Native American Redux

Any kind of revival or revisiting of something from long ago is a set up for disappointment, a total deflation of the nostalgia bubble for sure.

Like so many things in my early life, my entrée into Native American literature came via my determination to be a spiritual person – connected to universal powers, trying to levitate in incense-filled rooms. During my teens, I believed Native Americans were more spiritual than the rest of us. In popular culture, thanks largely to second-rate westerns and new age marketing, these indigenes appeared to have a sixth sense allowing them to see through people and communicate with flora and fauna in mystifying ways. I saw traditional Native American stories with their supernatural elements of talking animals and powerful deities as spiritual as opposed to the mythology and morality tales of the Bible and classical literature.

By my late twenties with my feet more firmly on the ground of literary and linguistic criticism, I was able to straddle Native American fiction as replete with episodes of magical realism. Yet, I privately thought of it as still somehow spiritual. That is, such fiction could be used spiritually, where the magic is mystical, for people in those native cultures and for those of us on a spiritual path – though my path was already becoming marred with potholes of doubt. Indigenous people were still more naturally spiritual in my mind’s eye, but I wouldn’t dare say this to students on my Native American Literature course. I had learned at university some important social skills, including not sounding like a new age hippy in public – such talk is easily mistaken for gullibility. The novels on my course were taught devoid of spirituality and as fictional retellings of reservation life and the treatment of native peoples by the US government with magical realism woven into the stories to reflect the traditional teachings of these peoples.

It was around this time, in the early nineties, that I attended a Native American languages conference in New Mexico, thinking this might be a direction to take my linguistics career. I know this sounds nerdy, but I think I would have done well in language documentation research, recording and transcribing dying languages. This gathering was unlike any linguistics conference I had been to before or since. Talks were introduced with songs and prayers, the latter a strange mix of indigene spiritual teachings and Christianity. As much as I enjoyed the songs and the linguistic research on these heritage languages, I felt disconnected. Two things were at play here. I was one of a few non-Indians in attendance and soon realised that native peoples were also linguists and training others in their tribes in language documentation. I was an interloper. The other point of disconnect came from the very earthy – and I would argue, political – Catholicism out on display. At the time, I was quite uncomfortable around brandishing formal religions of any sort although I was tolerant of spiritual speak and its cousin psychobabble. Suddenly Native Americans were no more or less spiritual than anyone else.

Fast forward 30+ years and several jobs in linguistics later, to where I found myself reading a work of Native American fiction for the first time in decades. Erdrich’s The Night Watchman caught my attention after it won the Pulitzer for literature. I approached this book with a sense of nostalgia, reminiscences of my younger, spirit-seeking, self, gobbling up Indian fictions. Set in America in the 1950s, it’s about an extended family of Chippewas living on a reservation and working under oppressive conditions at a jewel-bearing plant while their tribe’s leaders take on the US government. At the time a bill was going through Congress to end tribal recognition and Indian rights to their ancestors’ lands.

The story has magical realism elements in it – prophetic dreams, a talking dog and an owl that gives signals, but for me they are no longer aspects of spirituality. The story is more socio-political about the way American Indians were oppressed and subjugated to the reservations. I was struck by the language of this passage, referring to the bill proposed in Congress:

‘In the newspapers, the author of the proposal had constructed a cloud of lofty words around this bill—emancipation, freedom, equality, success—that disguised its truth: termination. Termination. Missing only the prefix. The ex.’

More importantly for my older self, this is a story about the treatment of women in 1950s America. The women play the roles of cook, doctor, nurse and maid while coming up against sexual assault and forced prostitution.

While reading The Night Watchman I was reminded of an academic collection of Native American essays and fragments of memoirs, for which I wrote a review in the Journal of Language and Literature. Key to all these writings is the idea of survivance, as opposed to survival. The collection’s editor, Ernest Stromberg explains that ‘While survival conjures up images of stark minimalist clinging to the edge of existence, survivance goes beyond mere survival to acknowledge the dynamic and creative nature of indigenous rhetoric.’ Erdrich’s narrator employs what I would call survivance rhetoric:

‘You cannot feel time grind against you. Time is nothing but everything, not the seconds, minutes, hours, days, years. Yet this substanceless substance, this bending and shaping, this warping, this is the way we understand our world.’

After all these years, I’ve come to realise that survivance is what unites works in the genre of Native American Literature, which includes poetry and memoirs, and this is what is shared between writers and readers. I guess, this realisation is my spiritual experience after all.

Where’s the Sense in Sensitivity Reading

I was appalled at hearing about the linguistic butchery being performed on some of Roald Dahl’s most famous works. The publisher Puffin and the Dahl estate have announced that they’re making changes to the author’s language on weight, gender and race.

These guardians of children literature are not giving children or the adults who read to them much credit. Dahl’s writing has always been full of hyperbole and even his narrators can have the bluntness and insensitivity of schoolboys. Readers expect this from Dahl, alongside humour laced with cruelty and darkness. Love it or loath it, this is the author’s voice. People who do loathe these features of Dahl’s work have a plethora of other children’s book to choose from.

This reminds me of my own childhood. I was fortunate in having my formative reading years in the seventies when America was burgeoning on the liberal and tolerance fronts. Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn was on the reading list but has since been banned from most States’ school curricula. Finn was the first social satire I had read outside of the comic strips in the Chicago Tribune. But it is a book that uses the n-word. Hundreds of times. Long before we read Twain’s masterpiece, my little friends and I knew that the n-word was pejorative and using it was racist. Huck and his sidekick, Jim, a runaway slave, both use the word nonchalantly. That’s not to say it wasn’t pejorative or racist even among these two friends. I believe they were portrayed as following the hierarchy of the times, unconsciously for the young Huck, but deliberately used by Jim as if to say he knew his place. Coming to understand these nuances was important for me in developing a deeper understanding of individuals battling and reflecting society at the same time and in developing an appreciation literature that could draw this out.

What is going on with the censorship of Dahl’s work is part of a bigger and worrying trend. American and British publishers have in recent years hired sensitivity readers to screen books before publication. The aim of these readers is to provide feedback on language that could offend minority groups. This feedback then becomes an editorial decision. Of course, literary editing and input from commissioning editors is nothing new, but it’s the search for offence and readily acting on this advice that is a sign of our times. In Le Monde, Clementine Goldszal reasons that this new job title has emerged as a way of avoiding heated debates on social media, many of which have spun into threats of violence against the books’ authors and publishers.

While I’ve been putting this blog together, a glut of articles about sensitivity readers has stolen my thunder. Most are against them, regarding their work as a type of censorship and inevitably quoting Lionel Shriver, who describes the practice of sensitivity reading as ‘totally subjective’ and ‘a waste of energy.’ (Cliché alert) If you can’t beat them, join them. The only piece I have seen in favour of using sensitivity readers was in The Conversation.

That article raises interesting points about this new practice offsetting the predominantly white, male and educated class of writers and publishers. To some extent this is true, but there are also ethnic minority and women writers getting published by mainstream and independent presses. If people read or listen to a book review and decide that a book might offend them, they can protest with their wallets by not buying it and expressing their feelings on social media or face-to-face at the café or pub.

A closing thought – you may have noticed that earlier I used the n-word instead of spelling the word out in full. I didn’t do this to avoid offence, and I would have preferred to use the full word – it is an example of language, just like any other swear word. What I have done is self-censoring so that the bots at WordPress do not label this blog ‘Objectionable Material.’ I’ve been punished with this label before. Sigh.

Learning Foreign Languages

Some 30 years ago I was asked to author an article for a little-known inspirational magazine in the US on the topic of teaching yourself a foreign language. I’m reminded of this every year around this time when language learning websites are in promotion overdrive, targeting people who resolve to take up a foreign language.

The popular press also plays into this, and the London Times recently ran a piece about a language learning guru who spoke seven languages and claimed to go from nothing to ‘fluency’ in three months. This polyglot, Benny Lewis, defines fluent as ‘up to a conversational level.’ By this definition, I’m fluent in French and Italian – which I am not. I can manage certain types of conversations in both languages, but still stumble speaking to my French neighbours in Nice about problems with our building’s finances or with an Italian about politics (I know there is a joke in there somewhere about a country with 70 governments in 50 years). I simply don’t have the years of exposure to these languages and their cultures to be fully ‘conversational.’ Anyway, fluency is a slippery word that linguists avoid using. David Crystal, the popular linguist, once noted that while he is a native speaker and fluent in English, in a room full of physicists talking physics he would struggle to communicate.

Lewis does speak sense when he talks about ways of learning languages. On the topic of Duolingo for fluency he says that it’s ‘just never going to happen. Simple as that. It will get you started, you’ll get your little trophies, and you’ll feel that sense of achievement. It’s better than doing nothing.’ I agree completely. Duo is fun, but it relies too much on translations and that doesn’t help a person to think in the language. It also uses mostly language out of context – sentences and little paragraphs – and that makes it difficult to retain new vocabulary. Having said that, I’ve been using Duolingo everyday for the past 670 days – not to boast, but I’ve got a streak going and am into the Diamond League (whooo hooo). But I use it for languages, like French and Italian, for which I already have some proficiency. It helps me to practice the grammar through repetition, but I’m not learning new vocabulary or interacting in a meaningful way.

Since I wrote my article 30 years ago, self-taught language learning has come a long way thanks to the internet. Through YouTube, I watch news in Italian and documentaries in French, and I have language partners who chat (and correct me ad nauseum) via Skype and Teams. As for that article, as it was never digitalised, it’s in the dustbin for lightweight features – and just as well. When the editors discovered that I was female (they had assumed a Dr of linguistics was male), they denied me my by-line for the reason that their predominately ‘businessmen readership’ wouldn’t ‘respond well.’ Unforgettable words.

A piece of advice on learning languages from this female linguist is to simply experiment and discover how you learn languages best. I’m an auditory learner, so I learn more from listening than reading and more from speaking than writing. How ironic you might think given that this blog in my native English language is all about my life as a reader and writer.

Not advertising- just mentioning.

2022 – the year of language myopia

Recent years have witnessed some bizarre verbal gymnastics with the English language. Remember ‘alternative truths,’ meaning lies, and ‘fake news’ for truthful reporting. What has struck me in recent months is the wave of dictating vocabulary choice under the guise of not offending people. Sure, political correctness did a lot of this going back to the 90s. With PC, people started using new terms to describe groups of people as these groups wanted to be described themselves. Example: ‘handicapped’ became ‘disabled.’ This was about avoiding offence. What I’m seeing these days is different, and I have to say as a linguist, rather annoying.

Stanford University, following in the footsteps of other US institutions, launched ‘The Elimination of Harmful Language Initiative.’ These are guidelines for their IT department and page creators of the university’s website. Among the gems that have been thoroughly ridiculed in the press are instructions to not talk about ‘flogging a dead horse,’ or ‘killing two birds with one stone’ since these expressions ‘normalise violence against animals.’

These list makers clearly do not know that these are idiomatic expressions, or dead metaphors. With use and overuse, the literal meanings and underlying comparisons have been lost. Flogging dead horses is merely a more colourful and colloquial way of saying that some effort or continued action is a waste of time. Training or working with horses is for most of us urban dwellers an old-worldly idea from storybooks and films. Any literalness is far removed from our lives. And does anyone really think that when someone kills two birds with one stone that any feathered creature could be in harm’s way?

I’m even more perplexed and again annoyed by this Stanford group advising its IT staff to refrain from calling themselves ‘webmasters’ because ‘historically, masters enslaved people, didn’t consider them human and didn’t allow them to express free will, so this term should generally be avoided.’ These language dictators are not acknowledging that words change their meanings over time. A ‘master,’ whether they are master chefs or master craftspeople are experts who have worked hard or mastered (to use the verb form) their disciplines. Incidentally, if people want to prescribe language used based on etymology or historical use, the word master comes from the Latin magester, which meant not only a master, but also a teacher or leader. Speaking of etymology, the word picnic is apparently offensive because of its supposed origins. Some people believe that the word ‘picnic’ came from ‘pick a N-word’ (if I were to type the N-word, even to refer to it as a lexeme, WordPress would put an offence warning on this blog). The word’s origins actually come from the French and had nothing to do with lynching or slavery, just the custom of eating together outside. Reuters did a noteworthy factcheck on this. This is not to say that picnics weren’t associated with racist lynchings in America. At their height in the early 20th century, these horrible events were community celebrations, and most were done with the full knowledge of local law enforcement.

Brandeis University has included picnic on its offensive word list to staff communicating with the public. This has rightly been mocked by among others, writer Joyce Carol Oates, who pointed out: ‘while the word “picnic” is suggested for censorship, because it evokes, in some persons, lynchings of Black persons in the US, the word “lynching” is not itself censored.’

I do wonder if these prescriptive language dictums are the result of workshops with PowerPoint slides and groups huddled around flipcharts imagining scenarios of possible offence. The results make word lists into language offences themselves.

Words of the year – 2022

Gaslighting? Really? This word that was cool in my childhood appears to have been resurrected by the current generation of internet and social medias users. Thus, Merriam-Webster has recently crowned gaslighting their word of the year. Just when I was about to slam this choice as a tired word merely enjoying a modern audience, I stumbled across this use by Hadley Freeman in The London Times:

‘…to tell women that not accepting biological males in their spaces puts trans people at risk is outrageous gaslighting: women are far more likely than trans women to be killed by male violence in this country, but such facts have suddenly become very unfashionable in progressive circles.’

Perhaps gaslighting isn’t so bad after all.

The Oxford English Dictionary has taken a different approach for their word of the year, having invited the public to vote from a shortlist of three, presumably arrived at via a scholarly analysis of corpora of written and spoken language produced over the past year. A far cry from the subjective, though amusing, lexicography of Samuel Johnson. The OED’s three runners-up were: metaverse, the hashtag #IStandWith and the phrase goblin mode. Since metaverse conjures up images of a self-obsessed Mark Zuckerberg, it didn’t get my vote. The hashtag #IStandWith certainly is a testament of our time of activism, movements shared online and individuals making their mark. Cute and less important is goblin mode, which denotes ‘a type of behaviour which is unapologetically self-indulgent, lazy, slovenly, or greedy, typically in a way that rejects social norms or expectations’ – a phrase apparently popularised by post-pandemic attitudes to work and socialising. The voting closed on Friday 2 December, and the winner was announced yesterday as goblin mode. It could have been worse, but I’m left feeling outside of popular vernaculars – again.

Collins English Dictionary chose permacrisis as its word of the year. Apparently, this word has been used a great deal this year by the British media and economists to describe Liz Truss’s short reign as PM, along with the state of the UK government and the Brexit-whipped economy. I can’t argue with that even though I did have a problem at first using ‘perma’ with ‘crisis.’ But Collins’ lexicographers have explained that away: ‘While ‘perma-’ could not logically be applied to the original sense of ‘the turning point of a disease,’ it can be applied to this secondary meaning without being a contradiction.’ Yep, life in Britain these days can be described as a permacrisis.

Ah, the joy of neologisms.

Apparently, a goblin.

The UK Government – In other words

It’s been a good week for adjectives. The abrupt end of Liz Truss’s premiership, positioning the country for its third Prime Minister in two months and worryingly fifth Chancellor (finance minister) in four months, has given political writers and pundits plenty to say. But what do you say when a country and its leading political party are in meltdown that doesn’t sound cliched or as inarticulate as pub-speak on a Saturday night? I was hoping for some colourful metaphors but have mostly encountered adjectives.

I’m not a great fan of adjectives. Their overuse plagues student writing, genre fiction and celebrity memoires. But today I make an exception, noting that the weekend papers have resurrected the adjective in good form – at least for now. Among those used to describe the actions of Liz Truss and her cabinet include ill-fated, calamitous, demented, brexity, Gonzo, eye-popping, chaos-churning and career-serving (though obviously careers at the top of government have crashed to an ignominious end, these clown ministers will likely have high-paying jobs in the private sector for years to come). The best stacked-modifier award goes to Patrick Cockburn of The Independent who described Boris Johnson, who is bizarrely a contender for PM again, as having a career with ‘a comic opera Gilbert and Sullivan feel to it.’

But it hasn’t all been about adjectives. The -ism nouns haven’t done too badly either. Several pundits have stepped back from the immediate circus that is the British government to ask what this means for the ideologies that have gained prominence in the West in recent decades. Could the fall of Britain in such a way trigger the end of neoliberalism, of libertarianism, of populism, of nationalism? As these ideas have been put into practice and have disastrously failed, one does wonder. Writing in The Independent, Adam Boulton, remarked that the Conservative party, which is likely to reign for another two years, will continue with its factionalism and the instability it creates. That is, some of the aforementioned isms aren’t likely to go away overnight, or quietly for that matter.

Oh, yes, I did stumble across one metaphor from Andrew Rawnsley in The Observer that brought a smile to my face for its sentiment as well as its creativity: ‘… the polls suggest the Tories will be disembowelled by the voters when they get their hands on them at the polling stations.’ Nothing beats a good metaphor.

Larry the cat, who lives at 10 Downing Street has outlasted six Prime Ministers.

Dark Tourism

Disasters fascinate. The Titanic still garners interest after 100-plus years. Though I suspect some of that has to do with the lost ship and its treasures. The other side of Titanic fetish comes from the high number of casualties, that mass grave in the North Atlantic, arguably an example of what’s been called ‘dark tourism.’

My disaster fascination is with Pompeii, where some 2,000 people died when Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD. I first caught Pompeii fever as a child when an exhibit about Pompeii toured America and came to the Art Institute of Chicago. I was mesmerized by the plaster casts made from the ashen moulds of bodies frozen in time at the moment of horrific death. My recollection of this includes seeing people screaming. But that’s an unfaithful childhood memory. The reality wasn’t so detailed or morbidly vivid. Most of the figures are covering their heads, crouched or lying down. My adult self looks at these casts and imagines people being in a state of meditative acceptance of their mortality I visited the remains of Pompeii on two occasions, once in the 80s and sometime around 2005-06. The disaster is still fascinating, but more so for what it has left behind – the artifacts and structures that reveal how the inhabitants of the ancient town lived.

More recently, I had the pleasure of hearing the historian and classicist Mary Beard talk about her book and television series on Pompeii. Beard has changed my way of thinking about these people, for instance, pointing out that it would be wrong to call them Romans. The graffiti and inscribed objects indicate a diverse population, with speakers of Latin, Oscan, Greek and Hebrew.

Mary Beard among the human remains of Pompeii

This point is also picked up in Robert Harris’s brilliant novel Pompeii, a true page-turner set in the days before and during the eruption, with well-drawn characters and an attention to detail praised by historians. Harris digs into the minds of the people of that time who regarded such disasters as vengeance from the gods and the warnings that they had that went unceded. His protagonist, the region’s aquarius responsible for the aqueducts feeding into the towns, makes this observation: ‘Perhaps Mother Nature is punishing us, he thought, for our greed and selfishness. We torture her at all hours by iron and wood, fire and stone. We dig her up and dump her in the sea. We sink mineshafts into her and drag out her entrails – and all for a jewel to wear on a pretty finger. Who can blame her if she occasionally quivers with anger?’ This underlying environmental message also makes this worth a read.

There’s another type of dark tourism that I’ve been thinking about lately. The phrase is also used for visiting places like the concentration camp at Auschwitz, the Rwandan genocide towns (Kigali, Nyamata and Ntarma) and the Atomic Bomb Dome in Hiroshima, where apparently the rubble and twisted metal from the immediate aftermath of the bomb remain in situ. I’d argue that these sites, though they might hold a morbid fascination for some, are more about education, pointing the finger at human destruction and the mistakes of those who turned a blind eye. Watching, reading and hearing the news day in and day out, I wonder if Bucha and Mariupol will become sites for dark tourism.

Putin’s Words

“‘When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”’ I’ve been thinking about this well-worn quote from Lewis Carroll in recent days as I listen to the verbal gymnastics performed by Vladimir Putin.

Much of what Putin is saying about Ukraine can be found in the bully’s handbook as well as the propagandist’s handbook: Create a false narrative that makes you look like a victim and that leaves you with no other choice but to attack. Putin has claimed that Ukraine is committing ‘genocide’ against the Russian diaspora in the separatists’ regions of the country, and that his military actions will ‘liberate’ the people. This might at first sound like reckless hyperbole, but I think Putin has chosen his words carefully. ‘Genocide’ induces a heady mix of anger and fear, while ‘liberation’ is what most of us desire in some form or another. He’s manipulating the most basic of human instincts. The falsity of Putin’s claims doesn’t matter. He knows if something is said enough, there are people out there who will believe it. Trump’s ludicrous claims of a rigged presidential election are a case in point.

I’ve also been struck by Putin’s characterisation of the Ukrainian government as a ‘gang of drug addicts and neo-Nazis.’ Apparently for Putin drug addicts are not only a blight on society, but they should be feared. I see drug addicts as substance abusers in the same way I would regard alcoholics, people struggling with psychological and/or societal ills. The real danger is the drug lord and those who aid and abet the distribution network.

As for neo-Nazis, or just plain Nazis, this word has the currency of being both powerful and meaningless at the same time. The Nazis of the Weimar Republic were anti-Semitic, racists, homophobic thugs responsible for one of the worst acts of genocide of recent centuries. Since I’m not hearing or reading about anything like this taking place in Ukraine, and certainly not under the auspices of the Ukrainian government, I have to assume that Putin (if he were being truthful) must be using the word Nazi in its other sense. I remember as a child thinking my older sister was a Nazi because of the way she ordered me around when it came to making my bed and washing the dishes. Perhaps Putin is using Nazis to mean something else, something between the literal/historical meaning and the anodyne sense for a bossy person. If Putin is calling the Ukrainian government authoritarian or dictatorial, again he’s missing the mark as by all other accounts, Ukraine is a liberal democracy.

I started with Humpty Dumpty, so I’ll end with a metonymic meaning of a humpty-dumpty. Today a humpty-dumpty is a person or thing that once destroyed cannot be restored. In this battle for Ukraine, I’m seeing humpty-dumpties on both sides. While I relish the idea that this will ultimately be Putin’s downfall, I also fear for the Ukrainian people who won’t be able to put their lives back together again.

Everyone’s Talking Ulysses

As this month marks the 100-year anniversary of the publication of James Joyce’s Ulysses, it’s impossible to avoid.

My confession: I’ve read it one and two thirds’ times. That is, I first tackled this 700+page tome as an undergraduate in Chicago and failed to finish it – this is what happens when you work fulltime and take on a full schedule of classes. Self-pity aside, I managed two thirds of the book and with fastidious notes from the prof’s lectures, I partly bluffed my way through an essay exam, emerging with a B+. Fast forward to some 25 years later, I was in my forties and decided it was time to read the book cover-to-cover, including the 200+ pages of annotations at the back.

Such a reading exercise is hard work, simply because so much is involved in following the wandering thoughts and observations of Leopold Bloom and in understanding the political and social references of the time (those annotations come in handy). Ezra Pound described Ulysses as an ‘encyclopedia in the form of farce,’ and it is encyclopedic in that it covers a mass of subjects and ideas. But I don’t think ‘farce’ does it justice – the humour in Ulysses is at times situational, but is more often subtle and satirical.

Even though getting through Ulysses is an undertaking, it is worth it, especially in middle age. My undergraduate self couldn’t have possibly appreciated the nuance of emotions and the reflections on life:

‘Every life is in many days, day after day. We walk through ourselves, meeting robbers, ghosts, giants, old men, young men, wives, widows, brothers-in-love. But always meeting ourselves.’

The 25-year gap between my first and second readings was filled with, among other things, living in the UK and reading other modernist writers, such as Woolf and D.H. Lawrence. While I recall my younger self appreciating the turns of phrase and the love of language that trickles throughout the novel, I value it more from the vantage point of being a literary stylistician, noticing the occasional wink to the reader.

Would I read it again? People certainly do. I remember the poet Anthony Thwaite telling me that he read it about once every decade. For the true Ulysses aficionados, there’s the Twitter account UlyssesReader, which tweets out quotes from the book every ten minutes – it’s a corpus-fed bot. Serious fans make the pilgrimage to Dublin for the Bloomsday celebrations every 16th of June, the day the story takes place. It all sounds like good fun, but when it comes to rereading, I’d rather reread Joyce’s short story collection, The Dubliners, with one of my favourite stories, ‘Eveline.’ Or better still, read something for the first time. There’s Finnegan’s Wake, a Joyce book I found unreadable when I tried it some 30 years ago – it makes Ulysses read like a child’s nursey rhyme – and there it sits in my Kindle, waiting for me.

My Year of Journaling

You might recall the start of 2021, I initiated an experiment in writing in a journal on a daily basis. No more sporadic journal writing in waves. This new regime was to give some rigour to my writing practice. I did stick with it, but a couple of times a month, I found myself too busy to write and just completing the daily exercise with a sentence or two, usually about how busy I was that day.

After 365 journal entries, I have 82 pages filled with a total of 41,225 words. That sounded impressive until I did the maths and realised I only wrote on average 110 words per day. When I was working on books, I kept my momentum by writing 5000 words per week (roughly 750 per day). I console myself with the thought that journaling wasn’t the only writing I did in 2021. There were these blogs, a couple of new essays, two articles for East Anglia Bylines and editorial work on a short story (published in September) and two academic articles (published in June and October).

What was this journal about? As a journal intime, it was about me, my feelings and my ideas for writing. Looking back at the year, the journal entries often referred to Covid and how I was feeling about it, or how the government restrictions, cancelled events and rescheduled flights interrupted my life. Interestingly, the words Covid, pandemic and test(s) didn’t even make the top 100 words on the frequency list – I uploaded the file into a concordancer as geeky linguists like me do. There were, however, a fair share of implicit references to it ‘things being as they are these days.’

Among the highest frequency words from the year of daily journaling had to do with writing itself – write, wrote, writing, blog and article all made regular appearances. Related to this was the word time – that showed up big and bold on a word cloud that I generated of the journal file (see below). These word clouds exclude pronouns and function words (such as determiners and conjunctions).

Word cloud of my 2021 journal

Back to the concordancer, which includes all words in a text, of those 41,000 plus words, the most frequent one was the pronoun I. No surprise there as journals are home of the Narrative I, which is also the Authorial I. As I was writing to me, and most certainly not to anyone else, I felt free to work through writing ideas, including the ridiculous and unpublishable – an exercise of creative muscle-stretching. Above all else, I was free to say what I thought, and the results often surprised me. These deeply private thoughts included affirmations, self-loathing, and the recording and interpreting of dreams. The act of writing such thoughts has been psychotherapeutic to say the least.

For these reasons, I’m continuing in 2022 with daily journaling, and I can highly recommend it – and not just for people who write.