A Trace: On Keeping a Journal
by Alexandra Johnson
Out: Getting Lost on Purpose
Once I begin the act of writing, it all
falls away the view from the window, the tools, the talismans, and I
am unconscious of myself... one's carping inner critics are silenced for a
time... there is always a surprise, a revelation. During the act of
writing, I have told myself something that I didn't know I knew.
JOURNALS. THEY BECKON everywhere. Stacked
in neat rows in drugstores, fanned in pale rainbow hues in display
windows, pyramided in bins at Wal-Mart, stocked near cash registers in
bookstores. On corners of almost every major city, specialty journal shops
have popped up overnight, as quickly and inevitably as Starbucks. And at
midnight in a speck of a prairie town, someone can order dozens from
catalogs. A single click on the Internet connects another country
France for handmade diaries, Italy for paper the color of fresh cream.
Staring at the electronic images, a browser tries imagining a journal's
weight in their hand.
But consider the most familiar, those from
the local stationery store. Yesterday I went into mine and was instantly
struck by the clean, dry smell of paper, the comforting sight of pens
arrayed by colors. Stationery stores are the kingdom of childhood enjoyed
in adulthood. The aisles brim with all that possibility, as if a 79¢ pen
or a different type of notebook will do the trick this time. New pen, new
paper, new self. Journals, once contained on a single shelf, now take over
whole sections of stationery stores. I'm fascinated by the sheer range of
them: blank or lined hardcover journals, their covers decorated with pale
half-moons or tulips or ancient maps. Stacks of spiral notebooks
marbleized like brain synapses. Others, so satisfying to the touch, are
covered in canvas or burlap; a few are leather bound, discreet as
expensive new shoes. From the practical to the private, they divide up a
life monthly, yearly, five-year diaries. Travel diaries. Nature
journals. Children's first journals with covers the color of tangerines.
Nearby, stacks of legal pads wait to be inserted into black vinyl covers.
Ten million blank journals are sold
annually in stationery stores alone. Two million in specialty stores.
Thanks to secret passwords and specialized software, an estimated four
million scribblers keep some form of journal on a computer. If the
information age has spawned a hunger for connection (and privacy), so,
too, a need for the quickest way to access interior life. Web sites pop up
daily. Our accelerated global age has left little time to slow down and
reflect. In Japan, for example, those too busy to keep journals phone in
their entries. At the end of the month, a company sends a bound
Familiar with the statistics, I also know
how hard it is for many to keep journals. Yet when I ask people, as I
often do, who they wish had kept a diary, a torrent of names is
unleashed my mother, my husband, my sister, the uncle whom I'm named
after, the father I never knew. Why then the resistance to keeping them
ourselves? Virginia Woolf put her finger on it best perhaps, when she
asked her own diary: "Whom do I tell when I tell a blank page?";
Whom does one write for? Oneself, of course. "True to oneself
which self" asked Woolf's friend and archrival, Katherine Mansfield.
(In her journal, she confessed that a single day's "thousands of
selves" made her feel like a hotel clerk busy handing keys to the
psyche's "willful guests.")
Watching someone pause in a stationery
store, journal in hand, I can almost hear the internal voices chattering
away. The same annoying voices that distract the moment a journal's
purchased or opened to the first page. Why should I feel I have
anything interesting to say? Isn't this a blabbing, confessional culture?
Why add to it? What makes me so sure I'll keep up a journal this time?
What if someone else finds it?
I'm always tempted to tap the hesitant on
the shoulder. I'd say that I wish I'd kept journals more minutely. Better,
longer records: the exact way sunlight fell in dusty slants on floors in
childhood; the smell of lemon and bacon in the morning; the startling dare
of a first kiss. (Like others, though, I often placed a journal back on
the store shelf, sure I'd remember everything.) I'd warn how others I've
met, their voices full of sudden urgency, say they never understood the
importance of journals until theirs were lost or stolen. Or describe how,
safe on a shelf, journals proved invaluable when starting longer projects,
like a memoir or family chronicle. I'd cite a single entry from a diary
someone lent me: On January 12, 1879, a woman whose family had crossed and
recrossed the western frontier wrote, "I would like to write a
journal that my children could own and be benefited by if I were taken
away. If I were to leave them now, what would they ever know about
me?" Thanks to that journal, five generations later a huge family is
The seasoned journal keeper, of course,
doesn't need to be persuaded. It's a habit as natural and expansive as
breathing. "Two and a half decades later," says novelist Gail
Godwin, "my diary and I have an old marriage. The space between us is
gone. I hardly see my diary anymore. And yet, there is a confident sense
that we are working together." But hearing how effortless that is for
others is like knowing someone who always finds a parking space with time
already on the meter. Some trick or lucky gene that makes some able to
keep journals, others not. But for most people, their resistance to
journals is as strong as their attraction. The following are some reasons
behind that resistance and ways to overcome it.
Why Write?: Myths and Mazes
That vast group. I can't forget those
faces. Or the mass of hands that shoot up when I ask who has a hard time
even beginning a journal.
Journals, more than any other form of
self-expression, are invisibly weighted with false preconceptions.
(Including the most obvious. "I never keep journals," I hear
over and over, only to discover that people do, but just not in a form
they recognize.) For many, journals seem to come with operating
instructions: all those invisible shoulds. You know them by
heart: a diary should be kept daily, in longhand, only in hardcover
notebooks, never crossing out, always in full sentences.
The most commonly asked question new
chroniclers ask is, What's the difference between a diary and a
journal? A diary, traditionally, is thought of as a daily factual
record; a journal, something kept more fitfully and for deeper reflection.
A diary is what I did today; a journal what I felt about
today. Yet it's not so simple (or boring) as that. May Sarton, who began
her still best-selling Journal of a Solitude at sixty, wrote
daily yet called her diaries journals. Thoreau, who wrote two million
words in twenty-nine notebooks, kept both factual and meditative accounts
in a single journal. Virginia Woolf, who used hers as a writer's
sketchbook, called her journals diaries. Here's a helpful heresy: call
them both. Use the words interchangeably. What does it matter as long as
either does what it's supposed to: allows you, as Woolf said, to net
"this loose, drifting material of life."
Both words come from the Latin root for
day. A fancy fact, but here's its simpler truth: a diary or journal isn't
necessarily something that should be done daily so much as it is a clue to
how to see the daily world around oneself differently.
More diaries have been killed by the idea
that a diary must be written in daily than by any other single thing. Why?
It feels like homework. (What's worse, you assigned it, making
the guilt even stronger when you take days, even months, off.) For many,
it triggers early memories of that first unsuccessful diary. Literary
agent Sally Brady started her first journal when, at eight, she was
"taken out of school for two months to drive from Massachusetts to
California and back. I had to keep a log every day, mother's orders. I'd
write the date and then 'I hate this log.' At nine, my grandmother gave me
a fat, red leather five-year diary, five lines per day, impossible to say
much in. All those accusing empty spaces."
While it's helpful for some to keep a daily
log, most quickly get bored by recording just bare-bones facts. The trick
is to spark them to life. It's best to start with realistic expectations,
writing two to three times a week, alternating where and when you write.
The exercises and journal prompts that follow at the end of each chapter
will help. They're designed to jump-start you, get the writing out,
generating material quickly so there's already a foundation.
Journals allow one to reflect, to step
outside oneself. They create a third space, an invaluable pause between
the conscious and unconscious self. Above all, journals are a way to let
the world be reconsidered, not taking in the habitual. They're a master
switch on tracks, moving us from the familiar, from not seeing, to seeing
Getting Lost on Purpose
In "A Stranger's Way of Looking,"
poet Heather McHugh notes that a writer is "someone who has to get
away in order to see what he was part of." The same is true for the
journal keeper. "Each time we sit down to write," observes
novelist Maria Flook, "we are leaving our homeport, our shoreline. We
are getting ourselves lost on purpose." That, too, is one of the best
ways of thinking about beginning a journal.
Getting lost on purpose is something our
fast-paced, overscheduled lives rarely allow us to do. Those huge journal
statistics hint at the hunger to do just that. It's behind the reason that
journal has become a verb. At first it's enough just to record
surface facts. Yet the moment they're put on the page, a deeper movement
of the mind is set in motion. As any seasoned journal keeper will attest,
one quickly learns to trust that a different, more supple kind of
intelligence or memory bank is being tapped.
But why write? What's at stake? Like others
who shared their stories, novelist Elizabeth Berg told me how vivid the
memory still is of her first diary. In eighth grade she was given "a
white diary with gold trim, and that all-important extra: a lock.
Of course, I lost the key soon after I got the diary and had to cut it
open. Then I Scotch-taped it shut and wrote KEEP OUT! in black Magic
Marker high security." Yet at age fifteen, "I remember it
was summer, dusk, and I was at my Aunt Tish's house in Minnesota, getting
ready for a party that my cousin was going to have that night. I was
sitting at a dresser that had a big mirror, getting ready to do my makeup,
and I all of the sudden looked at myself and thought, Who am I? I
began to write the answer to that question on notebook paper, and I kept
what I wrote, because it seemed important to me. It seemed like the truth.
After that, I began keeping most of my writing that kind of writing,
anyway in a black plastic notebook that I still have."
Often I ask others, "Who are we really
writing for?" A future self, usually. Journal keeping is that rare
activity centered in the present, contemplating the past, yet aimed for a
future self. But writing about oneself is often an obstacle for many. Too
selfish. Too self-absorbed. (Was that number one or two on your
why-I-can't-keep-a-journal list?) That punitive attitude is best captured
by Jessica Mitford. Growing up in England, Mitford was sternly taken in
hand by her nanny before any social occasion. "You're the least
important person in the room," the nanny hissed, "and don't
forget it." (Luckily, the future writer used her invisibility to
observe, training her eye instead. Remembering. Recording.) The nanny's
message, played out, gets internalized, of course, as our Censor, whose
multiple guises have plagued writers for centuries.
Why Start a Journal
Unfortunately, the nanny didn't know the
secret history of diaries. In seventeenth-century England, Quakers kept
them as records of conscience. Writing daily about the self was seen as a
way to transcend it. Early Quaker diaries stressed spiritual
confession and gratitude. As journals gained popularity, the daily world
crept in. (Think of Samuel Pepys writing so brilliantly on the great fire
and plague in London in 1665-66.) Over the centuries, self-examination
took a new step forward. Journals became the private place where the
public mask could drop. And with it, journals themselves became an
important way to suspend self-judgment. Today, sitting for even five
minutes with a journal offers a rare cease-fire in the battle of daily
life, a time when we're not graded, not performing. It's a time when one
attempts some truth, silencing those carping inner voices.
At their core, journals are about
sharpening consciousness, not stoking egotism. Trust that the bore bending
your ear on a plane or the ranting taxi driver on the ride home never
keeps a journal. Their egotism leaks out publicly instead. You become
their journal, a live blank page held hostage in a seat. Think of journals
as a safe, private way to have it siphoned off, rethought, vented. (Even
the health value is high. According to findings published in the Journal
of the American Medical Association, such writing alleviated the
symptoms of patients with asthma and rheumatoid arthritis.) The deeper
benefit of keeping a journal is that it offers a way to be consistently
aware or mindful. As Katherine Mansfield noted, her journal became a way
"to lose all that is superficial and acquired in me and to become a
conscious, direct human being."
Journal writing is, foremost, a way to
order and reframe perspective. For Samantha Harvey, an American who
interrupted studies at Cambridge University to compete in the Olympics,
"keeping a diary means living deliberately. The diary helps me weigh
thoughts and opinions about life. And yet the final ?meaning' of everyday
events remains open-ended, since the writing and evaluating is continually
evolving. For me, the diary is the outward expression of this inward quest
to understand my relationship to myself, to others, to the world, to
the spiritual. Without the diary process, it would be difficult to make
sense of all the impressions of day-to-day life. Each night when I sit
down to write, on a tiny scale, I'm making coherence out of the
Journals offer invaluable clues at every
stage of a recorded life. For Katya Sabaroff Taylor, who's kept journals
since childhood, "keeping a journal over a lifetime has taught me a
sense of compassion about the human condition, including my own." For
ten-year-old Jessica Weaver, journals are where "I first heard my real
voice, not the one already trying to please in school." For recent
college graduate Arianne Miller, they are "a way to map and track
decision-making in my life." For Ray Zager, a retired lawyer,
"almost every part of me is in my diaries. My thoughts, dreams,
awakenings, holding of the pen (as taught by my third-grade teacher),
reading and writing, power and exercise of auditory skills. Other memory
is empowered as well. Friends push their way into its pages." For
Julie Houy, "I am eighty-one. It helps me to age well."
Most beginning journals are a jumble, an
eclectic inventory, the patterns yet to be linked. Yet they're there. A
diarist in her late twenties notes, "My journals have taken the form
of discovering the undiscovered, a biographical sketch of my shadow
self." To begin a diary is like a detective search, a natural
activity for anyone who's ever loved reading a mystery, or tackled the
simplest crossword puzzle. "Writing in a journal," a woman in
her late sixties says, "has always been a way to gather up what I
felt were the fragments of my life, a sort of follow-the-dots connection
that ends up with a full-blown sketch of life, leaving behind a record for
The Forms a Journal Can Take:
A Capacious Holdall
Like me when I was in my twenties, you can
know why and even for whom you're keeping a journal and still be hobbled
by the sheer mechanics.
Often people think that a diary should look
like, well, a diary: a classic bound journal usually. Or something easily
identified as a prop in a movie: a hardcover journal with a quill pen.
A journal is anything that's begun to be
committed to paper and saved. A journal is as much an intention to
record and save as it is a physical form. My own journals, depending
on their purpose, range from Italian-made notebooks to files stuffed with
paper to cheap spiral notebooks. The forms journals take are as
idiosyncratic and varied as the millions who keep them. Among the ways:
Several years' worth of the same 89¢ stenographer's pads. Filled-in pages
of calendar squares saved yearly in accordion files. Computer disks.
Three-ring binders. Scraps of paper kept in a shoebox. Legal pads. Joint
e-mails printed out and saved. The same notebook lined up on windowsills:
tiny spiral notebooks from Barnes and Noble, recyclable paper covers.
Composition notebooks with black-and-white speckled fronts. Blue 5 x 7
cloth-bound artist's sketch books.
Some of the most successful diarists often
use unconventional forms. Thoreau tore off birch bark as he walked around
Walden Pond, jotting down ideas with pencils he'd made himself. Novelist
Ron Carlson once stored scraps of paper in an old bag, now in computer
files. One diarist I know finally got going by razoring out the few pages
he'd managed to keep in a series of abandoned journals, transcribing them
onto his computer. After a stroke, May Sarton was forced to dictate into a
tape recorder. This, too, became a journal.
Woolf's metaphor of diary as a "deep
old desk, a capacious hold-all," is also a license to use one's
creative imagination, inventing forms. A diary should feel as comfortable
as those worn slippers you refuse to throw out. Whatever its evolving
form, it should help conjure up the feeling Elizabeth Berg describes when
she thinks of her journals: "How wonderful they feel in the hand, how
you can sit in a chair with your legs tucked under you and use a nice
fountain pen to just quietly scratch away. No plugs, no keyboard, no
screen. You write under a yellow lamplight, of course. A ticking clock
nearby. And a dog at your feet, sleeping and whining out his nose when he
comes to the good part of his dream. And, oh, it's winter, snowing."
The Well-Lived Examined Life
"The unrecorded life," Emerson
observed, "is not worth examining." For many, though, the final,
most stubborn lament is, When I try keeping a journal, mine are always
boring, self-conscious, hard.
Consider the case of Jim Cummings, who,
starting at thirteen, hasn't missed recording a day in forty-eight years.
"To me, a diary is a record of verification. It is a proof that one
has lived and that one has cared enough about a precious life to describe
it." Keeping a diary makes him want to lead an interesting
life, so he can record an interesting one. And he's done just that. In
addition to keeping what's considered the longest continuous
English-language diary, he has sixteen thousand diaries written by others
that he stores in a special room in his Wisconsin shop. Since 1958, when
he was just out of the army, he's earned a living as a bookseller
specializing in published diaries of so-called ordinary lives. Shelf after
shelf teems with journals, many of them centuries old. Among them are also
rare ones kept by children, pioneer women, Civil War soldiers, gold rush
miners, war prisoners.
He counts seven generations of journal
keepers within his own family. "It's almost a genetic compulsion to
keep diaries, like salmon spawning." His truck driver father, for
example, kept nature and travel journals from 1933 to 1994, which have
been purchased by the Minnesota Historical Society. Cummings's own diaries
and collection are being sought by numerous historical and university
libraries willing to offer $2 million to become the permanent site.
"A journal-keeper is really the
natural historian of his own life," observes writer Verlyn
Klinkenborg. "But many of the great journals," he notes,
"are marked by a dogged absence of self-consciousness, a willingness
to suspend judgment of the journal itself." Diaries, in the end, are
about making connections. About getting around your unconscious mind.
About breaking into your own store of preserved memories, stories,
projects. About stealing them back to the light of day. To keep a journal
is to learn how to play. Deeply. Even when a page is recording hard,
impossible things, if judgment is suspended, there's always a surprise or
shift. Connections made over time suddenly link, opening and transforming.
Freedom, play, insights, connections. These
are what happen when a journal is defined on your own terms.
Released of the "shoulds", even
choosing a journal that feels right is a creative act. "In my closet
there is a shelf entirely devoted to notebooks," says novelist Mary
Gordon. "I buy notebooks wherever I go in the world. Just as each
country has a different cuisine, each has a different notebook culture.
And friends who know my fetish bring me notebooks from their
travels." I love buying handmade Italian journals with pastel marbled
covers. Often, though, they sit orphaned on my shelves. Their formality
can make me too self-conscious, the task of writing too monumental. (I
have terrible handwriting. It feels a crime to mar such perfect paper.) So
I give them to friends who'd never write in anything but them.
British-born Kathleen Hornby has settled on
just such notebooks for "ideas, inspirations useful to writing,
quotations from famous writers, anything that pertains to books." For
her and others, choosing a notebook is a ritual with rules as subtly
complex as a Japanese tea ceremony. "Why do I put so much importance
on the color of the cover, the feel of the paper, the very heft of such a
humble object? Why can't I resist buying yet another one simply because I
liked how it looked?" Because, she notes, it promises to "spark
me." The paper is "silky to the touch, making it possible to
believe I'm writing effortless prose as the pen on paper is so fluid,
unobtrusive, even silent. I have a pile of notebooks on my desk, used and
unused. They're like old, soft cardigans, comforting to have around, to
pull on when the breeze blows."
Whatever physical form a journal takes,
Italian handmade or deposit slips thrown in a shoe box, here are a few
voices on what a diary truly is:
"A blank-faced confidante."
"My memory's memory."
"A hidden savings account."
"Where all my creative work first hides."
"Life's rough draft I can edit."
"A way to travel while sitting perfectly still."
And, finally, Gertrude Stein, ever to the
point: "A diary means yes indeed."
EXERCISES AND JOURNAL PROMPTS
Off the top of your head, list all the
forms, physical or otherwise, you can now imagine a journal taking. The
wilder, often the better.
On a sheet of loose-leaf paper, recall your
very first diary. To start, simply jot details in sentence fragments.
Divide the page into sections with the following heads: What did it
look like? ("black cowhide cover, blank pages"; "a
three-year white leather diary with a cunning little gold key I wore
around my neck"; "red spiral-bound college notebook";
"a cheap drugstore diary with a Renoir on the cover.") When
did you get it? ("8th-grade birthday gift the most
interesting thing truly is what I had for dinner each night.") Why?
("At 7, I was always telling stories. My great-grandmother gave me a
book with blank pages"; "At 26, I went to France. I wrote down
all I took in so I would still feel like I was sharing my life with my
then-boyfriend"; "At 64, I bought one as a graduation gift for a
niece and decided to keep her company.") What single good thing
did it spark? ("My grandmother Baba sent me my first diary for
my 13th birthday," writes Katya Taylor, "just when I needed it
most: after the breakup of my first teenage romance, my parakeet, Keeto,
was killed by my cat, and Baba was to die of lung cancer. But more than 40
years later I still keep a journal. It gave me a spiritual connection to
my grandmother that continues to this day.") If you stopped, what
did you most miss? ("My life.")
A premise and working technique throughout
this book is using the flip side of a notebook page (or even a receipt) to
catch the ways we split thoughts. Think of it as: Received Opinions; New
Perceptions. Use one side to record, the flip side to comment on.
(Ideally, one side is lined, the other blank.) Take a moment now before
continuing, to jot your most deeply held beliefs about journal keeping;
use the other side to explore which beliefs ring untrue, are inherited, or
Copyright © 2001 by Alexandra Johnson
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