It's hard for me to see it that way because blogs are such a different beast from journals. No matter how natural and honest a blog might be, in the end, it’s always written with the consciousness of someone else reading. Blogs can be many things—entertaining, poignant, hilariously embarrassing, informative, cathartic. But even with the most sincere of intentions, blogs have a certain amount of posturing because they're crafted to be seen by others. It's the difference between a candid photo and a portrait.
In my novel, I used journals because I wanted to give voice to a character who was no longer living—and also provide a lifeline to my protagonist left behind, a friend and mother struggling in a post-9/11 world that felt suddenly and precipitously arbitrary. I juxtaposed the two women's storylines to show how they might have had some of the same experiences but perceived them very differently. Friendships passing in the night.
The evolution of blogs has been fascinating for me to watch. Blogs, with their comments boxes and links to one another's sites, are looking for community, perhaps sometimes even crowd-sourcing opinions. But in journals, people are working through questions for insight, alone—essentially asking of themselves, What would the wisest person I know advise me on this? And then digging deep for the answer. It's a conversation with the best part of oneself.
Journals are not everybody's cup of tea. Not everyone processes thoughts and problems by writing them out. But if people who might be inclined to take to blogging, is there no need to keep a journal? Even if it's not the same thing, is it close enough?
Earlier this year, author Chris Bohjalian wrote about this in his newspaper and blog column. He said he didn’t keep a journal because he found these essays scratched that itch for personal expression and synthesizing observations.
"Young writers ask me often if I keep a journal. I don’t," he wrote last February, on the 20th anniversary of his column. "I have notebooks that hold research for my novels, but I have never kept a diary. Why? Because 'Idyll Banter' has been my diary. This column has been where I have tried to make sense of the loss of close pals and parents, and where I have celebrated the wondrous joys of marriage and fatherhood and friendship. Likewise, it has been where I have chronicled the unremarkable but universal moments that comprise every day of our lives. The first snow. The last leaf. The swimming hole. The ice jam. And I have enjoyed it more than you know. This column has been a great gift."
I couldn’t agree more; I feel that way about first-person essays too. They might be my favorite kind of writing. But sometimes when I want to process the big personal things, I put the file on restricted mode and write only for myself. I don't worry about clever phrasing or dangling participles or a good strong concluding line. It's an unshowered-with-a-baseball-hat-on kind of place, where spades are called a spade. And where they had been by my doomed novel character too.
I've always been envious of people who keep private journals because I haven't been able to maintain one myself. When I read The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D, I admired Elizabeth's steady commitment to putting her internal thoughts to the page. But I am completely bowled over by Nichole's ability to create an absolutely believable series of journals for her character. Through Elizabeth's writing, we witness a girl mature into an adult.
How about you? Do you keep a journal? If so, is it of the paper-and-pen variety or does it live in your computer?
Nichole Bernier is author of the novel The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D. (Crown/Random House), a finalist for the 2012 New England Independent Booksellers Association fiction award, and has written for magazines including Elle, Self, Health, and Men’s Journal. A Contributing Editor for Conde Nast Traveler for 14 years, she was previously on staff as the magazine’s golf and ski editor, columnist, and television spokesperson. She is a founder of the literary blog Beyond the Margins, and lives outside of Boston with her husband and five children. She can be found online at nicholebernier.com and on Twitter @nicholebernier.
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