Private thoughts made public

March 24th, 2014 by Sophie Glidden-Lyon

For the past few months, I’ve been pouring over the diaries of Vinalhaven native Lucy C. Williams. She filled daily journals during the bulk of the 1980’s and 90’s, faithfully recording weather, chores, the state of her garden and the health of her neighbors. Her grandson Bill makes many appearances – helping her with the house, struggling to find work or dealing with the various family dramas that would be familiar to anyone with siblings and in-laws. Her life is quiet and full of routine, but it is exactly that kind of ordinary, day-to-day chronicling that I find so interesting. Journals are the chance to glimpse into a person’s internal world, unique in their honesty. I don’t mean honesty in the sense that they lack bias, but more the idea that these were words written by one person and for one person only. I think it is safe to assume that Lucy never thought these journals would be read by anyone but her, and once I was able to reconcile myself to the fact that she may have found this intrusive, it led me down a very interesting path.

How do you record events when you are never intending to share those records with anyone? When it comes to familial struggles or pain, Lucy often skips over details entirely. After all, she knows the details already and does not need to explain anything. For me, the reader, it means I have to put puzzle pieces together, and I’m often guessing when it comes to who did what to who. What Lucy does record is how badly these fights and dramas are wearing her down, in a way that suggests she doesn’t share how she feels with her children or grandchildren. There is a lot more emotional truth in her writing than there is clear recording of events. This is part of what has been so rewarding for me while reading these journals. There is so much insight into a person’s life to be found here. The authors are, essentially, talking to themselves, engaging with their own thoughts in a way that can’t be achieved in quite the same way through oral histories, or even letters.

As I continue through her journals, I’m sure more and more will become clear concerning her grandsons and the dysfunction that keeps popping up between them, but more than that, I’m excited to learn more about how journals open up whole new worlds for historians and archivists. I’m excited to tackle emerging questions – how does a person’s journaling voice differ from how they might have spoken or written with other people? Are there things they might keep off the page entirely, censoring themselves even in their private thoughts? And what does that say about the author? These are things I’ve already asked myself about Lucy, but the beauty of journals is that any answers to those questions would likely be completely different with a different person. It brings a deep sense of the personal, and of individuality, to archival work, for which I’m very grateful.