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The Case for Journaling

2329887260_abf7acac8e_zIn our current world, documenting the daily activities of life has become commonplace. We chatter on Twitter and Facebook about our observations, frame shots for Instagram, pin pin pin on Pinterest and Tumblr and… and….everywhere. We’re all documentarians, using the material of our lives to connect and entertain and compete, and sell our work.

All that public, public living.

It has its place, of course. I partake and participate as much as anyone (my Facebook habit is obnoxious), but I’ve been thinking a lot about what happens when we do all the living and thinking in public, for an audience. Standing on a stage, orating or showing off our photography skills, is far different from another practice, the time-honored act of keeping a journal. A private journal, one that no one sees, maybe even one that is hand-written. You know, with a pen and a notebook.

For the Whitehall [1], the Restoration drama that has consumed me over the winter and spring (and which started releasing last Wednesday—you can get the first episode free [2]–hooray!) I read a lot of Samuel Pepys, the famous 17th century diarist who had a crush on the king’s mistress and kept notes on his supper and the numbers of women he wanted to sleep with and a huge number of details on daily life. Ordinary things, like the rain falling every day for weeks, and the river freezing over one winter so that people were skating, and what he drank and what plays he saw. He kept track of his feelings and attempts to be a better man (stop spending so much at the theater, don’t drink so much wine, stay home with the wife, stop lusting over whoever). His ordinary concerns bring home the ordinariness of human living, and also provide a very clear picture of a world lost to us.

Journaling is a powerful act, and I worry lately that all the public living is going to steal away the quieter, more profound act of journaling, which carries rewards that are far deeper and more enduring than the documentary actions of social media.   Journaling is messier, deeper, ultimately more honest. It creates a kind of connection to the self, to the diarist’s mind and heart that are not captured any other way.

My first diary was blue plastic with a lock and key, given to me by my uncle when I was in the 4th grade. I wrote in it some, but not every day. It’s surprising to me how much detail there is in the rote recording of events, things that bring back sweet memories now. Ordinary things—the cheesecake my aunt made, the day my grandmother’s dog had puppies and how messy and bloody and shocking it was. The candy we bought with a dime.

From that little diary onward, I have kept a journal. It is in some ways, the work of my life. It’s messy and horrifying and repetitive. (Don’t spend so much on books, drink less wine, go on a diet.) It’s also beautiful and rich, a record of my travels through time and across continents, book fragments and exhortations to get back to work.

Mainly, it’s deeply personal. Me, talking to myself about whatever I happen to be thinking about. A work in progress, worry about a relative, sadness or happiness over events in my life. I write by hand, although I’ve sometimes written on the computer for years in a row, printing out my pages to keep in a notebook. I have returned to Moleskines and writing by hand because I’m more likely to write precisely and clearly when I’m focusing on making sure my handwriting is, if not elegant, at least readable. It’s a good discipline. It’s better writing.

Journaling helps us become better writers. Making time to communicate with oneself, without judgment or censure or the need to be good or elegant or smart, means getting closer to our own beliefs. It means taking time to record details of daily life (the act of puppies being born is messy and bloody), which means we create a better, more usable store of details to use in the work.

It’s also….well, writing. It’s writing practice, and practice is what keeps us growing. Journaling gives us our tools—the pen, the page, the words, the ideas—and allows us to play, and play demystifies the process. Everything we do is made with those tools, and the more comfortable we are with them, the easier the actual work of building books or plays or poems.

If you haven’t tried journaling, give it a shot. Go buy yourself a notebook that feels easy to write in, and a pen you find has good flow, and set yourself a timer two or three times a week to record your thoughts. Maybe before you start work for the day, or at the end of a good writing session. Make it easy, keep it simple, just write about your day in the most ordinary way you can. “I just walked my dog. It took nearly an hour to go around the block, and he started limping at the end. The tulips are blooming and I want to draw them. My mother hasn’t called for a week. My summer clothes are tight and I need to go on a diet.” Mundane things are perfect. Rambling is allowed. Ranting, whining, gloating, planning—all good.

If you want a prompt, try “In the moment….” And write what you see, hear, observe, and then go into feeling and thinking. Or don’t.

Start there. Get a habit going. If it feels strange at first, that’s okay. No one is ever going to see it. It’s yours! It’s private! No one needs to read it at all. Ever. You can even, if you like the idea of being super secret, buy a box and keep the journal inside and hide it or even lock it. It’s yours. Your thoughts, your ideas, secret.

And therein lies the deepest value: the privacy allows truth to bubble up. If we record everything in public, we’re always aware of the audience. In a journal, the audience is only ourselves. It’s freeing.

What I know for sure is that it will make you a better writer over time. Give it a try.

If you do not keep a journal or diary, what has stopped you? If you do, what are some of the rewards? And do you have rituals you can share with us?

 

About Barbara O'Neal [3]

Barbara O'Neal [4] has written a number of highly acclaimed novels, including 2012 RITA winner, How To Bake A Perfect Life [5], which landed her in the RWA Hall of Fame and was a Target Club Pick. She is a highly respected teacher who also publishes material for writers at Patreon.com/barbaraoneal. She is at work on her next novel to be published by Lake Union in July. A complete backlist is available here [6].