I have never kept a journal. I once had a diary, but I destroyed it after my mother read it. I was 15, and I’d written how much I hated her. It would be 20 years before I wrote anything personal on a piece of paper again.
And I still don’t keep a diary or a journal, but I want to.
I spent yesterday afternoon in a journal writing seminar with Phyllis Theroux, author of THE JOURNAL KEEPER. She explained that the main reason people stop keeping a journal is because it isn’t nourishing them: journaling becomes a chore, or the journal itself has become a place to complain, a place to avoid.
“Make your journal a place to keep the light,” she said, “not a place to hide your darkness. Make it a place where you search for solutions regardless of whether you find them.”
Phyllis spends 45 minutes or so in quite contemplation every morning. Sometimes she writes 3 pages, sometimes one paragraph, and some mornings she might just sit and stare or draw a picture. The goal is not to be obligated; the goal is to allow a space for the quiet. She often reads a poem to start. “Reading a great poet is like a sharp spade that digs into your subconscious thoughts.” This is one of her favorites.
Mary Oliver “The Journey”
One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
their bad advice–
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do–
determined to save
the only life you could save.
Do you keep a journal?
I have always loved that poem, and I’m deeply grateful to have read it again.
I’ve never kept a journal. I can’t possibly imagine writing the truth. My only way to write is with fiction: the truth disguised.
But I do meditate, or, at least, strive to be quiet several times a day. It makes me happy and strong.
That poem. I’d forgotten it, but after she read it she gave us 10 minutes to write and I wrote something I’ve been trying to get at for weeks. This writing business is a quirky, sensitive practice.
i’ve kept a journal of some sort my whole life. right now i have three going on, my dream journal–a spiral notebook with an owl on the cover where i record my dreams that i think mean something, a big thick one (that’s what she said) with blank pages and an anais nin quote on the cover, and my brown suede-covered morning pages journal. (i hate lines in my journals–i only get blank paged journals)
i got busted having sex via the pages of my high school journal. early in my marriage, my husband would read some pages that hurt him deeply–less than a month later, we would separate and live in different places for six+ months. (in the end, we kissed and made up. he now refers to that time in our lives as my “marriage hiatus”)
when i was a brand new mom, a journal was stolen from my house by a loved one; the dilemma ended up with me not talking to the person for nearly a year. i would later find photo-copies of the entire journal in the back of the person’s closet when i was helping them move. (i stole that copy back and destroyed it.)
journaling was my first form of writing, i don’t believe i’ve ever replaced it with a new form–just different venues.
You’re my hero. If all that had happened to me, I don’t think I’d be writing anything personal, even now.
You’re a superstar in the eyes of Phyllis Theroux —- when she asked how I’d heard about the seminar, I said it was my friend from [redacted state] and she said, “Josey?!” She loves you, and said to say hello. How cool is that?
Wow, that’s crazy! I think that may have been enough for me to quit writing much of anything! Kudos!
i keep a quote posted above my desk from david sedaris, “If you read someone else’s diary, you get what you deserve.”
Ain’t that the truth.
Nope. I do have a cranky blog, though.
You’re not that cranky, Indy. Your blog is just the right amount of crank.
Shit. I’m losing my edge in my old age.
I kept a diary – ended up being about six of them total – from early teens through high school. I ripped them up and threw them away when I got married.
I have three pregnancy journals – one for each of my kids. When they are grown I will pass them on so they can see how we felt as each of them were on their way.
Currently, I have two journals, and I don’t let either one demand my time. If I have something to write, I do. One is a prayer journal where I write down prayers and answers, if there are any. I also put in there any life revelations or things I feel I’ve learned – lessons learned the hard way usually. My second journal is one of “characters.” I keep the real life descriptions of people in my life that I may use in stories later. Teaching lends itself to a ton of characters!
Oh and I keep a third journal for my son, my youngest. From a very young age he has said some deep and insightful things. Things that make the adults around him stop and take notice. Also, the most hilarious things a kid could ever say. (Literally, he has a following through my FB page…people looking for “Cade stories.” So, I’ve been writing them down…something to look back on when we see where he ends up in life !
These are all such fabulous ideas —- and these are also a lesson in organization! I would never be able to keep them all straight! I love the idea of the one for your son. I wish we’d thought of that —- our son is 26, do you think it’s too late? 😉
i kept a journal for my daughter (my first pregnancy) she’s 8 now and every now and again, i’ll pull it out to read a page or so before bedtime. my poor son’s pregnancy journal didn’t get as far.
That’s what happened with my son’s first year scrap book. One daughter has an all out scrapbook, the other daughter’s is pretty good, and my son has his first pic and nothing else…
Make your journal a place to keep the light. I like that.
The light, and a place to think on the page. She gave the example of going to dinner with someone she didn’t like. Instead of writing down the list of things she didn’t care for, and what bugged her, she explored why this person had gotten under her skin and what that could mean.
I’d like to be half that enlightened.
Phyllis Theroux. What a lovely woman. I loved The Journal Keeper and remember how back in the day she chimed in on our old friend’s defunct blog. My favorite part in her book was exactly what you mentioned in this post: When someone bothered her she dwelled on the why of it rather than them just being an idiot. I want to be like her when I grow up.
As for journaling, I had the same experience as you of having my mom read it, and that was it. I couldn’t write anything for a very long time and I still don’t journal. However, I find I get the same thing from my blog, but better because it’s what I think, but also more directly the way I’d like to be rather than the way I am. When it’s just me and the page it’s too much me.
I’ve been thinking that all along, too, that I’m getting all of my writing out in my blog, other other blogs, in my memoir (stuff written, stuff taken out), but I can see now what’s been missing. In just a couple of 10 minute breaks with Phyllis, I wrote things I’ve been trying to get at for I-Don’t-Know-How-Long. I think it was the lack of pressure to have be structured or make sense, and also — the big key — writing with a pen instead of on the computer, the force of slowing down. Maybe like when you were handwriting your book on the train?
I’ve kept a journal for 30 years. My experience is much like the one you describe: long, multi-page entries followed by days (or even weeks) of silence. A huge range of thoughts, notes, musings, frustrations, bragging, et cetera. I often feel the longing to hold my pencil in my hand just to write in my journal. My kids have already begun fighting over who will get to read the many notebooks I’ve filled first. Of course, more likely they’ll be read by a judge who will use them to commit me to safe keeping in some mental institution.
30 years! The longing you describe to write in your journal is exactly what Phyllis Theroux talked about in this seminar. The journal becomes like a favorite friend you can’t wait to talk to.
No institutions for you, Paul.
I kept a journal for about a week twenty years ago and stopped, for exactly the reason Theroux mentioned. I still don’t. I do believe it’s possible to substitute my fiction writing as my “journal”–obviously it doesn’t track the events of my life, but it does give voice to my view of the world, which is enough for me.
For these last years I’ve looked at keeping a journal as wasting writing time. Why jot down the nonsense in my head when I could knock out a page or 2 in my book! I see now that this has not been working as well as I’d like. I’m too controlled when I’m working on my book —- which I didn’t realize until I stopped doing it.
Do you write with a pen, Joe, or do you think on the screen?
I was lucky (sort of) to have started out as a journalist, so I had to learn to compose on a tight deadline, which meant little time to draft. I got used to writing on the screen, and despite now having the time to think, I still write that way today.
I keep a paper journal even though it makes me nervous. I reveal some things that are probably best not to be written down. (Though, in reality, who would really care if they were exposed but me?)
I journal much, much less now than ten years ago, but I still do it. I feel driven to. When I was younger I wrote in my journal obsessively, even when it felt like a chore or I didn’t want to. I just had this compulsion to write everything down, to make a record. That compulsion still lives in me even though I stifle it more and don’t write in my journal nearly as much. I go through stages; when I get into journal-writing moods, there’s no stopping me. Now, I find my journal most useful in helping me work out what makes me anxious or upset in life.
I can’t imagine the fallout of what happened when your mother read your diary. What a violation, and what a disaster for all involved.
As usual, Laura, I want to be you.
No, really. I do.
The main thing I remembered in this seminar is how much more open I am when I write with my pen — so much slower — and how much more thoughtful. I type like I’m in a mad race to a finish line; I write like I’ve got all day. Funny how that works.
No, and I probably never will. Nothing is worse to me than going back to read my old stuff. I even delete blog posts after a year or so because I detest the sound of my own voice.
That said, a place to keep the light sounds lovely. If only I were not so dark.
Awwww, Averil, you’re not the mistress of darkness. You are a bright light.
I hear you on the old blog posts….. ick.
Update: This afternoon I spent 40 minutes sitting outside, writing in my journal. Gobbledygooknonsense, it seemed. Then I opened my manuscript to work for a bit. Two hours later, some of that nonsense made sense of something in the manuscript.
Nobody was more surprised than me.
I’ll be journaling again tomorrow. Oh yes I will.
One of my biggest regrets, although I regret having regrets at all, is not keeping a journal. So many experiences and so many emotions that I didn’t capture. Is it too late? Hmm…
LOVE that poem.
Me too. Having journals would have helped me tremendously with writing this memoir.
I keep rereading this poem. Love it.
I take pictures of my life, practically every day. It’s my form of journaling.
I wish I had that eye.