On Keeping a Journal
Every morning just before dawn, I rise, make myself a cup of coffee, and sit quietly in a wing chair in the living room for about an hour. Waking early without effort is one of the genuine pleasures of getting older. Life has fewer days in it, but nature compensates by allowing you to greet them sooner.
I watch the light gradually turn up its strength behind the tree-line, and admire how it picks out the bowls, books, and flowers in the room, read, think, and, most importantly, drop my thoughts into a journal that I have kept steadily for the past 14 years— a period that began around the time I became a single mother.
This is not to imply that before this point my life had been entirely unexamined or unrecorded. While married, I made sporadic entries into various spiral notebooks, some of which are still extant. But the year I was divorced, I started keeping closer track of myself, for the same reason a ship’s captain keeps a log: to fix my position, chart a course, and, in times of particularly bad weather, maintain my bearings.
Now, if I am deprived of that first morning hour to myself, the rest of the day has a compromised, undirected feeling to it. And such is the value of these small black copy-books that if the one I am writing in is misplaced, I am bereft until it is recovered. Conversely, when it’s found, so am I.
Some time ago, a friend of mine showed me a large trunkful of journals that had been written by his mother, the dutiful wife of a career diplomat. While she was alive, nobody, not even her husband, knew they existed. Perhaps one of the reasons she kept a journal, as she kept to her diplomatic rounds, was to remind herself that she existed, too.
But the need to remind ourselves that we exist and have some meaning beyond our own shadow is one of the deepest of all human instincts. Journal-keeping, which is enjoying a genuine revival, particularly among women, is as old as language itself.
“Articulation is central to human survival and self-determination… to relieve the soul of incoherence,” wrote novelist Shirley Hazzard. There are other nonverbal ways to do it. Painters, dancers, all artisans who seek to express the human spirit or objectify a vision in their work are relieving themselves of incoherence, too.
But from my earliest days, I loved everything about the sound, power, and delivery of words. I would spend hours in my room writing flowery thank-you notes, sealing the envelopes with hot colored wax and dime-store signet rings. In the convent school where I was taught a form of calligraphy, the simple act of creating the letters with the broad, ink-filled nib of my Esterbrook pen calmed my nerves.
Diaries did not interest me. I had the misunderstanding that you were supposed to recount everything you had done, from cleaning out the birdcage to brushing your teeth, and many days that was all that took place. Recording it only reinforced my own sense that nothing was happening. But if someone were to look over my shoulder today as I write in my journal, one would still think that my existence was confined to what I thought about in my a wing chair.
There is no right or wrong way to keep a journal. The mind of the writer inevitably imposes itself upon the style. My friend Richard, for instance, keeps a half-dozen journals going simultaneously, each representing different subjects he is continually pondering. My journal, like my life, is melange.
I write where I live, and the pages of my journal reflect my thoughts, my laundry lists of things to do, calculations of how much or little money I will be making in the up-coming weeks, conversations, as well as stories overheard on a train.
Large events, such as leaving jobs or being sued, are often only alluded to in passing. Whether I am writing from home, St. Maartins, or White Plains is rarely clear. I don’t use my journal as a calendar but as an intellectual record, crying rag, and cheerleading section. The pages are full of other people’s voices whose words are wiser; more inspiring, or funnier than my own:
“Life is what leaps.” (Emerson) “I can get confused in an elevator.” (My mother)
“The gossamer filament which holds the artistic life is so delicate that it hardly bears analysis.” (James Michener)
I frequently analyze my artistic life in the pages of my journal— either to chas-tise myself for not being as loyal enough or to make notes for future pieces I want to write.
Upstairs in my bedroom is a large wooden box where I keep swatches of material for future sewing projects:: quilts, wall hangings, aprons, or curtains, as yet unmade. My journal is the intellectual equivalent: storage space for scraps of material that may or may not be usable in the future, but if I had no place to store them, they might get lost.
Every year, I teach at least one writing seminar. At the moment, I have two going on two separate evenings. In each, I have shown them how to “graze” over their own minds, like a field, for inspiration. Sometimes I’ll assign them a word or phrase, such as “My Mother,” or “My Favorite Room,” or “Broken Hearts” in order to narrow their focus. Then, I ask them to think, in a semi-meditative way, about their topic and write down any phrases or ideas that occur to them that relate.
Most people profit from this kind of methodology. They are amazed at what they remember once their minds are instructed to search. Keeping a journal is very akin to this exercise, with the only difference (and luxury) being that what you write about can can change as often as your mind.
It takes a young or inexperienced writer time to find his or her authentic voice which changes as the writer’s consciousness develops. But the pages of one’s personal journal are where the least self-conscious and most eloquent (although not necessarily most polished) voice is first found, which is why so many writers keep one.
One of the reasons people think they want to keep a journal is to trace their own life but rarely do I find examining anything but the surrounding pages, going back several months at the most, to be helpful. Any further back and one realizes how consistently we spin out the same webs, only to be recaught in them. Then, too, some periods of one’s life are too painful to relive.
Recently, I opened up one of my first journals, begun just shortly after I had got-ten separated. The pages had preserved the innocent cries of my children too perfectly for me to listen to, even fourteen years after the fact. But such is the power of the written word that when I closed the covers and put the volume back, I felt as if I was stuffing my still-weeping children into a trunk.
Then, just before I began a new journal, I decided to go through the most recently filled one and pick out any thoughts that seemed valuable and bind them into a sort of rough commonplace book. I had done this before, gathering up my favorite voices— William James, Thomas Merton, Florida Scott-Maxwell, my own children. But this time I found that my own voice was of equal interest to me. I had never imagined this would ever happen. Then again, “nearly all the evil in the world comes from failure or misuse of the imagination.” These are words I’d like to claim as my own – and in this case I can.
In 2010, Phyllis Theroux gathered up six years of her life and turned it into a memoir which she called The Journal Keeper. Finding the title was the hardest part.