In this guest post, Jennifer Sinor of Utah State University writes about how and why she came to write The Extraordinary Work of Ordinary Writing, her book about her great, great, great Aunt Annie Ray and the diary she kept.
We will be reading Sinor’s fascinating book and discussing it on the #storypast hashtag on Twitter on Thursday 2nd February 1-2pm.
Our eyes are closed.
Beyond the walls and through the windows, I can hear the rustle of students as they make their way to and from classes. A door slams shut down the hall. The radiator pings to life, but inside the classroom we only breathe. Inhale, exhale.
The deepest breath, I tell my students, that they have taken all day.
One minute, two, three, the twenty of us sit in silence. Maybe a cough but no shifting in seats, no movement. Complete stillness. “Open your eyes when you’re ready,” I tell them.
“Welcome to class.”
I begin all of my classes this way: silence in a place where silence rarely exists. My students tell me they look forward to this moment in the day, that it is often the only quiet they share.
And sharing is at the center of our silence. It is risky to close your eyes within a group—especially in a circle where everyone is facing each other—and especially in a space where such things aren’t done. It requires trust and vulnerability. It requires faith. And we take the leap together. We do this on the very first day, even before I take roll, before I know their names or their stories or their practice as students.
Around this emptiness, this silence, this absence, we begin to cultivate the community that is at the heart of learning. We breathe together, like we later will gather together around their writing, and we plumb the resonances found in being still.
It has taken me twenty years in the classroom to become the kind of teacher who shuts her eyes and leads her students in breath work.
The first time I did it, my heart raced and my eyelids trembled against the closing. It felt very naked, as if I were singing to them. But it felt powerful too, this coming together in silence, and I recognized the absence of chatter and noise as valuable—not because my home is quiet and I sought the same in my classroom–but rather because I have long been tutored by silence and absence in the life writing of women—and it is in sitting with their diaries and letters that I have come to understand that silence and absence, which often trouble and frustrate us as readers, yield moments that are full and rich and complex moments, unattainable through words.
Almost the same year I began teaching college students, I was bequeathed the diary of my great, great, great aunt Annie Ray, a woman who homesteaded in the Dakotas in the late nineteenth century.
Running from 1881-1884, Annie’s diary covers the period when she and her husband Charley tried to make a go at a homestead in southeastern South Dakota. When Annie and Charley moved to town, the diary stops. By far, that was the biggest silence I faced.
But there were many other empty spaces, gaps, pauses and absences.
What you notice first when reading Annie’s diary is all that it lacks. Especially if you are a reader of nineteenth-century women’s diaries, which can be fulsome accounts of the days. With Annie’s diary you are aware of all that you don’t have. She records how many loaves of bread she baked. She documents the weather. She tells us that she darned or mopped or, maybe, that her head ached. She might visit a neighbor, but we never learn what they talk about. Mail arrives but the content goes unrecorded. Each entry is so short, so bare boned, so lacking in those details we crave. What actually happened we want to know. And Annie doesn’t tell us.
Saturday, January 15, 1881
Snowed a little. Very pleasant this eve. I am very tired.
Like all diaries, Annie’s arrives in the middle of things. And while her writing glimmers with the hint of story—a pleasant eve, a tired woman–as a reader, I have learned to recognize the strength of narrative’s undertow and to resist reading her diary through a literary lens—a lens that seeks a beginning, middle and end. Questions of motivation, setting, and plot prove inadequate tools for the task of reading a diary. Writing as she lives, always in the middle, she never knows when her latest entry will be her last.
Monday, June 19, 1882
Cloudy and sometimes drizzling. I washed, made bread, sewed and done some little jobs also read some. Charley hoed a.m. and worked on the kitchen p.m. I set a hen today.
Tuesday, June 20 1882
Pretty cool and very windy. I ironed etc., made a pair of pants. Charley worked on the kitchen and hoed some. Evening I set out a lot of tomatoes. The little chickens are hatching.
Reading and writing in the middle, in diurnal time, is a wonder I have had to learn to appreciate and describe.
For so long I wanted plot. I wanted resolution.
My academic training prepared me for analyzing textual wholes, not simply sitting with ordinary fragments. In addition, the diaries that receive critical and sustained attention—the ones even now claiming space on the library shelves–are those that duplicate most closely a literary form—or at least those that have been edited to duplicate this form.
Given all that, it is not really surprising that when I first read Annie’s diary I strained to read between the penciled lines, to see beneath the censored entries—working her words into a familiar story of loss, an occasioned story naming the betrayal of women. With a great sense of urgency and duty I made phone calls, found photographs, decoded, analyzed, and filled the holes.
The result of my efforts was an ordered, tidy, and dramatic story about a woman who homesteaded in the Dakotas in the late 19th century and whose husband was both absent and unfaithful. By distilling her daily tally of days into five or six remarkable entries, I furnished the stuff of story. I closed the gaps, bridged the absences, ignored the majority of her entries.
To locate the interesting and the dramatic, I read past the repetitious and the daily. I skimmed the very qualities that make Annie’s diary extraordinary.
My book, The Extraordinary Work of Ordinary Writing, is the story of how I eventually learned to read what Annie had given me.
Her diary documents all that typically passes unnoticed, the moments we normally don’t see, name or hold, and yet are the fabric of our very lives. Approached on its own terms, Annie’s diary and diaries like hers, with all those gaps and empty spaces, become the most accurate form of life writing possible.