Steampunk Journaling: Diary Writing in the Digital Age, Or, What I Learn from Reading Old Journals

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.”)
Picture of antique-looking paper with a steampunk-style watch in the upper left corner and the lettering "Journal" at the top.

You know that sense of not quite being able to move on from the past? For those of us who frequently journal, that unresolved feeling can be one of our stronger writing prompts. I adhere to the belief that journaling is often a method toward resolution — psychological and/or actionable. Sometimes journaling is a precursor to published writing, and I also sometimes think we can get a little carried away and overdo it. And often, with the distance of a few years, we realized we’ve attained more resolution than we thought. Or, we identify the areas of our lives where progress has stalled. Do you actually read through your old journals? I did, a few years ago, and I also happened to be in a phase of reading steampunk stories. In a sort of humorous light, I began to make connections between what we have preserved on diary pages and the messages of the steampunk genre — simply put, the spotlight shines on the unresolved, whether personal or cultural.

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 was wary of the stagnant elaborations of previous years entrapped in inked pages – just sitting there stuck in their unprocessed emotional states – and my impulse was to do something with them because things had changed since I wrote them. Burning and shredding are always options with these matters, but that didn’t seem like the solution that would provide the closure I was seeking. I needed, I realized, to digitalize these notebooks, or at least fragments of them, 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 developed a journaling system that I think demonstrates a few steampunk characteristics. I began typing from the handwritten pages. I’ve been re-visioning and rephrasing previous journal writing for several years. In some respects, I’m working with the past – but from new perspectives years later. Passages written in aggravation and fueled with sentiments that seem out of date can be continued from my current mode of thinking and put in perspective by adding a few lines about how I made my way elsewhere through other connections. In other ways, I’m overwriting the past. I may or may not have any lingering sense of connection to that situation appearing on the pages of my journal from ten years ago, but something of what I wrote might ignite a recognition of a theme or a pattern that continues relevant somehow.

If you reach the point where the option of burning or shredding may feel more liberating and less frustrating, there’s that to consider. But sometimes we have more work to do. Journaling is not only a method for re-visioning — it’s a means of traveling from one mental landscape to another – this method allows for connectors of past to present that seem somehow also less threatening to an (imagined) future self. I write this also as someone with a sincere interest in archival work — someone who digitalizes historic diaries and journals for the sake of preservation, not for the sake of altering them in any way. I’m well aware of this contradiction, and it’s important to make the distinction between writers who are still working with their writing and documentation that has, through time, become historic record.

There are psychological considerations to immersing yourself in your old writing also. While it can potentially be liberating and healthy to realize that your thoughts are not really “stuck” on pages of old writing — they can be revised and refined — there are other considerations, such as what psychologists might call ‘displacement,’ i.e., instead of dealing with and resolving an issue where it should be dealt with and resolved, it’s carried over elsewhere.

In the spirit of steampunk, you might find you have a real leech and a robot leech, and even if you can tell them apart, should they really be interchangeable? And then it finally occurs to you to ask, “Wait…why would I need any kind of a leech?”

These are the problems of steampunk, and they are also the problems of delving into an unresolved personal past. 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. I define “steampunk journaling” as the interactions of writings present and past — co-mingling on mechanized pages. We haven’t figured out where we are going from our memories yet and memories are, after all, only fragments. They can act as an adhesive — or they can stir up more trouble than they are worth. This is a question that we ask ourselves culturally, as steampunk fiction does, and we ask ourselves versions of this question on a personal level also, as we do with journaling. But it’s important to keep the question in mind: is my process helping or hindering me? Sometimes it’s crucial to ask for assistance from a close friend or mental health professional.

In my process, I initially had no system of organization whatsoever. Traditionally-taught organized writing wasn’t my intention, I was in experimental mode. 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. Journal documents became quilted with the interplay of recorded events and emotions of previous years, current happenings, and thought interpretations. In other words–stagnant writings could be re-worked where it seemed there was still work to do with select lines of thought.

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.

If there is an intention to this process — other than just following the process — it’s to find a way out of a jungle to provide an ability to move on to what could be next. Even if we can’t really change the experience — something of the take-away is sometimes able to transform itself over time.

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.

One of these connectors has turned me back to paper and ink, but I now separate my hand journaling from my mechanized journaling. I only record in ink what I probably won’t 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. It’s arguable as to whether that’s always a healthy or beneficial exercise.) There’s a quality to writing by hand that typing on a machine does not replace. I may abandon 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. Here’s where I lose something of my analogy, obviously, since I doubt very much that any of my readers is literally using a steam-powered anything for their journaling. I know I don’t. You’d have to be willing to interpret the writing process and content as a sort of metaphor for the steam element.

The steampunk genre speaks to a mentality eager to invent various methods of process but continuing 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 — showing us where we have become stuck along the way. At its most effective, steampunk journaling can show us on an individual level where our mental processes may have been overworked and how they could be more effective.

©Melanie S. Demmer 2016

(Updated May 2022)

Works Cited

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.

Note: This article has made a few rounds, since its original publication in 2016, on a few different blogs before landing here. The most recent update was published on May 28th, 2022.

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