“As we try to understand the past, we try to understand ourselves in relation to the past.”
~Steven Marcus, The Other Victorians (quoted in Steffen Hantke’s “Difference Engines and Other Infernal Devices: History According to Steampunk.”)
Steampunk is not usually associated with journaling. It’s a sub-genre of “punk”sci-fi/fantasy fiction characterized by futuristic nostalgia. The reader isn’t quite sure if the atmospheric sentiment is for days-gone-by or “technologies that never were” as phrased by Kelly Link and Gavin J. Grant in their introduction to Steampunk! An Anthology. Steampunk has never left the Victorian era; the machines are steam powered and the ambiance gas-lit, and yet the genre is propelled by inventions and technologies and science we’ve never encountered as such. If leeches are required for medicinal purposes, they may be of the robotic variety as in Cassandra Clare’s short story “Some Fortunate Future Day” (if you read it we can discuss whether or not she gets there). Carriages may be the most popular mode of transportation; however, horses might be mechanized automatons. “So, does your yarn have an alternative power source?” asks Martine Lillycrop in her essay, 5 Elements of Steampunk. Felix Gilman’s novel The Revolutions travels from an epic storm sweeping London’s streets through astral travel and extraterrestrials.
When I refer to “Steampunk journaling,” I’m not saying I structure journal writing as I would if I were to write Steampunk fiction. I started reading Steampunk stories after and somewhat simultaneous to a period of re-reading old journals (the diary variety) I’ve written. I was wary of the stagnant elaborations of previous years entrapped in inked pages–just sitting there doing nothing–and my impulse was to change them because things had changed since I wrote them. I needed, I realized, to digitalize these notebooks so I could reevaluate and continue working with them. I had partially transferred my journaling practice to my computer by this time, in an effort to conserve physical storage room, and I liked how I could add additional comments and rephrase or delete previously composed thoughts with ease. I began typing from the handwritten pages. I’ve been re-visioning and rephrasing previous journal writing for several years. This process has developed into sub-projects. Much of my current writing is an extension of journaling.
Initially, this approach had no system of organization whatsoever. I was recovering from an illness that impaired my concentration, and my mind resisted traditionally-taught organized writing. I didn’t have the patience to switch back and forth between documents, so I used a single document as a sort of catch-all for what I was transcribing along with my current thoughts. A system developed as I went along. I used dates and changes of font color to indicate the discrepancies of years. Entries look something like the following:
12/1 (current journal document)
6/3/08 (Inserted typed passages from previous years’ notebooks)
Current reaction to or interpretation of the above
12/7 (current journaling)
&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&& additional explanation or rewrite. &&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&
<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<Shift of subject<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<
6/5/08 (inserted typed pages from previous years’ journaling)
################################################################################################################Current reaction or interpretation#######################################
12/15 (current journaling)
<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<Quote or passage from another author>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>
Weird isn’t it?
I’m sure other journal writers have developed other equally weird or perhaps superior techniques, but this is how portions of my journal are structured.
Weirder still, I began noticing that the patchwork of old and new writings, interwoven with other people’s writing, created an unexpected intertextuality that I had not intended–but I’ll save that analysis for a different post. One of the observations I’m demonstrating is that Steampunk, much like the tensions that often appear on the pages of personal journals, portrays a mentality that gets too far ahead of itself before it has untangled from the past. The result is a murky blend of innovation, technology, and history that is struggling to offer “improvement” but does nothing to actually advance the culture or the individual. In an article for The Guardian, “Going back to the future with steampunk,” David Barnett says, “common steampunk tropes include advanced technology within the parameters of what was reasonably do-able at the time.” The time–from our readership perspective–is going backward and forward. We’re kind of stuck and kind of trapped, and we’re trying to create and invent our way out of it. Are we going anywhere? It’s not without conflict.
My re-visioned journaling attempts to retell “stories” that I recorded in old journals in order to produce a different effect of an experience. What happens if I change, “The influence of that group of people was really bad and hurt my self-esteem” to “That challenging social situation helped to prepare me for the time later when I encountered those other difficult people.” Is it better? healthier? less ‘negative’? In a way, maybe. But what am I going to do about it now? Go back to that first group and say, “I’m sorry” or “thank you?” Or say, “That was all so nice. Everything is just so nice.” Really? Am I sure? Okay, do I still want all that sweetness and light–is there a difficulty somewhere? About those other people…Perhaps I should just walk away from all that because it doesn’t seem to get better…it might be getting worse.
There. Is it better now? Actually, it might be.
Opps. Maybe not. Better continue working on that.
Ultimately, we don’t want to think that we are not capable of advancement or that our experiences have taken us nowhere, and we find ways to reinterpret what has happened to us and realize what we might not be done with and what does not get another chance. Steampunk is a manifestation of this perspective also, and part of the point is that this sort of journaling enables a form of time travel that is easier to do with a gadget than with pen and ink. It doesn’t solve the problem that I still often want to shove my computer aside and say, “Enough with the rephrasing already, move on with your life.”
When these writings were on paper with ink I sometimes wanted to burn or shred pages from them, and I sometimes did and that was sometimes liberating. If I had done that with all of them, I wouldn’t now have this project of rephrasing and rethinking that I have created for myself. But I have developed a process that works for me. This method allows me to find connectors of past to present that seem somehow also less threatening to my (imagined) future self. It’s a way of re-visioning.
One of these connectors has turned me back to paper and ink. There’s a quality to writing by hand that typing on a machine does not replace. I may have abandoned pen for keyboard for a while, but something of the fluidity of handwriting is lacking, and there’s a stream of creativity and consciousness less prone to writer’s block that I’m often able to access when I shut off the computer. But this sort of anti-technology, though contradictory, is another component of Steampunk, especially as it is contrasted with its counterpart, Cyberpunk–also a relevant genre to this discussion of digitalizing information.
I’ve learned to separate my hand journaling from my mechanized journaling. I only record in ink what I’m confident I would not want to go back and re-write. I’ve also reduced current journaling, now that I see how much time and emotional investment can be sucked into combing through previous volumes. I don’t know if it’s always helpful or beneficial.
“Steampunk journaling” to me means that we can invent various methods of process, but we continue to be challenged with figuring out where we’ve come from, what we are doing here, where we’re going, and how to get to where we’d like to be. These issues are the stuff of Steampunk as it advances as a cultural genre–along with us as individuals.
©Melanie S. Demmer 2016
Barnet, David. “Going Back into the Future with Steampunk,” The Guardian. 4 Feb. 2010. Web. 1 Nov. 2016.
Clare, Cassandra. “Some Fortunate Future Day.” Link, Kelly and Gavin Grant, eds. Steampunk! An Anthology of Fantastically Rich and Strange Stories. Somerville: Candlewick Press, 2013. Print.
Gilman, Felix. The Revolutions. New York: Tor Books, 2014. Print.
Hantke, Steffen. “Difference Engines and Other Infernal Devices: History According to Steampunk.” Extrapolation 40.3 (Fall 1999): 244-254. Web. 31 Oct. 2016.
Lillycrop, Martine. The 5 Elements of Steampunk. Writer’s Anon: Taunton’s Writing Group. 27 Jan. 2014. Web. 1 Nov. 2016. <https://writersanontaunton.wordpress.com/2014/01/27/5-elements-of-steampunk/>
Link, Kelly and Gavin Grant, eds. Steampunk! An Anthology of Fantastically Rich and Strange Stories. Somerville: Candlewick Press, 2013. Print.