Everyone Is Reading Your Diary: Why Facebook and Twitter Shouldn’t Be Your Journal

Remember journaling? It’s what a number of people used to do to record and work through their random, inane, deep, inflammatory, or otherwise likely-inappropriate-for-public-consumption thoughts before there was Facebook and Twitter and blogging. A private place to work out what you think about stuff and record what you ate for dinner. A place where it was safe to say dumb things because who would read it? A place where it was safe to say brilliant things that you would later recognize as dumb with a little more life experience under your belt because, again, who would read it? A place where you didn’t have to have it all figured out and prepare a defense of your views, your lifestyle, your existence.

Remember how you used to fly into a rage if your sister found your diary and read it? Now everyone’s reading your diary.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately as I read articles about why Twitter is dying and I realize that my first couple years on Facebook, when almost no one outside of Academia was on it, were filled with congenial exchanges with people I might otherwise not have a lot of chances to talk with because we were all so busy with grad school. Now Facebook is just all those annoying, cutesy, unsubstantiated forwards that used to junk up your email inbox. Now instead of deleting them without opening them, you see them — ALL of them — every day.

I have on many occasions been a click away from deleting my presence on Facebook and going back to living a life that doesn’t invite others’ opinions and unsolicited advice at every turn. But then, my parents get to see pictures of their grandson, so I should keep it up. Or now, I need to continue to build my online presence because I need effective ways to get the word out about my books once I start publishing novels. Or really, at this point there are a number of people I like to stay in touch with (many of my fellow writers, most of whom I know because of the internet) with whom I just wouldn’t stay in touch if we weren’t all on Facebook. So, I remain.

Then last week I had a realization that I think will improve my life greatly: I don’t have to use Facebook or Twitter as my diary.

I’ve never been great at keeping a consistent journal or diary, and all of my old attempts have pretty much been destroyed. I don’t want to remember how ridiculous I was in junior high. But now, as an adult who needs a place — a private place — to process life and record my hopes and dreams and fears, I’m turning back to journaling.

Over the past few years I have read through Virginia Woolf’s abridged diaries. I enjoy the staccato and often sarcastic way she describes her many visitors, both friends and people she merely tolerates. I’ve appreciated seeing her trials and triumphs in her writing, showing that the ups and downs I and so many others feel about their work are common to all writers. I’ve been enthralled by her descriptions of her surroundings. And I’ve appreciated that she doesn’t feel the need to write full sentences.

Thing is, if she and her friends and acquaintances had been on Facebook, she quickly would have had no friends and spent most of her time, thought life, and energies on explaining herself and apologizing when people misunderstood. She probably would have committed suicide much earlier in her life.

Instead, she put her insights and questions and suppositions into her fiction and her essays after safely trying them out on paper that no one would see until after she was dead. She sifted through her thoughts and theories privately before launching them into the world. She tested things out with close friends who wouldn’t assume the worst of her if she said something they didn’t agree with.

She didn’t go out into the streets of London and share her ideas with perfect strangers or even random acquaintances. She worked through things in her own mind, on the pages of her diaries, and with a small inner circle of close friends. And when she argued about God with T. S. Eliot around the dinner table, passersby did not poke their heads through the windows to comment. When she discussed politics with  Lytton Strachey, some lady she had as a substitute teacher in fourth grade did not burst through the front door and spout off some bizarre non sequitur to kill the conversation. When she made an off-hand comment about her truculent maid, she wasn’t then barraged with unsolicited and conflicting advice on how she should deal with the situation.

She simply wrote it out, pondered, moved on.

So with Virginia as my guide, I’m turning to the private page (an actual page made of paper that others do not see) and putting my thoughts there. I’ll still share things on Facebook and Twitter, but when I’m trying to process a sticky political point or when I want to work out my opinion on a matter of morality or when I just want to complain about something that hasn’t gone my way, I’ll do it in my journal. And someday, after I’m dead, after it doesn’t matter anymore, someone may read it.

But I won’t have to deal with the fallout.


Taking Your (Literary) Place in the History of the World

SoutheastAsiaMonday as I was tutoring my Chin friends, the two school-age boys, Moses and David, expressed their frustration with learning to write in English. Both are making strides in speaking and understanding speech, but in their classwork they find it difficult to transfer their newfound confidence with the spoken English word to paper. During the discussion that followed, David (14) said “English is too hard. I have to write a poem. What is a poem?”

What is a poem? What a question. I tried to answer this question by comparing poetry to other forms of literature. For instance, I said, To Kill a Mockingbird is a novel (long fiction) and there are short stories (short fiction) and poetry would be even shorter, often rhymes, and usually follows some sort of pattern or rhythm. Then I began to recite some Robert Frost to give him an example.

I got confused looks in response.

David was recently supposed to read To Kill a Mockingbird in English class. I’m pretty sure he got to at least chapter 10 and as I looked through the book (which I haven’t read since I was his age) in order to help him with an essay a few weeks ago, I really felt for him. It would be hard enough to read a novel written in “proper” English for someone who just started to learn the language two years ago. But that book is written in dialect. Oh, my.

We got through our lesson, I answered some questions about how to buy airline tickets for a trip they are taking to Texas for a friend’s wedding, and then I got in my car and began to drive home to start making dinner. It was on the drive that it it hit me: The Chin do not have anything that can compare to the vast body of literature, both past and present, that exists in the English language.

They do not have libraries filled to bursting with novels, plays, short stories, poetry, histories, religious works, or diaries in their native language, one of almost 50 spoken by their ethnic group alone. The only written works I have seen in the Chin language they speak are the Bible and the English-Chin dictionary. I’m not sure what else exists out there, but their language did not even have a written form until at least the 1800s, so there can’t be much.

As a native English speaker who grew up with a history and a body of literature that is written and read, I can hardly conceive of not having hundreds of years of thought to access at the turn of a page or the click of a mouse. It is not that these lovely people do not have a history, it’s that they cannot access it.

Over the past couple years as we have met each week I have explained various American holidays, which often entails explaining American history, which then occasionally requires a lesson in world history. As a history buff and a history minor in college, I know all of this information off the top of my head. But when I ask my friends the history of their own country, I can get very little information from a time before the oldest in the family (at age 42) was alive. I cannot fathom knowing only what has happened in my own lifetime.

Why do these people not know their history? The biggest reason is because in Burma/Myanmar they were impoverished and persecuted. You don’t wile away the hours reading or even talking history when you are struggling every hour of the day to make a living from poor soil and avoid harassment by a military regime. The secondary reason is because no one wrote it down.

When you write, whether you write personal letters, diary entries, emails, blog posts, self-help books, novels, or histories, you preserve a small part of life for the generations that will come. If your words survive on paper or in digital form, people who live long after you are gone can surmise how you lived, what was important to you, what you feared.

When you write, you are in a small way immortal. That’s powerful stuff. It should cause us to examine what we are saying to posterity when we write, when we post on Facebook or Twitter, when we choose to put our nebulous thoughts into little black characters on a page.

What history are you writing? What legacy are you leaving? Does it say something important? Or will the generations to come find ours a trivial generation not worth studying?

My Chin friends are writing themselves a new history in a new country with new freedoms and new challenges. I hope my own small contributions to the vast body of literature in English will be so brave. And I hope yours will be as well.

“All is amazement and confusion.” — A Review of Detroit City Is the Place to Be

One of my avowed reasons for starting this blog is to bring you reviews of books about or set in Michigan, and/or written by Michigan authors. While I intend to review both fiction and nonfiction, both new releases and those decades-old, my first review (nonfiction) is oddly timely as the book has just released. I found it calling to me uninvited on the front table at Schuler Books & Music, a Michigan independent bookstore with locations in the Grand Rapids and Lansing areas. I hadn’t planned on starting reviews until 2013, but I cannot help but press you to buy this book. Even at hardcover prices it is well worth your hard-earned cash.

Detroit City Is the Place to Be: The Afterlife of an American Metropolis by Mark Binelli

Refreshingly nonpartisan and presented without the author’s own ego and agenda getting muddled up in things (a flaw so common in nonfiction books that take on difficult subjects), Detroit City Is the Place to Be is simultaneously a lesson in how we got here and how we might possibly get out of here. A Detroit area native (though he now lives in New York City), Mark Binelli covers almost every angle of the problem of Detroit, including historical and current racial tensions, the explosive growth and painful contraction of the auto industry, the eroding tax base and lack of resources, the distrust of outsiders, the blight, the fires, the violent crime, the music, the ruins, the drug culture, the despair, and those small, shimmering pockets of positivity (one almost can’t call them hope just yet) that while things may not quite have bottomed out, the city really has nowhere to go but up.

Binelli weaves a comprehensive and yet somehow still comprehensible tapestry of facts, statistics, and personal stories that gives the reader the big picture of Detroit but doesn’t miss the importance of the details. Even for a Michigander who has been hearing and reading about Detroit’s decline for decades, there are plenty of jaw-dropping moments. In these pages we meet real Detroiters: UAW members losing hope, teen moms grasping a better life for their children, “hustlers” coming up with their own work when jobs are nonexistent, concealed pistol enthusiasts, urban prairie dwellers, guerrilla lawn mowing brigades, and many more. Whether they stick with Detroit because they can’t afford to move or out of a solid sense of loyalty to their family history and their city, they are in it for the long haul and they are not (quite) ready to give up yet.

As one of those people says in Binelli’s book, “Detroit isn’t some kind of abstract art project. It’s real for people. These are real memories. Every one of these houses has a story.” And as Binelli himself says, “Detroit, if anything, is a place where the past cannot be shook loose. It hangs on, tenaciously, creeping over the city like a slow-growing mold, until–this begins to seem inevitable, if you get into a certain mood–the entire place will be nothing but past.”

This is not a book of solutions. It’s not a plan to rightsize a monolith of the nearly bygone modern industrial era. It’s not a crunchy, hippified manifesto on returning to subsistence farming and turning abandoned houses and factories into artists’ studio space. It’s not a vision for a utopian society of light rails, rooftop gardens, and flashy tech jobs. All of those elements are to be found in Detroit City Is the Place to Be because there are earnest people proposing scenarios like these, but they are not exactly championed by Binelli. Rather, like a good, impartial journalist without  an ax to grind (amazing, right?) he puts it out on the table for the reader to chew on, bones and all. He leaves the situation in all its absurdly complicated glory because to come to the end and present a “solution” to the problems plaguing Detroit would be the absolute most naive and insulting thing to do. Real life is complex enough. Real life in Detroit is perhaps even more so. And it’s refreshing to read an author who gets it, who knows that you can’t solve a problem like Detroit with a five step plan imposed from the outside.

We naturally want a tidy solution to be discovered (as though people just haven’t been looking hard enough for the past, oh, let’s say 80 years). But we do a disservice to the people living the nightmare on the ground in Detroit (or in other complicated, violent, and seemingly hopeless situations, as this can all be extrapolated to other post-industrial towns and even to volatile areas of the world such as the Middle East) when we imagine that a few policy changes or a few new companies moving to town will solve the problem. Short of a sudden and unprecedented inflow of free money (which doesn’t exist, of course) the rebuilding of this great city will be slow and painful and no one will be completely happy with it at any stage.

Though I’ve never lived in Detroit, both sides of my family are part of its history and growing up we took several trips a year down I-75 to visit grandparents and cousins. Like an intercontinental funnel, various streams of my ancestors made their way first to Canada from Ireland, Scotland, England, and Germany. After pit stops in Ontario ranging from 10 to 125 years, they entered the United States through Detroit. They were farmers, machinists, shop girls, cigar rollers, cabinetmakers, printers, ad men, mechanics, and middle management in retail stores. And slowly over the past two generations they have fanned out from Detroit and are taking my family history west, north, and even to the Eastern seaboard. But Detroit feels like the center of it all to me, the crux of family history. Detroit is where my people are buried.

My great-grandparents farmed land that got swallowed up by the creeping suburbs (and may now very well be in the process of returning to nature, as it were). As a girl, my grandmother performed traditional Scottish dancing at the opening of the Ambassador bridge. My first experience with a race other than my own was playing with my grandparents’ black neighbors. My grandfather’s basement was peppered with tools he had probably pilfered from GM. A Thanksgiving pastime when we visited the Detroit area after the leaves fell was to drive around and gawk at the enormous suburban homes of basketball stars, musicians, and executives. Now people go to gawk at decay.

As a realist in general, I cannot be wildly optimistic about the future of Detroit (and the bulk of Binelli’s book certainly didn’t nurse any idealistic notions that may have been trying to take root in the deep recesses of my subconscious, despite his more hopeful conclusion). But as one who trusts in the transformation of individual lives through the work of God, I can’t be hopeless either. I agree with Binelli’s implicit message that policy changes and business tax breaks and film crews cannot save Detroit on their own. But the spirited people who refuse to leave, who patrol their neighborhoods, who create beauty from ashes–those are the ones who, one by one, family by family, can keep hope alive.

For those of us on the outside, it’s good to remember that before you can save something you must care about it, and before you can care about something you must be educated about it. Detroit City Is the Place to Be is an education. It’s Detroit 101. Whether readers (like myself) use what we learn to try to make a difference is up to us. But we couldn’t have a more concerned, honest, and gentle teacher than Mark Binelli.

I highly recommend this book to every Michigander; to anyone interested in big cities, the post-industrial age, urban planning; to anyone tempted to write Detroit off as a lost cause. It will ground you in reality even while it points to a faint light in the distance that we may reach if only we are brave enough to travel a treacherous road.

Note: The quote in the title of this post is from a description of the city of Detroit after the Great Fire of 1805, found on page 45 of the hardcover book. The quote reads in full “The town of Detroit exists no longer . . . History does not furnish so complete a ruin, happening by accident, and in so short a space of time. All is amazement and confusion.”