Sunday, August 28, 2016

Hurray for Penzu!

This post is going to be a free advertisement, and a fully deserved free advertisement. I come to praise Penzu, the diary software that I have been using every day for considerably over a year.

I've kept diaries on and off throughout my life-- more off than on, though. I remember keeping one when I was about twelve years old. Tim Burton's Batman movie was out at the time, and I remember drawing Batman insignia on the back cover. I don't think this lasted more than a few weeks.

Penzu screenshot-- not mine.

My family got a computer (Microsoft Works) in 1994, when I was sixteen. This was the occasion for me to start writing poetry seriously. It was also the occasion for me to start keeping a diary, and I kept it for a long time; perhaps a year and a half.

I wish I still had those diaries. Not only did they describe the routines of my schooling, or some of it, but I remember they contained many reflections which were of lasting importance to me. It would be extremely interesting to read the musings of my sixteen and seventeen year old self. However, it's long gone.

I kept paper diaries in college. I have less nostalgia for these. It was a time of great confusion and aimlessness in my life. I can remember these diaries were full of affectation and self-pity, and I eventually I threw them into the river Tolka in disgust. Although I do regret this, I don't regret it nearly as much as my school diary.

Tolka, final resting place of my college diaries

Efforts to keep diaries after that were fitful and unsuccessful. I got it into my head that a diary should be a terse chronicle, rather than a record of thoughts and feelings. This was probably an over-reaction to my college diaries. I have a pocket diary from 2014 that has a few months worths of records, but nothing else.

Then, last year, on the 24th of June, I decided to keep an online diary. A few moments of research were enough to discover that was the market leader. I created an account, and started to keep a diary-- my first entry was entitled 'To Make a Beginning'.

This was the first paragraph:

I decided yesterday-- or was it today?-- that I would start keeping a diary again. Strangely enough, it was the memory of a passage in Brideshead Revisited that did it. There is one section set aboard a liner that filled me with a strange fascination with the notion of days, how our lives are divided into these units. And I remembered, from the computer diary I kept in my teens, how delicious the in-betweeny days seemed to be-- the uneventful, reflective days-- and how each day seemed to have more of an identity when it was preserved in a diary. Even though that diary is long lost, I remember the days I chronicled in it as days, because I chronicled them. Hence-- this.

Brideshead Revisited

I think most of us begin most projects, or routines, in the same spirit as we make New Years' resolutions-- hoping they will stick, not really expecting them to. But this one did. I have not missed a day in my Penzu diary since that time. Some days, I have had to make notes on paper and transfer them to the online diary later, but I've not missed chronicling a day.

And, although my life is not particularly eventful, there's already quite a few memorable highlights in the diary. There is an account of my jury service, which was for two weeks on a very dramatic case. There is an account of the wedding of one of my closest friends. There is, sadly, the account of my father-in-law's funeral and internment in New Jersey. There is an account of the strange episode wherein I arranged and catalogued the private library of Judge Ronan Keane, the former President of the Supreme Court. (It was what we call a 'nixer' in Ireland-- a job on the side.) There is an account of a job interview (unsuccessful). There is an account of an operation where I went under general anaesthetic for the first time in my life.

Then there are all the public events, like the general election, or Brexit, or the death of David Bowie. There are all the feasts of the liturgical year, a complete round of which I have made. And all the secular holidays, too-- although the one Christmas recorded in my diary so far was a subdued and rather sad one, for several reasons.

And, of course, there are all the 'in betweeny days' which, to me, are the most delicious part of a diary.

I have also kept a record of my dreams, when I can remember them, and of conversations with friends. These are often the most intereting to re-read. Who remembers most dreams, and most conversations?

I promised some free advertising. I wanted to say that Penzu is a wonderful service. For one thing, I love the name, which seems to be a pun on 'pen' and 'penser' (the French verb for think).

Some people ask me why you even need a diary software. Why not just use a Word document, or a Google Drive document?

Well, of course you can do that, but I find Penzu much more attractive. It's purpose-built for diary writing. It generates a new diary entry every day, for that date, so you don't have to. Secondly, the formatting is aesthetically very pleasant, and you can customize it. Thirdly, its list of entries is very navigable (although it's a shame it doesn't have a facility whereby you can 'skip' back or forward at a day a time-- you have to go into the list of entries each time).

Penzu has a free service, a 'Penzu Pro' service, and a 'Penzu Pro-Plus'. After a few days of using the free service, I upgraded to Pro. It's twenty dollars a year. When the time came, I renewed it. I have shelled out on very few luxuries in the last few years, but this didn't seem expensive for something I use every day, and which gives me such satisfaction.

Penzu Pro allows you to keep multiple diaries in one account, to customize the formatting, and to add tags to your entries. (My tags are things like: "Mass", "Communion", "Confession". "Dreams", "Deep Conversation", "Oddity", "Big Day".) Tags make it easier to search.

 You can add photos and pictures-- and video, too, though I've never done that.

I've found it a very efficient service. Sometimes it 'goes down', but very, very rarely, and never for long. It's rarely slow or unresponsive, which is a big deal.

I like the fact that it can be customized. The background image I use as a template for every entry is a photograph of an empty cinema, looking out from the seats to the screen. A cinema screen has always been my favourite metaphor for the mind, for consciousness.

Is keeping a diary a waste of time? I don't think so. I don't think it actually takes time from anything else, in my case. Maybe it's because I write quickly. I update it every few hours, a few minutes at a time. Of course, sometimes I write more reflective entries at greater length.

I like to include little details, little 'grace notes'-- an overheard conversation on a bus, a poster seen in a shopping centre, demonstrations and street evangelists in the city centre, a story that somebody tells me, and so forth. if there is an art to keeping a diary, I think that is part of it.

Who is a diary written for? Primarily, of course, it is written for youself, to re-read in the near and distant future. I do find myself hoping somebody else will be interested in it some day, though-- a child, or a grandchild, or a great-grandchild, or even somebody less directly descended from me. Perhaps even a social historian, or a researcher. (I do find myself explaining references to people and events I haven't mentioned before, as though it is being  read by a complete stranger.)

Of course, I have a sneaking hope that one day it will join the exalted ranks of famous diaries such as those of Samuel Pepys, John Evelyn, Virginia Woolf, and Kenneth Williams. Stranger things have happened. Not many, but some.

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