The Extraordinary Work of Ordinary Writing: Annie Ray's Diary [NOOK Book]


Exciting and beautifully crafted, The Extraordinary Work of Ordinary Writing provides an entirely new way of viewing “ordinary writing,” the everyday writing we typically ignore or dismiss. It takes as its center the diary of Jennifer Sinor's great-great-great-aunt Annie Ray, a woman who homesteaded in the Dakotas in the late nineteenth century. Diaries such as this have long been ignored by scholars, who prefer instead to focus on diaries with literary features. Reading diaries through this lens gives ...

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The Extraordinary Work of Ordinary Writing: Annie Ray's Diary

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Exciting and beautifully crafted, The Extraordinary Work of Ordinary Writing provides an entirely new way of viewing “ordinary writing,” the everyday writing we typically ignore or dismiss. It takes as its center the diary of Jennifer Sinor's great-great-great-aunt Annie Ray, a woman who homesteaded in the Dakotas in the late nineteenth century. Diaries such as this have long been ignored by scholars, who prefer instead to focus on diaries with literary features. Reading diaries through this lens gives privileged status to those that are coherently crafted and ignores the very diaries that define the form through their relentless inscription of dailiness.

Annie Ray’s diary is not literary. By considering her ordinary writing as a site of complex and strategic negotiations among the writer, the form of writing, and dominant cultural scripts, Sinor makes visible the extraordinary work of the ordinary writer and the sophistication of these texts. In providing a way to read diaries outside the limits and conventions of literature, she challenges our approaches to other texts as well. Furthermore, because ordinary writing is not crafted for aesthetic reception (in contrast to autobiography proper, memoirs, and literary diaries), it is a productive site for investigating how both writing and culture get made every day.

The book is truly original in its form: nontraditional, storied, creative. Sinor, an accomplished creative writer, includes her own memories as extended metaphors in partnership with critical texts along with excerpts from her aunt's diary. The Extraordinary Work of Ordinary Writing will be a fascinating text for students of creative writing as well as of women's studies and diaries.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781587294303
  • Publisher: University of Iowa Press
  • Publication date: 11/13/2002
  • Series: NONE Series
  • Sold by: Barnes & Noble
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 254
  • File size: 2 MB

Meet the Author

 Jennifer Sinor is assistant professor of English at Utah State University

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Read an Excerpt

The Extraordinary Work of Ordinary Writing ANNIE RAY'S DIARY
By Jennifer Sinor
University of Iowa Press Copyright © 2002 University of Iowa Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-87745-833-3

Chapter One A Story of the Diary

Once, when I was eleven, I returned home from playing one afternoon to meet my mother rushing out of the house carrying a glass of milk. Handing me the milk, she said, Your brother has lost his tooth. It's somewhere in the park. Find it and put it in here.

In the milk?

Like you would a finger.

His tooth?

The front one.

So I headed for the park, milk in hand. I wasn't particularly distraught. This seemed like just another link in a chain of bloody scenarios produced by having two younger brothers. Broken bones. Black eyes. Missing teeth. My mother's request was no more unusual than other requests made of me during my childhood: get a book from your bookshelf that will serve as a splint for your brother's broken arm; find some cream of tartar for your brother's man-o'-war bite. A glass of milk for a tooth seemed a familiar enough request so as not to rattle me.

The neighborhood park consisted of a glorified patch of red dirt, a pitted slide, and a giant iron swingset. When I arrived I found Scott's friend, Michael Brown, already on his hands and knees grazing the red dirt, presumably looking for Scott's tooth. Wooden planks forming a highly suspicious bike ramp lurked to one side. I asked what had happened.

It seems my brother and Michael had built the ramp together. Michael, being older, wiser, and pretty much trouble at the time, had persuaded Scott (a gullible eight) to jump the bike ramp first. Scott, eager to impress, agreed and pedaled to the top of a nearby hill. It wasn't until Scott hit the ramp, having hurtled down the hill, that both realized that the ramp was pointed directly into the iron poles of the swingset. Scott's face collided with a pole and his permanent tooth broke free.

Michael and I spent what seemed like hours looking for Scott's tooth. Tossing rocks and bits of twig over our backs, we searched and searched. That's not it. That's not it. That's not it.

The milk grew warm.

We worked our way toward the very edges of the park, the amount of red dirt left to cover growing thin. I was just about to give up the search when all of a sudden, having tossed a long white rock over my shoulder, I realized: tooth. I scrambled to find it again. Andsure enough, it was Scott's tooth. Only it was longer and uglier than any tooth I had ever seen before. I had been looking for a neat white box of a tooth, something a bit larger because it was a front tooth, but something small, something like what I put under the pillow for the tooth fairy to find.

What I learned then, however, is that uprooted teeth bear little resemblance to what we think we see when we look in the mirror every morning to brush.

* * *

I am also eleven when I receive my first diary. Christmas of 1980. It comes unexpectedly amidst the rest of the gifts that my brothers and I receive that year: skateboards, helmets, new sleeping bags. Of the three of us, I am the only one to get a diary.

What I remember most clearly about my diary is the girl dressed in blue on the cover. She is a quiet kind of girl in a big floppy hat, sitting on a fence with her cat. A tiny branch of a tree drops in from above. But it is clear that this girl, wearing her blue flowered dress, would not climb a tree. Her back is to me and she is watching the sun go up or down, probably up because this girl would be an early riser. Her cat is patchwork blue like her dress. It does not look like a real cat. Upon closer inspection, I realize the cat and the girl are edged with stitching, as if quilted. They are sewn down. Not only will she not climb a tree, this girl will never move. She will always be quietly contemplating the sun with her back to me. She is a certain kind of girl. I wonder if she is a diary girl.

What I also remember is my fear of losing the diary's key. Fear that I will be locked out of my own thoughts. To be safe, often I choose to leave it unlocked, though hidden deep in my desk as a diary should be. The small key hung on my keychain full of found and useless keys.

Long after I have ceased writing in my first diary, it continues to hold a place of inexplicable power in my memory. As an adult, I retrospectively fill those skinny-lined pages with the traumas I remember of being that age. I confess to my diary the fact that I hid Playgirl pictures in my bottom dresser drawer; that I lied to my parents about what my brothers did or did not do; that I wanted desperately to wear a bra. When I think about being eleven, twelve, and thirteen, it is these casualties of adolescence that I want inscribed in my first diary. Evidence. What I find when I rediscover my first diary in a box in the attic almost twenty years later are none of these stories. Instead I find recorded ever so briefly where I had been, what I had seen, and how much I wanted my friends to like me. While there are moments of trauma (when will I get my period?), mostly I record ordinary moments in ordinary ways.

Friday, December 26 I went to Erin's house tonight and she's so nice we went shopping down to the shopping center agian Mrs kaup dosn't allow Stacy to do much she won't allow her to go with us but were going camping the 9-11 of Jan. I hope Karen can go

* * *

Where is the war?

At first I am disappointed. The "real" diary is so much less interesting than the imagined one. Why did I not write about these deep, dark things? Where was the evidence that thirteen was the worst year of my life? Why didn't I mention not wanting to move to Virginia? Why don't I tell the story about stealing from the Brach's Pick-o-Mix display at Safeway? These significant occasions are replaced by seemingly unremarkable daily entries. My childhood looks so much less vivid, less eventful, less traumatic when viewed in the pages of my first diary. My memory is so much more storied.

I've never really had a diary so I don't know how to start. I will get into personal things tomaro I will try to write in it every night. We went to Mrs G house it was fun.

My first diary entry. Completely impelled by the cultural and textual messages that surround me, messages encoded in the material diary: that it has a lock, that eleven lines are allotted for thought per day, that a sweet girl is on the cover of My Diary. Cultural messages I have absorbed about what it means to keep a diary: by reading The Diary of Anne Frank, by watching movies in which young girls hide their diaries under their pillows when mothers are heard climbing the stairs. I begin by saying that I am unsure about what is expected from me, indicating that I am fully aware that diary space calls for a different kind of writing than the writing called for by my homework, letters, or the secret notes I fold at school. However, I admit by the second line that I know exactly what fills diary space: "personal things." Personal things that get guarded by the lock. And I vow, like millions of diary keepers before and after me, that I will write every day. The diurnal contract. I hardly have time to write that I don't know how to start before I immediately fashion myself into the diarist I think I need to be in order to join those already standing in the long line of the diary tradition.

Private. Gendered. Autobiographical. Daily. Elements that I glean from cultural and textual messages constellate into the diary model I aspire to. These elements also form the basis for four of the most pivotal questions that have occupied and continue to occupy diary scholarship today. What does it mean to say the diary is public or private? Is the diary a particularly female form of life writing? What does dailiness ultimately mean for literary value? Can the culmination of daily, personal writing "add up" to autobiography? These questions pose more than just possible entryways into diary discourse, ways to join the diary conversation. How scholars take up these questions and work to answer them is all about the kind of space they want to claim for the diary. And how scholars ask and answer these questions (even the fact that it is this set of questions they want to ask) ultimately determines how we think about diaries, how we value diaries and those who keep them, and how we decide what the limits and conditions of the diary as diurnal form are.

It is a tricky line that I am going to try and travel. I want to value the work that has been done on diaries while, at the same time, suggest some important losses. As I begin, I recall Gayatri Spivak's essay, "Three Women's Texts and a Critique of Imperialism," in which she demonstrates that the recovery of one text, character, or idea, can and often does mean the silencing of others. No recovery is complete. These are the unavoidable risks of research. I, too, am equally complicit in such silencing. My recovery of the ordinary diary will certainly be accompanied by equally dramatic silencing. Given this, I make every attempt in what follows to celebrate the recoverywork that has already been done. At the same time, to read the ordinary diary requires pointing out work still in need of undertaking, to illuminate the gaps left by previous salvaging operations.

The diary, as a form of writing, has so long been delegitimated, unseen, feminized, and privatized that the fact that there are any women's diaries left from the past to read is astonishing in and of itself - let alone the fact that a scholarly field has risen up around the diary. And I want to consider some of the goals and outcomes of the recovery process - which means questioning a process that has led to the validation and publication of the words and voices of so many forgotten women. It also means questioning a relatively young recovery, one that has been going on for just over twenty years. In fact, the year I received my first diary is the year initiating the decade when the diary finally comes into its own - a decade when, for the first time in its history, the diary as a form of writing is finally being authorized as autobiography, as art, as literary, as worthy. Yet, it is exactly this hard-won legitimization that I am going to suggest has brought some accompanying losses for the diurnal form. Losses that, while perhaps once necessary, no longer seem so.

There are things at stake, things that compel me to ask different questions, seek different answers. One of those things rests beside me - the diary of my great-great-great-aunt Annie Ray, a very ordinary diary, the kind one could easily miss or dismiss. Another of them no longer exists - the diary of my great-aunt Billie Schuneman; all that physically remains of her days is what I have captured on tape. Another of them runs the length of the bottom shelf of my bookcase - my own diary, volumes and volumes, also very ordinary, an ordinary that I know. And quietly, rhythmically in the background are the words of Stuart Sherman and the memory of looking for my brother's tooth.

All remind me in their lapping that often (and to great detriment) you only find what you are looking for.

* * *

I first read Annie Ray's diary in April of 1995. My great-aunt Billie, the family member bound most by duty to the past, has sent the diary to me in care of Federal Express. Her hope is that I will publish Annie's diary through my newly established "university connections." It is a dream she has harbored for years. Perhaps because she does not trust my intentions or convictions, perhaps because she does not trust the mail, what she actually sends me initially are the transcripts she has made of Annie's diary, rather than the thin, frail book I will later hold in my hands. These transcripts, pages and pages lovingly pounded out at the typewriter, are populated by enough x's and dried puddles of correction fluid that I am unable tell which are Annie's "errors" and which are Billie's. What I hold are two generations joined together by their misscriptions, both literally and figuratively. What has not yet occurred to me, what slips past me the very first time I read Annie's entries as reinscribed by Billie, is how my own meeting with Annie's words brings with it the weighty possibility of even further "error."

The only responsibility I initially feel is toward my great-aunt rather than the great-great-great-aunt whom I have never met. In return for sending Annie's diary to me, Billie asks for half the royalties. Annie's words arrive as a commodity.

No one really seems to know for sure what to do with diaries - critically, practically, or aesthetically. Read them? Save them? Mine them? Enshrine them? What makes the diary more difficult to read and categorize than other genres or kinds of texts are the same qualities that mark the diary a distinct kind of writing: the fact that a diary is immediate rather than reflective, open rather than closed, and that the diary is daily. These qualities mean that the diary resists traditional approaches to reading and defies a typical reader's expectations. It can appear as if nothing is happening in a diary, at least nothing of any interest. The difficulties in reading diaries, compounded by the fact that, especially since the nineteenth century, diary keeping has largely been associated with female, domestic space, have meant that the diary has historically been seen as generally lacking (if and when it was seen at all). The form and content of diaries and the social positions and gender of most diarists guaranteed the diary a position as a not genre. Donald Stauffer's sentiments, from his 1930 book English Biography before 1700, are representative of how the academy has, until recently, viewed the diary:

The diary makes no attempt to see life steadily and see it whole. It is focused on the immediate present, and finds that the happenings of twenty-four hours are sufficient unto the day. It becomes, therefore, not the record of a life but the journal of an existence made up of a monotonous series of short and similar entries ... in a study of biography as literary form the diary has scant claim to consideration, for it makes no pretense to artistic structure. The diary should ... be considered ... as raw material.

Even as raw material, the diary has generally accrued little capital. Suzanne Bunkers and Cynthia Huff write, "within the academy, the diary historically has been considered primarily as a document to be mined for information about the writer's life and times or as a means of fleshing out historical accounts." Of course, those diaries that were thought worthy enough to mine were those by already famous people, not those kept by ordinary women. Mostly men. Mostly public men of letters or politics like Boswell, Pepys, Emerson, and Thoreau. Not all, but definitely most. The few diaries by women that were published were also the diaries of the already famous - like Fanny Burney - or the scandalous - like Marie Bashkirtseff. These diaries were most often used by scholars to "pad" biographical scholarship or were held up by readers as exemplars of how one should (or perhaps should not, as in the case of Bashkirtseff) live. The Staufferian attitude toward diaries as a lesser form of writing continued until somewhat recently.

In this chapter I will be considering two efforts at recovering the diary from such a legacy. The first began in the 1970s and has continued into the present. The second is a more recent turn in approaching the diary, a much less traveled route. These routes represent two approaches scholars have taken when working to reclaim the delegitimated category of the diary. The harm does not result from taking them both, rather from taking only one (to the exclusion of the other). The first route, the one I will suggest has been chosen by most diary scholars, is to try to expand the definition of what is valued, in this case what counts as literary, to broaden that definition, opening the literary canon. To do so requires finding ways that the diary is similar to already privileged literary texts. In other words, to find teeth that look like what you think you see in the mirror in the morning when you brush.

The second direction, and the one I will explore in the rest of this study, is to consider how the diary is a distinct form of writing, a "thing itself," with its own rhythm, its own style, its own timing, its own value. It is a path only recently taken, but equally, if not more, necessary. When Cythnia Huff writes that manuscript diaries "require us to engage them as friendly explorers, as students who leave behind as much as possible of our former preconceptions and prejudices about the value and design of a text in favor of tentative, genuine inquiry," I see her calling for a new approach to diaries, one steeped less in the aesthetics of writing and more in what is actually on the page. To approach a diary this way requires reading the diary for difference, or reading the diary differently. Such a decision entails waiting to see what the dirt offers before deciding what you will find in it.


Excerpted from The Extraordinary Work of Ordinary Writing by Jennifer Sinor Copyright © 2002 by University of Iowa Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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Table of Contents

Prologue: Annie's Gaze
A Note on the Editing
Introduction: Stories That Matter, the Matter of Stories 1
1 A Story of the Diary 23
Intertext: The Year 1881 58
2 Time, Days, and Page 86
Intertext: The Year 1882 123
3 Putting Things to Right Generally 145
4 Making Ordinary Writing 180
Notes 211
Bibliography 225
Index 233
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