Review: Anthology of private writings is a mixed bag

Book contains excerpts from journals, notebooks of 13 men and women

Posted: Sunday, April 18, 2004

"Darkness and Light - Private Writing as Art"

Edited by Olivia Dresher and Victor Munoz. ToExcel Press. 351 pages. $17.95.

Any reader familiar with Samuel Pepys' journals (kept from 1660-1669) knows how the most inane, unfettered, self-centered jottings can illuminate a distant century. Any reader familiar with Anne Truitt's "Daybook" (published in 1982) knows that the journal can embrace intellectual distinction as well as literary grace, while shedding light on the wellsprings of creativity.

In "Darkness and Light - Private Writing as Art," editors Olivia Dresher and Victor Munoz challenge the view that there is an inherent contradiction between the revelatory aspects of the diary and the artifices of craft and inspiration. "Darkness and Light" contains meaty excerpts from the private musings of 14 men and women. Also included are two essays, one by Munoz and one by Kimble James Greenwood, addressing the questions surrounding journals and art.

Greenwood's essay covers the subject exceedingly well. He is a fan of Anais Nin and quotes often from her journals as well as critics of her journals. He himself began writing a journal in 1967, at age 13, and that this writing helped to broaden his outlook away from a total concentration on his desire to become a scientist. His journals, he writes, "became the working notebooks" toward his goals--"a place to experiment, to write-up my life, to describe the world around me, to honor beauty, to consolidate, play with and augment vocabulary, to work on poems, to think things out or through, to recopy quotes from books I liked and found inspirational, to remember." In public, he stammered; in private, in his journals, he felt powerful, free of mockery or pity from his peers, able to speak in his "true voice." His journal gave him a safe place in which to record his enthusiasms, to pour out his love and to hold onto what proved endlessly ephemeral.

Munoz' essay traces the journal to the Japanese nikki bungaku of the 8th century, and discusses the two warring essences of time-bound private writing, "authenticity and fragmentation." His essay is itself fragmented, but there is method to his madness.

Among the musings, Sandi Sonnenfeld limns the months in which she composed and choreographed a ballet as an MFA graduate school project. The subject of the ballet was rape.

Kathleen Hunt Dolan writes about what she makes for lunch, her daughter's face, the characters who board her bus, conversations, mists, earthquakes, memories from her infancy. She has chosen her selections from entries made between 1977-1989, looking for recurrence of themes such as solitude, landscape, wandering, darkness and light, illusion and disillusion, "and above all the persistent search for points of vibrancy and illuminations in the midst of the bewilderment, attrition, and just dumbstruck groping of daily life."

Audrey Borenstein gleaned from 25 years of journals for her selections. In her introduction, Borenstein says that her "revisitation of tens of thousands of pages have disclosed the Journal's gift for shape-shifting [into]... a letter, continuously writing itself to one's later self."

As is usual for an anthology, this is really a mixed bag. Some of the writers are "stocking up for nuclear war." A few tend toward the minimalist, collecting fragments and aphorisms. Others record their dreams and nightmares. We are given glimpses into sexual affairs as well as psychological abuse. Marie LaConte's journal from Saudi Arabia, 1986-1989, supplies experiences and behind-the-scenes cultural information that could have been useful to those planning the Iraq war-or planning to visit the Middle East.

Those interested in the diary form will find much to charm them and much that is unexpected in this collection. It is worth returning to again and again.

Olivia Dresher and Victor Munoz live and write in Washington State. Dresher is the founder and curator of the Library of Diaries, Journals and Notebooks at the Richard Hugo House literary center in Seattle. Munoz tutors logic and philosophy at the University of Washington in Seattle. To read more selections from journals, diaries and notebooks, visit

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