Monday, February 1, 2016

Writing the Self: Chapter 1 Summary Response

In light of the fact that my students write a Summary Response blog post related to their career field every Friday, I am challenging myself to write similarly concerning a book I'm studying, Writing the Self: Diaries, Memoirs and the History of the Self  by Peter Heehs. Looking at diary writing as literature, specifically American travel diaries written during Westward expansion, is my primary focus for scholarship. I'm even more excited about my research focus because I see the obvious overlap in English studies: viewing diaries as literature and viewing diaries as rhetorical constructs. 
Considering that people use diaries for “self-expression,” and “self-reflection,” ultimately leading to the “desire for self-improvement” (Heehs 8), it was unavoidable to connect what I am learning about diary writing to my work in the Composition classroom with blogs (modern diaries) . I want to understand more fully how to best design and implement blog assignments that inspire my students to meaningfully reflect on their own writing. 
This book is already greatly enjoyable and necessary as a theoretical and historical groundwork piece just as the works of Margo Culley have been for me in this area.
Here's my Summary Response of Chapter 1: The Self and History.
This chapter is a brief historical rundown of self-perception/ awareness and self-writing. He covers, as an introduction, various fundamental labels of self across cultures and even self language. Just as Hinduism has atma and Christianity has the soul, for example. What I found most interesting on this point is how "self" outside of Western culture is mostly based on the role and function of an individual within a group: “people in traditional cultures give much more importance to social cohesiveness, much less to individual autonomy” (4). In fact, Western culture is where Heehs is going to mostly stay throughout this book.
The author argues how “Self” has not necessarily always been more inward or introspective, “the feeling that there is a personal inner space that we alone have access to” (3). This notion was already apparent in Augustine’s Confessions (397-398 CE), which according to Heehs is “the first important memoir in the Western world” (7). Unlike modern thought, “For Augustine, to be concerned with one’s separate self was to turn away from God, the light of the truth and creator of the soul” (3). For most of our human history, "self" is viewed in terms of its connectedness (a word I'm throwing together here) to other selves.
Heehs also makes a “distinction between the instinctive sense of self that humans have always had and the concept of self that is a product of thought and reflection” (2). There is a concept of self that “humans of various period have created” which is the conscious self (2).
The chapter concludes with a light discussion of how the personal writings, such as diaries, help express “I”, and he warns that approaching self writing is best done with caution: “Some critics...[suggest] that first-person writings are tools of self-construction: not just accounts of what happened but ways of molding the stuff of the past into models of what the writers wish to be. To such critics, writing an account of one’s life is an act of self-creation” (6). Moreover, diaries are unique from memoirs and autobiographies in that the events are recorded shortly after they happen, with no knowledge of the future. Because of the difficulty a person usually has being honest with their own self, diaries or memoirs should never be taken at face value, a principle I understand well as I read diaries for research or even student blog posts.
This first chapter is very promising. I was elated at the historical overview of self-writing, and the greatest discovery was the oldest form of diary writing in the world- the nikki bungaku (diary literature) from Japan, which perhaps originated in the 8th century. For the first century of their use, they only recorded events, but nothing of the diarist themselves. In the tenth-century, “Ki no Tsurayuki began the tradition of the Japanese literary diary with his Tosa Nikki, a record of a journey from Tosa Province to Kyoto told from the perspective of a fictitious female narrator” (9). Tsurayuki wove poetry into this diary, creating a style that would “characterize the nikki for the next thousand years” (9). The genre became more fictionalized, but still very much “based on a true story” as more women began keeping nikki. Matsuo Basho (1644-94) is considered the “preeminent master of the nikki” (10) in his work, The Records of a Travel-worn Satchel, but his writing reveals little about him because of the heavy fictionalization. Since the paper I am currently working on looks at the rhetorical implications of poetry in travel diaries, the nikki is going to be a concept for further study for me.
Works Cited
Heehs, Peter. Writing the Self: Diaries, Memoirs, and the History of the Self. New York: Bloomsbury P, 2013. Print.

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