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Leaving a Trace: On Keeping a Journal; The Art of Transforming a Life Into Stories [Paperback]

Alexandra Johnson
4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)

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Book Description

2 Jan 2002
Leaving A Trace is a practical guide to keeping a diary and transforming it into future projects. Alex Johnson shows how to spark memory, generate and focus material, identify key patterns, make procrastination work for you, and insure your diary's privacy. Each chapter features tailored exercises for both beginning and committed diarists. Beginners will turn first to quick ways to get - and stay - started, and to overcome inhibitions. Seasoned chroniclers, though, will start diaries with a new slant: how to trigger inspiration with creative brainstorming exercises; how to note patterns in diaries they already have, and how to shape their material.
--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Product details

  • Paperback: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Back Bay Books; Reprint edition (2 Jan 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0316121568
  • ISBN-13: 978-0316121569
  • Product Dimensions: 20.5 x 12.8 x 1.5 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,580,945 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Product Description

Book Description

An inspirational and practical guide to starting and keeping a diary-and transforming it into something permanent. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

About the Author

Alexandra Johnson currently teaches memoir and creative nonfiction at Harvard and Wellesley, as well as at The Ploughshare's International Creative Writing Seminars. She lives near Boston. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Customer Reviews

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Why does one keep diaries or journals? 27 Dec 2011
By Ralph Blumenau TOP 500 REVIEWER
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
The author has written several books about diaries; she teaches a course on memoir writing; and here she gives advice "on keeping a journal" (which is her subtitle) and on how to read them. As a regular diary keeper myself for over 70 years (I started at 16), I was interested in what she might have to say. In Part One of the book she quotes what a lot of diarists - well-known ones as well as obscure ones - have said about what they thought their diaries did for them. Some of that, even if written by acclaimed diarists, sounds pretty pretentious to me, but then people write diaries for all sorts of different reasons. Myself, I recognize the following reasons or combinations of them:

1. To record thoughts one does not dare to avow publicly. That is, I would think, the most common reason why people start proper diaries as children or teenagers. They make for locked diaries, not intended to be read by anyone else - either because they let off steam against parents or siblings (that was certainly the origin of my own), or because one has ideas which one fears might be mocked by others if they were laid bare.

2. To provide self-analysis, very common from teenage years onwards. What do I really think about myself? What is it about me that prevents me from getting on top of my problems or from having satisfactory relationships? Some act as a confessional. Again one would not feel happy if other people read them.

3. To record one's philosophical or spiritual journey through life.

4. Occasionally a diary is an occasion for narcissism.

5. To serve as an aide-memoire, so that later you can recall things that you might otherwise have forgotten. Such diaries become increasingly valuable to oneself as one gets older.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars It's never too late to start! 6 Feb 2006
By A Customer
A cracking good read, that will make you immediately start writing little tidbits of your life down as you mourne over all of the rich lives that have been lost in your own family, for those that did not keep journals.
Imagine being able to read jounrnals written by grandparents, or greatgrandparents? Let that be the inspiration to you, to leave behind your own legacy to future generations of your family. After reading this, I've bought copies for friends and family whom I think will appreicate it, and so far all of the feedback has been positive, as they all start to leave their own trace behind.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Superb. 21 Sep 2011
By Eyelean
This book has been and inspiration for me...Alexandra writes with passion about ordinary people documenting their lives in personal journals. This is not only a fascinating read, it is a booster to those who are engaged in or contemplating creating their own journals. One of the best books I have read on the subject.
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Amazon.com: 4.4 out of 5 stars  24 reviews
92 of 95 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Makes a great gift 22 Dec 2000
By Harriet Klausner - Published on Amazon.com
Most people starting a journal find after a relatively short period that the entries become a chore rather than a joy. LEAVING A TRACE provides individuals with tips as to how make the personal scroll more exciting, entertaining, and user friendly to the customer: the author of the tome.
Professor Alexandra Johnson provides practical advice including changing tone, length, schedule, and case, etc. to liven up the entries and keep the writer fresh. Thus, anyone thinking of starting a journal or already maintaining one will find this book quite useful. The book is well written and surprisingly interesting, but the reader need beware that it also tempts the audience into wanting to start a journal. My spouse had cardiac arrest when I suggested I do just that - not because of dark secrets, but because he insists my "journal" is already splashed all over the Net. This guidebook truly assists the person desiring a self-record and anyone buying a journal as a present for a loved one should include this as a companion piece.

Harriet Klausner
45 of 45 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Most Useful For Those Beyond The Basics 23 Nov 2001
By Ruth Edlund - Published on Amazon.com
There are a lot of books out there on keeping journals, and all of them contain very similar, and sound, basic advice: use whatever format helps, just ignore the censorious voice, there are no rules, etc. This book covers those points adequately, to be sure.
Where this book excels, however, is in guiding the reader who is beyond the basics--the reader who has accumulated a pile of journals and is ready to take them as raw material and do something more with them, be it more journaling at a deeper level or extracting and preparing a work for publication. Professor Johnson presents a number of ideas along this line that I have not seen elsewhere.
This book lost a star in my view because, in addition to the lack of bibliography noted by other reviewers, the material about mining the journals is not presented in a well-organized fashion. For example: Johnson identifies ten categories of life patterns that one can perceive in journals past: longing; fear; mastery;(intentional) silences; key influences; hidden lessons; secret gifts; challenges; unfinished business; untapped potential. I found this to be a very helpful analysis, yet it is casually mentioned in the text in a way that is easy to miss and hard to locate again for reference.
This book must be mined for insights in just the same way that one mines a journal. It's not a fatal flaw, but I think I expected more in a published work. Nonetheless, it is worth the effort for long-time journal-keepers.
36 of 37 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Good for all Journal Writers 12 July 2001
By Rundy - Published on Amazon.com
Do you keep a journal? Have you kept one in the past? Do you wish something would inspire you to keep a journal? Have you tried and failed, and wished there were some way you could try again and succeed? Or have you never kept a journal, never plan to, and wonder why other people do? If you answer yes to any of these questions, then you will find Leaving A Trace by Alexandra Johnson an informative and inspiring book to read.
I was, at first, suspicious of Johnson's book. There is plenty of tripe out there on the subject of journaling and Leaving A Trace sounded like some pap trash writing; the type that would list ten ways to complete happiness in journal writing in twenty-four easy steps. With eight years of journal writing behind me, journal writing is something I do, like, and have opinions about. I am ever on the lookout for intelligent writing with which I can interact. I was suspicious, but when I cracked the book open I found it was not what I thought, and I was intrigued enough to read on.
The most striking feature of Leaving A Trace is Johnson's ability to weave together the stories of both famous and unknown journal writers with her own observations and experiences. She writes with the clean and sure prose of someone who knows her subject well. The book is crafted in a relaxed and familiar manner that makes for easy and enjoyable reading. The book is not a voluminous tome of intimidation, but a concise handbook that does not neglect any aspects of journaling.
As an experienced journal writer I found myself enjoying Johnson's skill in describing why we write journals, and what journals mean, both to the writer and others at a later time. It wasn't that Johnson said anything I didn't already know, but she wrote in a way that clearly said my own thoughts, freeing them from that distant place in the back of my mind so they could be looked upon openly. Johnson's writing provoked me to examine and consider my own journal writing. Time and again I would come across a passage that would make me think "Yes, I agree with that. And the reason why is . . ." Many times I had to restrain myself from underlining passages and scribbling notes in the margins. When I finished the book the reasons why I keep a journal were refreshed in my mind, encouraging me to continue and perhaps even experiment with new and different methods.
I found Leaving A Trace helpful in my writing experience, but the book is good for people of all levels of experience. Beginners as well as advanced writers can see their own goals in Johnson's writing and be spurred on. Especially helpful are the passages where Johnson touches on the many different varieties of journals a person can keep, including non-traditional forms. People who think they could never write a journal might find that they are actually keeping one through means they never would have guessed. Other writers who are struggling with one type of journaling might discover a different type that works better for them. And for those beginning writers looking for something to get them started Johnson has exercises listed at the end of each chapter.
Leaving A Trace is a well written book on journaling, but there were two flaws with it. One was a minor defect--the lack of bibliography. While most casual readers will not notice the absence, those interested in reading the published journals that Johnson references will miss the convenient listing. The second problem is Johnson's focus on good journal writing. There are several places where Johnson makes allusions to the great journals of famous writers. With journaling as the focus of her career it is not surprising that Johnson would have opinions as to what good journaling is and to have a desire to see others excel in those ways. But it is unfortunate this comes out so strongly in a book aimed to encourage the beginning journaler. She gives much advice on how to conquer the inner Censor, only to turn around and talk about how the good journal writers move beyond weepy writing. How many people have not written a journal because they were sure it would be nothing but a list of complaints? There are journals that are better than others, but critiqueing should be saved for a book written to the veteran journaler who will not be easily discouraged. Aspirations of becoming like Virginia Wolfe will only extinguish many a beginner's flame.
Though there are some contradictory messages in Leaving A Trace, they do not outweigh the good done in this coherent perusal of journaling. For those with many years of journaling already under their belt it will remind them again why they are writing. For those who have tried and failed, or who wish to start a journal, Leaving A Trace will inspire them to begin the journey. And for those people who don't understand the desire to journal, Johnson does an excellent job of explaining the love for, need for, and worth of, that act.
26 of 27 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Splendid Stories and Inspiration 19 Jan 2001
By Kristi Swede - Published on Amazon.com
Leaving a Trace is a wonderful compendium of stories, inspiration, journal trivia (the secret Hunan language, for example), delicious quotes, and good writing. This book goes beyond simple encouragement to show the reader the delight and freedom of journal-keeping, and its value to both the keeper and the reader.
I faulted it one star because the book needs both a bibliography and an index; perhaps Professor Johnson was afraid these would make the book seem too academic. With so much content, and using such intriguing sources, it would be helpful have this information.
BTW - Little, Brown should be ashamed of the sub-par paper and weak binding they used on a truly exquisite book design.....
21 of 21 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Basis of Creative Activity 27 Mar 2002
By Ron Hunka - Published on Amazon.com
"Leaving a Trace"
Alexandra Johnson
ISBN 0-316-12156-8
For those of us who have used our journal entries as the basis for writing, this book is apropos. Alexandra Johnson and others teach courses about journal and diary writing as the basis of creative activity. It was news to me that there are such courses. One of the keys to productive journal writing, according to the author, is to realize that journal entries need not only be about interesting places or unusual events. The everyday can be the source of material as well. As the author writes, "Life is in the details." It is interesting that many older people wish to achieve an understanding of their lives by writing about them in journals or diaries.
I suppose the most helpful thing that one learns from this book is to approach journal writing less formally. One does not have to be constrained to write everything in a commercially produced diary or to try to write only profound things. It took Frank McCourt, the author of "Angela's Ashes", years to realize that writing about the poverty of his early life could be literature.
Unconsciously, I had made some of the observations Alexandra Johnson makes, but I had not come to understand them as she does. For example, my father had written a diary when he was about twenty-one years old. Even though, he lived to be fifty-six, I had always regarded this diary as his best legacy. When an uncle of mine died, I asked for any journal that he might have kept. Eventually I came into possession of a number of letters that he had written to his parents when he was a soldier in WWII from Germany, France, Panama, and the Philippine Islands. So in a way, these letters formed the basis of a non-traditional kind of journal.
All in all, "Leaving a Trace" is interesting reading. I looked forward to picking it up each evening before falling asleep, my favorite reading. I was even inspired to write in the journal that I had not touched in over a year.
Johnson's primary message would seem to be that recording our lives does matter. Doing so is a way of coming to terms with them and a leaving of something of oneself behind. The key is to simply write about one's life, interests, and observations. Recently, I have had the opportunity to help my mother-in-law record the details of her terrible ordeal of being a refugee in World War II. It has been surprising to me how excited this project has made her. After almost sixty years, she had perhaps never entirely comprehended or understood these events. Somehow having someone help her write about them seemed to help facilitate this.
For those who have thought about getting started with a journal or writing one better, this book would be a good place to begin.
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