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Why Keep A Journal

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Note: If this sounds familiar, that’s because a much shorter version was previously posted.

From the age of eleven onward I’ve always kept some sort of a journal. Back then it was a pleather-bound diary with a fairly ineffective lock. Eventually I graduated to spiral-bound notebooks, and finally to Word files on my computer. Each entry used to begin “Dear Diary” ; now I just plunge into the shit.

I say shit because that is what most diaries and journals tend to be: a dumping ground for negative, unhappy, even suicidal thoughts and feelings, and trivial annoyances with people in one’s life. When I realized this, some time in my 30’s, I also realized that when I die, should I be so fortunate as to become a famous writer before then, people might scour my journals seeking publishability and profit. If you think that’s far-fetched, think again: most writers’ journals have been published post-mortem: Virginia Woolf most famously comes to mind. The thought of anyone reading my miserable complaints mortified me, so I bar-b-qued my dozens of notebooks in the fireplace. But in a few years they were once again piling up, proliferating like wire hangers in a closet.

I recently conducted another purge, this time reading through all the jounrals first. The task was daunting, and took me almost a year to complete. I rescued a few poems, interesting passages, notes for stories or books, and one complete draft for a sitcom that never made it to Hollywood. Then I shredded — by hand: I don’t own many new-fangled appliances. I vowed not to keep any more hand-written journals, and, especially, not to write drivel at all; after all, I am coming down the home stretch now, and the day when curious eyes might alight on my words without me around to explain them is drawing nearer. As Dylan sang in his 60’s, “It’s not dark yet / but it’s gettin’ there.”

Now I only do journal-writing (never, never, use the obscene non-word “journaling” in my presence!) rarely — about once every three months — on my computer, in files organized by month and year. And, unless I’m truly desperate to vent, I write about writing, a kind of meta-writing,  a companion, warm-up, or reflection on my “real” writing.

Still, I asked myself: Why? Why bother keeping any kind of journal? In answering the question for myself, I came to a set of conclusions that might prove useful to other, especially beginning, writers.

The rewards of keeping a journal can be summed up in the following five R’s:

• Reinforcement
• Reflection
• Re-evaluation
• Renewal
• Review

Reinforcement: The act of writing functions like an asterisk in your brain: whatever you choose to put down in your journal gives it emphasis. By writing down an incident, insight, or observation, you’re choosing to recollect and describe it as accurately as possible. Writing about an incident or observation reinforces it; among other things, you’re then more likely to learn its lesson, if there is one, on a deeper level.

CA Raisin

Reflection: Writing requires you to spend time – even if just a few minutes – in quiet communion with yourself. It puts you in pause mode, to reflect on whatever it is you’re writing about. You might arrive at a new insight, or go deeper into your psyche. You might come up with an idea for a story or book. At the very least, you’re giving yourself a break from the busy-ness and hubbub of everyday life. What could be bad?

Re-evaluation: When the writer Saul Bellow was asked how he felt about winning the Nobel Prize in Literature, he replied, “I don’t know – I haven’t written about it yet.” Writing is re-evaluating experience. It is not uncommon to reach new conclusions, or change perspective, based on what you write in your journal. You might suddenly realize that a small piece of information is more significant than you originally believed. In a sense, writing enables us to live twice – once during the experience, and a second time while writing it down. Of course, some experiences aren’t always fun to live through once, much less again – that’s one reason writing can be painful. Welcome to my world.

hand and penRenewal: Writing is an opportunity to “vent.” It’s an outlet for self-expression, and can bring us to emotional resolution. That’s why many forms of therapy or self-improvement workshops use journal writing as one of their tools. When we write something down, we get it out of our heads — what a relief! — and can examine it more objectively. You might even find, after completing a journal entry, that your thinking has become clearer, free of anxiety or confusion.

Review: A journal is a place to celebrate success, including the coming of higher states of awareness and any resulting shifts in your life. Re-reading your journal from time to time can be a real mind-rocker: it’ll show you the direction you’ve been going, how far you’ve traveled, and perhaps even give hints to the way forward. You can track your progress on two levels: the personal, seeing how much you’ve learned over time; and the professional, i.e., the development of your writing skills. As a record of experience, it  might prove invaluable someday, should you need some forgotten information (say, for an alibi in a murder case!). Seriously, think of the fun you’ll have at 85 when, in the mellow wisdom of old age, you sit back and read about the early stages of your lifelong journey to self-knowledge. Or all your madcap affairs. Or…but I leave you to it.

One final word of advice and a caveat: First, the advice. Re-read what I wrote above about diaries and journals being filled with the muck and mud of existence, the trivial hassles, mood swings and daily annoyances, and consider whether you want to stuff your journal with that kind of indulgence. If you must do so, consider destroying the evidence at some later date. And now for the caveat: This applies not only to journal writing, but to any writing that incorporates elements of your life. I have been distressed to find, over the years, that some memories of those experiences I wrote about have become so intertwined, in my mind, with what I wrote, that I’m no longer certain what actually occurred and what I made up. Since it seems to be unavoidable,  I’m trying to minimize my distress about it, and accept that memories, written or not, become distorted over time — or so neuroscientists say. None the less, there might be certain memories you don’t want to turn into fiction, or embellish in any way, in order to preserve as much of their original ‘truth’ as possible.

Happy Journal Writing!

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One response »

  1. Great post! I’m sure my journals from my late teens and into my 20s… and even 30s… will be ridiculous. I have since realized that I was in my late 30s before I actually became a somewhat mature and rational human being.

    But although they are not the complete Me, I know they are definitely a very candid look at a big part of Me, and I wouldn’t think of trashing them. I have no reason to be so, but I’m annoyed that you destroyed yours. I think it must be because I am kind of hung up on the written word – especially things like letters and journals – being the sand and smoke of Life.

    I don’t know what that means, but I said it so it must mean something. 🙂

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