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Monday, March 18,2013

Half a century of journaling

MSU professor Ron Dorr started writing about his life in 1961 — he's still doing it

by Ron Dorr

Editor's note: Ron Dorr is a Professor of Rhetoric and Humanities in the James Madison College at Michigan State University. Long before blogs or Facebook were invented, he was chronicling his life in a series of journals. He estimates that he has written in over 100 since he began in 1961. "That small decision was more enduring than much of the public news in 1961," he wrote in an email. "Let me know, however, if you believe that in a day of blogging and partisanship such a phenomenon is too old-fashioned." It's anything but old-fashioned, in my opinion. Here is his essay.


More than the inauguration of President John Kennedy, “West
Side Story,” the Freedom Riders, Roger Maris’s 61 home runs, and the Peace
Corps, what was most memorable about 1961 was a small but enduring decision I
made at the beginning of my senior year at college. On Oct. 5, 1961, I wrote my first entry in a personal
journal. One hundred sixty-six
volumes later, I am still keeping that journal.


The original purpose for writing was clear: self-reflection. I wanted to “express myself on matters
of serious concern, of ‘ultimate’ interest and influence,” to “think through
all kinds of questions and problems in order to reach a more mature and consistent
philosophy of life.” I wanted to
react to contemporary events as well as to ideas in books, magazines, and
newspapers. Still a shy senior in
class discussions at Grinnell College, I wanted to try ideas out on paper so
that I could articulate them more carefully in the classroom.


Such reflection, I also hoped, would improve my
writing. It did. When I had completed my Ph. D.
dissertation on death, grief, and renewal in McGuffey’s Readers, my
adviser asked me, “Where did you learn to write so well? Was it in your journal?”


That first journal is as precious to me as anything else I
own. It was a black and maroon,
hard-spined Standard Blank Book, No. 38, 7 ' by 9 1/3 inches. It cost $4.25. I filled its 300 lined pages with 125
pages concerning my senior year in college and 175 concerning my 14 months
living and teaching in Bogota, Colombia.


The former contains entries familiar to anyone finishing
college. Applying to graduate
school, seeking scholarships, wondering where I would be next year, and evaluating
my liberal arts education mixed with frustration at sports (cross-country
running) and a senior honors thesis (which I would like to burn today). On one page, I took great delight in
Sadie Hawkins week, when women asked men out for dates instead of vice versa.
On another page, I bemoaned the brutal murder of Benny Paret by Emile Griffith
in a boxing match that I watched on television on March 24, 1962. Other pages revealed the gratitude,
depression, ambiguity, and irony that marked my last year at college.


The latter part of the journal focuses on my time as a
Grinnell Travel Service Scholar, teaching English and American culture at the
Colegio Mayor de Cundinamarca in Bogota. There I would discover my vocational calling: college teaching. Oh, how I loved teaching! The journal is filled with the joys and frustrations, achievements and
anxieties, of reading, learning, and teaching. Third-year students, 17 to 22 years old, were trying to
master five languages and then to become translators, secretaries, and transfer
students to the U. S. Their names
and faces are still vivid in my memory: Elsa, Flor Maria, Jinny, Lucy, Elvira, Ofelia, Graciela, Gloria L.,
Gloria M., Myriam, Elizabeth, Clara, Cecilia, and Yolanda. When they graduated, I wrote letters of
gratitude to each one of them. After they had graduated, I began to date three of them.


At Grinnell, I had written about dating, male/female
relations, love, and marriage. Now
I focused on breaking the stiff professional barriers between professor and
women students at the junior college. At college, I examined sermons and addresses at Herrick Chapel. Now I struggled to formulate a
religious faith that was neither orthodox nor self-indulgent. And to the world of Grinnell students,
I added the world of South America, especially intelligent observers who were
respectful yet wary of the colossus to the North. Keeping a record of my life became as important as dress
rehearsing ideas.


Later on, I would refine the purposes of keeping a
journal—to know who and whose I was, to watch myself change and grow, to savor
the action and passion of the times, to know the deep marrow and meanings of
life, to experiment with different writing styles, to maintain a scrapbook of
creative writing, and to transcend my own mortality. Journal entries would weave their way into poems, essays,
eulogies, and letters of recommendation. Angry letters would remain unsent, their passions spent.


Above all, I have tried to heed the advice of the poet,
Rainer Rilke. “Try to love the questions
themselves
. . . . Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live
along some distant day into the answer.”

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