Wednesday, February 4, 2009


My journaling history is filled more with generating handwritten notes and collecting bits of paper than it is with entering text into a word processing program. My pleasure triggers associated with writing are big stuffed chairs, pads of paper on my lap, warm mugs, looking out windows and ambient music. I can't get as comfortable with a laptop and my neck hurts just thinking about poorly placed desks and glaring monitors. I do not type well and I get much better ideas staring at wind in the trees than I do staring at a blinking cursor. But, that's just me. I envy those who can clatter away at their keyboards and have full sentences magically appear seemingly as quickly as the thoughts enter their heads. My working preferences are more style than substance though; because if anyone's personal setup results in satisfactorily organized ideas and generates robust new conceptual offspring, I'd be the last to question it.

Those who keep such diaries, journals, sketchbooks or any other form of notebook will no doubt testify to the usefulness of their venture. Where I sometimes have second thoughts about the value of this activity is when the motivation for such activity is no longer reflective but becomes exhibitive. Some accomplished writers might freely admit that their "personal" journals are written with possible future publication in mind, but this "conflict" sometimes troubles me. I may be projecting my own struggles with narrative voice onto other's efforts; but how can I examine my fragile innards if you are drooling over my shoulder? My past notebooks that I often kept for therapeutic, exorcistic reasons and hid away on a bookshelf were certainly written in a radically different way than these paragraphs you are reading now. Much more exhuming and a lot less polishing; after all, the word structure only had to be clear enough to get me back close to the same emotional place and my own memory and imagination could take it from there. I didn't have to guide anyone through new terrain, always afraid of losing them. When I was required to keep a sketchbook in certain Art School courses, that was a far different product than the one I kept years later. I even remember that in some instances the type and size of the book was dictated to make handling and grading more convevient for the professor. So, is writing for a website where the purpose is for public consumption the same as privately putting ideas into words and images so you can get them out into another form for further development, manipulation and processing? Compare a typical blog or social network site to what it sounds like when you have been driving solo on a lonely highway for too many hours and it's 2:00 am and you want to vent some ghosts or sing to keep yourself awake.

This PUBLIC-PRIVATE tug of war overshadows many of my exposures to other's journals. So, before I can really appreciate the journal/artwork of someone like Dan Eldon; I am often weighing for myself the amount of "exhibition calculation" they have while doing the work. This is unfortunate, because rather than increasing the depth of my experience by adding another contextual qualifier; instead this "rating" of the author's intent usually has the corrosive effect of blocking my full exposure to their core message. I am learning that the writer's intent does not have to be either/or, this passage (excerpted from, "Dan Eldon: The Art of Life " by Jennifer New)suggests that there is a lot of space to be explored between the public/private polarity:

In some way, the journals had aspects of private diaries, and yet they were sufficiently oblique that Dan felt comfortable sharing them. If anything, he hesitated to show them more from a lack of confidence in his skills than a sense of privacy. He was thrilled, for example, when an art director at the magazine where he eventually interned asked him to leave his journals behind while he toured the rest of the office. His face lit up in a grin when he returned to find the entire art staff wearing T-shirts they had created from his pages.

While living in New York, he wrote on a journal page: "I have three things here. #1: My house ($400 per month). #2. My book (100 pages). #3. My head (2 eyes). I share my house with my roommate. I'll share my book with you. My head is my own."

He seemed to understand that while he could let people look at the journals, there was no way they could see the same things he did in their pages. The crazy thoughts and passionate feelings that lived in his head were the ultimate material for the collages. What he wrote is like a dare: Go ahead and look, but the ideas are mine; look all you want, but just try to make sense of it.

I still can't help thinking when I look at Eldon's journals: "Would this work have changed if he knew his parents would find and exhibit it after his death?"

After expressing so many doubts about the "impurity" of the journal keeping activity (either analog or digital) I am always reminded of the value of translating and recording ideas (no matter how imperfect the recorder). I also need to remember what Castenadas wrote* about playing your best game even when you know the rules are flawed.

*A funny thing happened on my way to getting this quote. For years, as a teacher, I'd been referring to a passage I had read "some years ago" (in "some book" by Carlos Castenadas) when speaking to students about the power of imagination. In the passage, Castenadas is with his teacher (Don Juan) at dusk and barely sees a snarling wolf menacingly coming towards them. After being quite afraid and describing other threatening details he realizes that what he really saw was a scrap of cloth caught on a bush. Don Juan then challenges him to reinvent the wolf after knowing it was only a rag in a bush. Using this story, I invited my student listeners to choose to be mystified, even in the face of banal "truth". So, using search engines to locate the quote for this blog, I finally found the passage in Journey to Ixtlan (pages 65-66 in this document) but discovered that the story is somewhat different than my version; in fact, it is meant to teach another lesson altogether. Fittingly, I now find that over the years I had come to SEE a different story here; a more personal story. And that in the face of proof, I instead choose to believe my memory - it's telling me another truth.

Next: Early Ideas


  1. Nick,
    That's great stuff about Castenada. I trust memory too, knowing that It's inaccurate and selective. I also like the Dan Eldon quote. Although I think the "privacy" of purity issue might be a generational one. Since identity is constructed in a number of ways I think that social networking is certainly one of them. Witness MUDDS an MOOS and Second life where being "there" is only a metaphor. Blogs, notebooks journals are a similarly constructed space. Great suff

  2. Thanks Ethan. I was not so much trying to sway anyone to mistrust the identity fragments that emerge from electronic exposure, as I was just laying my own baggage on the table. Some of my filters are a positive result of my history and some of them prevent me from seeing clearly. In both cases they are me and hopefully a work in progress. Artists work from what they get, if it's face to face or Facebook; different raw material + different processing = different product.