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The value of writing our way through a tumultuous 2020


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: No matter what age you are, it has undeniably been a year of many firsts.

Between COVID and the election of the first woman vice president, 2020 will be a year for historians to examine and dissect for decades to come.

Tonight, biographer and historian Janice Nimura shares her humble opinion on how we can all help shape the story that is taught to future generations.

This essay is part of our ongoing arts and culture series, Canvas.

Janice Nimura: I started keeping a journal in 11th grade.

It was an assignment for English class. But once I got going, I discovered what all writers know: Most of the time, you write not to set down what you think, but to figure out what you have to say.

What you have written becomes part of your personal history. I can go back to that green notebook and remember what it felt like to be 16. I have been keeping a journal ever since.

You see, the rhetoric of powerful people can persist for millennia, but that kind of writing is a polished mask for an audience. Journals, on the other hand, are scribbled in private, and full of naked feelings. They preserve the voices we don't usually hear, the very young, the elderly, the powerless.

For biographers like me who seek treasure in archives, those are the most precious finds. And this is a critical moment to keep one. 2020 is a year none of us will forget, filled with grief, rage, anxiety, and confusion, and also determination, generosity, and hope.

We have a lot to process, and what we write in this moment will capture it. We may not ever forget 2020, but our written voices will tell our great-grandchildren the story of right now and possibly help them face the crises of the future.

So, keep a journal, find a notebook or jot notes on your phone. Write about what you had for dinner. Write about what makes you angry. Write about what you want. Or, if you don't feel like writing, draw. Paste in a photo of your cousins on Zoom or of a protest or your best friend wearing a mask.

On the first page of my 11th-grade journal, I wrote: "This is just for me."

Write like no one is watching. That is, write like no one is watching right now. Someday, a historian or your own great-grandchild may lift your notebook from a dusty shelf or open a file on a forgotten hard drive and read your words with growing excitement. They will hear your voice reacting to the turmoil of 2020, figuring out what to feel.

And they will learn something from it, just as you learned something about yourself when you wrote it.

Judy Woodruff: Such good advice from Janice Nimura.

We thank you.

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