Why Keep a Journal

My creative writing students used to spend the first twenty minutes of class warming up by writing in their journals.  One of them attacked her journal angrily every morning, addressing her entry, “Dear Constance”. I didn’t actually read what they wrote, but I noticed the daily salutation when she presented her journal for page count. The implication I took was that I was a constant pain in the neck, but still I found it touching. Constance sounded like an ideal reader, patient, loyal and non-judgmental. If I envisaged a reader for my 115 journals, it would be Constance.

I don’t actually. I don’t expect they will ever be read except by me. I can imagine my survivors wondering what in the world to do with them, but I do not see them sitting down to read.

So why do I do it? What motivates me to spend the first half hour of every day writing to myself?

Possibly it’s pathological, a case of hypergraphia, in which case I am in the excellent company of van Gogh, Dostoevsky and Lewis Carroll. I don’t seem to suffer from damage to the cerebral cortex, but then neither did they. Let’s assume that the cause is more benign on the grounds that I could quit if I wanted to. (Honest.)

Like many people, I live alone. Statistics show that many more people do today; as many as 40% of American households are made up of one person and that rises to 50% for women over 75. Like many of these people, I’m used to it and I don’t feel lonely, but I miss having someone to talk to about my daily life. Talking helps me put things in perspective,  clarify my thoughts, make decisions, and enjoy myself. Talking was how I came to understand my life when I was living with others. Now I talk to my journal.

When I was 12, I was given a little diary with a padded faux leather cover and a metal clasp that I could lock against intruding eyes -siblings, mother- in which I recorded the weather for two weeks and not much else. I begin the same way now, checking the present and predicted temperature. (Is this just another obsession or the rational result of living in Toronto?) I review the day before and look over my plans for the day to come. I record my dreams if I remember them, but I don’t pretend to be as good at that as my sister who says she does that every day. (Yes, she also keeps a daily journal. Is it genetic?) I note my response to the day’s stresses, my physical and mental health, the causes thereof and strategies for coping. I examine relationships when necessary. Then to exercise my short term memory, which has never been very good, I record what I have read or watched on television.

There are practical results to having such a record.  What was that particular mystery by Lee Child about? When did I have a bone density test? How exactly did that diagnosis proceed? What was the date of that short-lived, registry office wedding? Apparently, the long delayed divorce cannot proceed until the date of the marriage is established.  Ah, yes, journal #18, August 1986. I am the family archive keeper.

But it didn’t begin that way. It began with a hard covered “Dominion blue line” record book which I bought for 2.75, the same day that I bought “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head”. It contains sporadic entries, centered mostly on the angst of seeking job promotion, but there are lovely details of my children’s reading -Tales of Mother West Wind, riding home in the MG with the top down in the rain, the orange lilies in the rock garden, the mountain ash berries, until that dire event, when life in the house under the hill came to an end. I began the second journal 8 years after the first and it is entirely in poetry, yet a daily record of what I felt following my separation. By journal #5, I am back to prose, “a record, a scientific basis for discovery and judgment”. What can I say? I don’t actually recognize the person who wrote those early journals.  That is one of the miracles of journal writing.  I see how much I’ve changed. Of course, I’m way better now or at least my prose is not as wordy.

So the books began to accrue, small, brightly colored, easily carried into coffee shops at first, then at journal #33, black, 8 by 11, sketch books of acid free paper. Last Christmas my sister gave me a light blue sketch book (#114) and a lime green one (#115) saying it was time I swore off black. Now they make an untidy, hard to access pile, demanding their own bookcase.

I did use a computer for a number of years, although I prefer the tactile experience of an actual book. At the time, I printed entries as well and I’m glad I did because when my computer died without warning, I  lost several years of entries.

So here’s what I think: you should start a journal if you don’t already keep one.  (If you do, you should keep on.) You’ll get a confidante who can keep a secret, improve your memory and gain clarity. “The unexamined life,” Socrates said, “is not worth living.”

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