Steampunk Journaling: Diary Writing in the Digital Age

“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.”)

background-1485658_640Steampunk 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’ve written. 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 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 began typing from the handwritten pages. I’ve been re-visioning and rephrasing previous journal writing for several years. This process has developed into sub-projects. Much of my current writing is an extension of journaling.

This is my definition of “Steampunk Journaling”: the interactions of writings present and past–co-mingling on mechanized pages.

Initially, this approach had no system of organization whatsoever. I was recovering from an illness that impaired my concentration, and my mind resisted traditionally-taught organized writing. I didn’t have the patience to switch back and forth between documents, so 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. Entries look something like the following:

12/1/13 (current journal document)steampunk-1321055_640


6/3/08 (Inserted typed passages from previous years’ notebooks)


12.5.13 Current reaction to or interpretation of the above

12/7/13 (current journaling)

&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&  additional explanation or rewrite. &&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&

<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<Shift of subject, i.e. dream journaling<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<

6/5/08 (inserted typed pages from previous years’ journaling)

#####################################Current reaction or interpretation#######################################

12/15/13 (current journaling)


<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<Quote or passage from another author>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

I’m sure other journal writers have developed other equally weird or perhaps superior techniques, but this is how portions of my journal are structured. Weirder still, I began noticing that the patchwork of old and new writings, interwoven with other people’s writing, created an unexpected intertextuality that I had not intended–themes developed into patterns, which I may analyze additionally in other posts. I’m not prepared to do just just now because of an espically Steampunk-appropriate psychological conflict. 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.

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.


My re-visioned journaling attempts to retell “stories” and reinterpret facts that I recorded in old journals in order to produce a different effect of an experience. What happens if I change, “The influence of that group of people was really bad and hurt my self-esteem” to “That challenging social situation helped to prepare me for the time later when I encountered those other difficult people.” Is it better? healthier? less ‘negative’? In a way, maybe. But what am I going to do about it now? Go back to that first group and say, “I’m sorry” or “thank you?”  Or say, “That was all so nice. Everything is just so nice.” Really? Am I sure? Okay, do I still want all that sweetness and light–is there a difficulty somewhere? About those other people…Perhaps I should just walk away from all that because it doesn’t seem to get better…it might be getting worse.

There. Is it better now? Actually, it might be.

Opps. Maybe not. Better continue working on that.

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. It doesn’t solve the problem that I still often want to shove my computer aside and say, “Enough with the rephrasing already, move on with your life.”

When these writings were on paper with ink I sometimes wanted to burn or shred pages steampunk-1182929_640from them, and I sometimes did and that was sometimes liberating. If I had done that with all of them, I wouldn’t now have this project of rephrasing and rethinking that I have created for myself.  But I have developed a process that works for me. This method allows me to find connectors of past to present that seem somehow also less threatening to my (imagined) future self. It’s a way of re-visioning.

One of these connectors has turned me back to paper and ink.  There’s a quality to writing by hand that typing on a machine does not replace. I may have abandoned 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.

I’ve learned to separate my hand journaling from my mechanized journaling. I only record in ink what I’m confident I would not 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. I don’t know if it’s always helpful or bebutterfly-998295_640.jpgneficial.

“Steampunk journaling” to me means that we can invent various methods of process, but we continue 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.

©Melanie S. Demmer 2016


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. <;

Link, Kelly and Gavin Grant, eds. Steampunk! An Anthology of Fantastically Rich and Strange Stories. Somerville: Candlewick Press, 2013. Print.

Witches: ‘Old Ways’ and ‘New Age’

free_fall_clip_art_-_google_searchSeasons have shifted with a turn of color, a shift of lighting, and a drop in temperature. I startled a flock of ravens perched in trees overhead while I was out walking the other day; their beating wings and caws of alarm ushering an additional atmospheric effect. We’ve recently seen a full moon, mercury retrograde, and two new moons within a single month (known as ‘black moon’). The energies of mystery and enchantment have always seemed to me to increase at this time of year in ways that inspire my imagination and challenge my enthusiasm as the shifting seasons accentuate transitions and the impermanence inherent as leaves fall, many flowers cease blooming, and preparation for hibernation begins.

This year I’m renewing a book review that has been some time in the works and is a seasonally-apt discussion for this month of costume preparation when we alter-egos, thinking of our identities not so much in terms of who we are but who we wish we could be or even who we are happy we are not. The figure who represents both of these attraction/aversion impulses?

The figure who represents both of these attraction/aversion impulses?

The Witch.


I’ve been accumulating witch books the past few years, and I have been a student of religion (Judeo-Christian and pagan) and spiritual practices for many years. For this reason, I do not associate witches only with Halloween costuming. I think of such an identity as a question of belief. A year or so ago, as I read the introduction to The Penguin Book of Witches (Penguin Books 2014), I latched onto a question articulated by the editor, Katherine Howe. Her’s is a question of identity dependent on distinction:

“The figure of the witch, the idea of the witch, and the need to flush her out of her hiding place and into the light served as a binding agent among fragile communities that were subject to waves of arrival and departure, living with uncertain rights in unsecured territories. The witch—ever the embodiment of the oppositional—served a vital role in the formation of what would eventually be a new united nation. That’s one of the reasons that she and the events of Salem persist in our political discourse and in our popular culture. We need her to in order to know who we are not so that we can begin to imagine who we are (xiii).”

After reading the quote above I realized I would not be writing a review of her book, as I had planned, so much as a discussion of several books as a means of approaching this notion of individual and cultural identification (or refrainment from) as it applies to the figure of the witch.

Howe formulates her question with an academic distance from her subject. For this discussion, I’d like to rephrase her wording to question her assumption that the witch is not to be identified with. It is significant to my counter argument that I’m approaching this question from outside of academia, influenced by the literature of practicing pagans. Howe is not ignorant of such influences—she describes finding a stash of “post-New Age” witchcraft books at the home of a deceased neighbor (xv)—but the neopagan and Wiccan movements and their challenges are not the focus of her book. In a way, it’s a disservice to her work to discuss it in this context, but I do so ultimately in order to show a similarity and agreement of thought.

penguin_book_of_witches_-_google_searchHowe’s anthology is an annotated collection of primary and secondary source documents pertinent to definitions of and reactions to witchcraft. Each section contains a paragraph or two of her commentary, addressing both the writings and the scholarship that has shaped contemporary ideas. “In the historiographic tendency to interpret witch trials as proxies for other, real conflicts,” Howe writes, “the fact that witchcraft itself was a category of reality for early modern Christians gets lost…The reality of the Devil was never in question. The reality of his ability to affect change in human lives was also never in question (182-3).”

As a collection of English-language historical documents relevant through the 1700s, The Penguin Book of Witches is difficult to fault, but the loss Howe refers to is a loss of a connecting thread to contemporary belief systems in her own interpretations also. Although this mentality may also have seeped into Howe’s reading, as first quoted, she is conscious of her own blind spot in the quote above. She does not entirely want to negate witchcraft to a category of non-reality, though she’s unsure of what makes it a reality or how to discuss witchcraft as a reality (perhaps an effect of also being the author of supernatural young adult fiction). She says of finding the above-mentioned books at the home of her neighbor:

“Even after witchcraft disappeared as a deadly legal problem, the belief in witchcraft persists, continuing to do its cultural work, hiding in plain sight in the staid bedroom communities of Boston (xv).”

free_witch_clipart_-_public_domain_halloween_clip_art__images_and_graphicsActually, witchcraft is still a legal problem and civil rights/religious freedoms organizations such as The Lady Liberty League struggle to correct the misconceptions of the above-mentioned persistent beliefs in witchcraft—for a recent example, read the response posted on their facebook page to a much-publicized triple murder in Pensacola, Florida that has been said to have motives of “witchcraft.” Earlier this year, a man was convicted in Taos, NM for killing a woman he thought was a witch (the victim was a practitioner of Wicca and the person who killed her a self-professed witch hunter, according to a witness.) These reports are among numerous other reports of violence attributed either to witchcraft or witch hunts.

If the present day ‘cultural work’ of witchcraft (according to Howe’s quote in the first paragraph) is to assist us in separating from our past so that we can shape our future, Contemporary Wicca is articulating and re-visioning its identity as much as those who distinguish themselves from it. Voices from communities of belief demonstrate that witchcraft is still a “category of reality,” and they are also concerned with what a witch is and what she isn’t, though such a category remains shifting and challenging to define (just as it was in the 17th C when rivaling branches of Christianity pointed fingers in witch accusations).

Modern Wicca takes pains to distinguish itself from Devil worship, emphasizing that Satan is a Judeo-Christian construction and therefore not recognized by pagan religions, but that’s not to say they don’t see wrongdoing. I have not encountered a Wiccan text that suggests you find benevolence anywhere and everywhere you look. Indeed, some of the incidents recounted in the depositions and trial transcripts [reprinted in Howe’s book] describe physical and psychological violence on both sides of the issue. Conversely passages of trial transcripts are so exaggerated, they are difficult to take seriously, beckoning sarcasm and satire. Attempts at humor do not resolve the difficulties, though.

Confusing the issue of Wicca and Satanism, are the writings of Anton Szandor LaVey, founder of The Church of Satan and the author of the Satanic Bible and The Satanic Witch. (As a disclaimer, I have not read either title nor am I expressing an opinion of them.)  LaVey was influenced by Aleister Crowley, who was among the same social and intellectual circles as Gerald Gardner, the founder of Wicca as a modern practice. LaVey’s Satanism is also misunderstood. It’s an extension of 1960’s pop culture and occultism, a reaction against the restrictions of traditional Christian morality, which he thought was more harm than good.

witchcraft_for_tomorrow_-_google_searchDoreen Valiente, who studied with Gardiner for years and who is sometimes referred to as the “mother of modern witchcraft,” states in a title of hers, Witchcraft for Tomorrow (1978):

“Contrary to the picture of witchcraft drawn by the sensational Press, genuine witches do not indulge in ‘devil worship’ or Satan. They believe that their Old Religion is the aboriginal creed of Western Europe, and far, far, older than Christianity; whereas ‘Satan’ is part of a Christian mythology and ‘Satanists’ are just mixed-up Christians (20).”

George Gifford, an author highlighted by Howe, may have been attempting a similar point when he stressed in 1593 that to prosecute witches was simply another expression of the devil at work (23).

Valiente doesn’t mention LaVey, but she says:

“Satanism, in so far as it is genuine and not either a literary invention or an excuse for an orgy, seems most probably to have arisen from the oppressiveness of the Church, in either Roman Catholic or Puritanically Protestant counties, which engendered a spirit of revolt…Sometimes the expression of this spirit of revolt took on much darker hues. When it shaded into real black magic, an aberrant mind might conceive the idea of deliberately committing evil deeds, and even ritual murder, in order to propitiate that evil power which some religious people believed to be everywhere…This ghastly belief, however, is really nothing to do with the old religion of witchcraft, nor is it really very much to do with Christianity, or at any rate the Christianity Jesus taught (36).”

On the other hand, Valiente’s remarks beg the question, what prompted such authoritative and condemnatory remarks in Biblical writings as:
“There shalt not be found among you any one that maketh his son or daughter pass through the fire, or that useth divination, or an observer of times, or an enchanter, or a witch, or a charmer, or a consulter with familiar spirits, or a wizard, or a necromancer. For all that do these things are an abomination unto the LORD: and because of these abominations, the LORD thy God doth drive them out from before thee.” Deuteronomy 18:10-12 (quoted in Howe 4).holy_bible_free_clipart_-_google_search

Both sides could be asserting something to the effect of: “You have to be careful with that stuff; I learned that already.”

wicca_for_the_solitary_practitioner_-_Google_Search.jpgIn the context of such an ambiguous and uncomfortable question, I find it helpful to include Scott Cunningham’s insistence in the preface to his book Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner (2004):

“The Wicca as described here is ‘new.’ It is not a revelation of ancient rituals handed down for thousands of years (ix).”

He recognizes that not all contemporary minds are going to resonate with ancient teachings—whether pagan or biblical or from the Koran. Although Valiente has a tendency to stress the ‘old ways,’ her title is also an indication that she is moving away from the traditions of “yesterday.” In a way, then, Howe is in agreement with a New Age/post-New Age Wiccan authors/practitioners that there is a need to establish a category for the witch that was, the witch that is, and how our own identities may or may not be influenced by these archetypes and conscious or subconscious cultural imprints.

I’m not advocating a religion or a spiritual practice, although I have argued partially in favor of identification with the archetype of the witch and recognition of contemporary communities and individuals from whom such issues are quite real, I haven’t much been compelled to costume myself (as a witch or anything else) as an adult. There are many identities out there that carry qualities with them that I don’t care to explore. I’m only highlighting what seems to me a common thread of each of these writings–an almost cautionary tone when (in play or in seriousness) navigating channels of reality and identity.

I’ll leave you with that thought and wish you a happy and safe Samhain/Halloween as you disguise yourself–or opt not to dress up–this October. If you’d like to explore the historical aspects of witch trials, Howe’s book provides a varied selection of primary and secondary source documents from England and the American colonies along with her thoughtful commentary. For a sampling of the modern spiritual practice of Wicca, titles by either Valiente or Cunningham are a good place to begin.


© Melanie S. Demmer 2016




Leighann Goodwin, a former co-worker at the metaphysical bookstore where I previously worked, is one of the people who brought Katherine Howe’s book to my attention. Also with thanks to my friend Melissa Cigoi for directing me to resources pertaining to civil rights and religious freedoms in regard to pagan religions.

Works Cited

Cunningham, Scott. Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner. Woodbury:

Llewellyn Publications, 2004.

Howe, Katherine. The Penguin Book of Witches. New York: Penguin Books, 2014.

Valiente, Doreen. Witchcraft for Tomorrow. London: Robert Hale Limited, 1978.

Suggested further reading:

Backe, Emma Louise. “Damsels & Demons: Women in Horror Part 1” The Geek Anthropologist.

Beckett, John. “Must Paganism Be Transgressive?” Patheos. (Curtesy Melissa Cigoi).

Blair, Elizabeth. “Why Are Old Women Often the Face of Evil in Fairy Tales and Folklore?” NPR.

Ortberg, Mallory.  “Painting of Witches Sabbats that Resemble Parties I Have Attended.” The Toast.

Schultz, Cara. “Exploring Pagan Ethical Codes.” The Wild Hunt.