January 27, 2011

Do You Keep a Journal?

Mine started in first grade with the sentence, “May funny boy way who?” and embarked on a nonsensical meditation on a boy in my class named Clinton, with whom I was in love. I wrote a cast of characters on the inside cover (“Mom–my mom”) so that one day, when this tome was discovered among my papers, the reader wouldn’t be hopelessly lost. This diary was pastel blue with a lock, a schmaltzy quote about dreams, and a castle in the clouds on the cover: typical––though tragic––little girl stuff.

I’ve never been able to stop, and I credit journals for keeping me going through middle school, my teens, a melancholy, lovesick stay in Italy, post-college confusion, and whatever you’d call this period of post-post college confusion. (PoPoCoCo?)

At my first real office job, my boss was a wonderfully chic, astonishingly smart woman of the old school New York variety (rumor had it she had taught herself Russian in order to read Anna Karenina “in its purest form.”) You could set a clock by her workday routines––the morning pot of tea, her toaster oven lunch, an afternoon seltzer––but one unpredictability that enlivened our days together were her visits to my cubicle for a chat. It’s hard being an assistant, especially when you have just been puffed up for four years with the idea that your thoughts are illuminating to an unprecedented degree, the importance of your mind’s work irrefutably unassailable. It’s a long way to fall to mass mailings and spreadsheets, and my boss understood this. So she dropped by my desk to ask what I was reading (“You’re too young to really appreciate Madame Bovary; it’ll mean more when you’re older.”), and to ask about my personal life. In my three years as an assistant, we got to know each other pretty well, I think, and this all relates to journal writing for the pearl of wisdom she tossed out one day: “journal-writing is therapy for the poor.”

Some might have called her a bit of a snob, but I found her hilarious and likable in a scathing Dorothy Parker-kind-of-way.

She had been poor, at least in gentile way of an art history doctorate student scrimping by in New York at the time when sitting in the nosebleed seats at the ballet cost as much as going to the movies. She would write for pages and pages, she said, and sort things out for the cost of a notebook.

I don’t think writing in a journal is quite the same as therapy, and I do think the one-two punch of journal writing plus therapy can really get you places fast. But we’re not talking about sitting on the couch today; we’re talking about carrying around a little notebook. Some might argue that their blogs have replaced their personal writing, but I think they’re so different. After the idea wore off that my first grade crushes (and eighth grade depression and high school malaise) would be of any interest to anyone but me, the writing changes. You’re not writing for art or for laughs–you’re just writing to sort your own stuff out, to make sense of what’s happening in your life and in your head. Perhaps most helpful (and most amusing) is the record of it: you can see patterns, recognize triggers for certain behaviors and mood, and suddenly be reminded of the perfect brunch you ate with your beloved nine years ago that certainly would have fallen through the holes of memory.

And there is nothing more exciting, more like turning the page on a new chapter of your life when you begin a new notebook. I am deeply in love with this cheerful, colorful one, purchased at Target for the nice price of $3.99 (I’d link, but sadly, you can’t buy them online). Do you still write in a journal? Do you think it can help you make sense of the chaos of life? Do you think this sounds like juvenile stuff? Or did you fall back into journal-writing with something you tried as an adult, like Morning Pages?

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  • Kristina Strain: I love that Target pattern! I picked up a binder covered with that print– for garden plans and lists of things to can, natch– and am so glad I did.

    I started a diary just after Christmas in eighth grade, and kept it going all the way until I moved in with Patrick. Ironically, that’s the time I probably needed it most! Shortly after that, I started my blog. But, you know, you’re absolutely right– there’s so much value in “private” writing. I think I need to get back to it.7 years ago

  • Sarah: I keep a sort of one-sentence journal. Each night I try to write down just one or two sentences about my day, what I am thankful for, etc… While not the same a journal, per se, I like just taking a few minutes to reflect back on my day.7 years ago

  • Kristina, I think it’s the prettiest pattern, too, and perfect for a garden notebook. I don’t know if journal-writing is for everyone, but if you don’t like to let it all hang out on your blog, it can be a good place for all that private stuff.

    Sarah, I love that idea. So manageable, and must be so much fun to flip through.7 years ago

  • Liz: I agree that blogging is totally different than keeping a journal! It’s just a different purpose – writing for yourself instead of any kind of audience. You say things you might not say in a blog.

    I love to journal but somehow I always feel self conscious even though I KNOW no one is going to read it. Somehow, it makes me feel like I’m being whiny. I’d really like to get over that though – any tips?7 years ago

  • Kanesha: I love journaling and have been keeping a diary/journal since about 2nd grade. So hilarious to go back and read those.

    My latest journaling adventure is pray rain journaling. I’m in transition and this has been such a great tool to keep me sane and focused.

    http://www.selfhelpgoddess.com/prayrainjournal.html7 years ago

  • Suzy: I kept a journal sporadically from the age of 9 (I wish I’d written more during my teenage years), and religiously since the age of 20. Now I am finding I write only every few months, and would like to get back to it. I do think it’s therapeutic and a great resource for people who are anal about remembering things like I am. Though it has made me an insatiable notebook consumer! I’ve bought that very same Target notebook, as well as legions of others, all liked up on a shelf, waiting. Strangely, though, I keep returning to those hardback accounting-type books with the numbered pages. Yet I still compulsively buy almost every nice notebook I see. I know. I need some sort of 12-step program…
    P.S. Your old boss sounds fantastic!7 years ago

  • Kanesha: Suzy-
    I need to be in a stationery 12 step program – for sure!
    I totally bought that Today is Super journal/notebook…actually, I bought THREE! Two extra on hand – for gifts. 🙂7 years ago

  • domestikate: I had plenty of failed attempts at journalling as a teenager (I found some when clearing out at my parents’ last year – hideously angsty tales of boys and bitchiness) but have only recently started journalling as an adult – I keep (or try to keep) a 3 beautiful things journal. Nice and manageable for someone with no discipline for journalling, but also cheery and positive and completely non-angsty!7 years ago

  • domestikate: PS. And I’m with Suzy – your old boss sounds brilliant!7 years ago

  • Sarah F: Though I bought one of those little-girl journals when I was 11, and even filled in a couple of pages with junk meant to look good to the advertising people who sell them (heartst, smileys, and one-sentence gibberish, it didn’t really take until I’d grown up a bit. Apparently I will never be Louisa May Alcott, despite that being my sincere wish as a girl!

    I’ve journaled off and on since my freshman year in college- more off than on. It has been helpful when I did it consistently, and I am getting back into the habit now. It became even more helpful when I stopped trying to edit for posterity and just wrote what I was thinking, sex dreams, profanity, poor grammar and all.

    I’d like to do morning pages (because there is something about writing long-hand that is missed electronically) but I can tell you right now it wouldn’t get done that much if I did. Still, I bought an el-cheapo composition notebook at the beginning of the year, and I hope that eventually I will move back in that direction.7 years ago

  • Amy: I love my journals. I’ve kept one since I was 7, sporadically at times, but usually pretty consistent, and it’s amazing to read through. It really does help.7 years ago

  • Paige: I just started a 5-year journal. There are a bunch of them, but my favorite and the one I got is the monogrammed one here: (http://www.levenger.com/PAGETEMPLATES/PRODUCT/Product.asp?Params=Category=322-325|Level=2-3|pageid=7150).

    The longest I’ve been able to maintain a journal was when I was an exchange student in Denmark in high school. For the first few months, I journaled almost daily. Reading them now is so fun, and it reminds me of things I did over there that I would otherwise have forgotten.

    I can’t maintain a journal like that on a daily basis, though, so the 2 or 3 sentence format of the five year journal works great for me. I can always at least say what I did that day, or I can say what I’m feeling, or whatever, but there’s no pressure to write a whole page or two. And it’s formatted so that 5 years of a single date is on one page, so next January 27th I’ll be able to look back and see what I did today.

    I do still use journalling as a therapeutic tool sometimes. I was recently feeling really awful about something, and I just did a mind dump onto a piece of paper, crying the whole time, and occasionally thinking, “why am I doing this”? But it really worked like everyone says it does. I got all of my thoughts out. I reread it the next day, and even by then I had so much more clarity and perspective, and the day after that I felt settled with the issue.7 years ago

  • Liz, That’s a toughie. Maybe you should ask yourself why it matters, even if you are being whiney? Sometimes I tell myself to indulge the inner wimp! (Privately and in secret.) 😉

    Kanesha, That journaling tactic is so interesting. It raises an interesting question: How would you go about living if you already had everything you wanted? (Also, great idea to buy those Today is Super notebooks for gifts.)

    Suzy, I love accounting books! The ones with the grid/graph paper pages? They look so cool. And yeah, my old boss was pretty awesome. I’m crazy about your “3 beautiful things” idea.

    Domestikate, I hear you: reading the stuff from the teen years is utterly cringe-inducing. All the way up through 22 I was pretty much the most embarrassing person in life.

    Sarah F, Such a good point about not editing for posterity; it’s so much better when you just get the incriminating/shameful/embarrassing stuff out there and just out of your head. I’m a big fan of those plain 99 cent composition books, too. In fact, the one in the picture is the first fancy one I’ve bought in years!

    Amy, Agreed! Amazing to read through.

    Paige, Such a good point: journal-writing really can help so much on the perspective and clarity front.7 years ago

  • Katie @ cakes, tea and dreams: I’ve been journaling since I was nine – off and on till about junior high, then religiously since then. I need that outlet to sort out my own stuff – sometimes I get ideas for blog posts in my journal, but they rarely overlap more than that.

    Madeleine L’Engle has called her journals her “free psychiatrist’s couch” also. I love the act of journaling – getting it all out – and the looking back, while punctuated with cringes, can also be rewarding.

    Sarah, I just filled up the journal in your photo and bought its cousin – a brown background with blue, green and yellow leaves. Reminds me that spring WILL come, someday. 🙂7 years ago

  • L: I love the *idea* of a journal, but ever since I found out my mom read my diary in 4th grade, I’ve never been able to be totally authentic and truthful in my journal writing, and so, have stopped.

    Although blogging is definitely public, no matter how small my audience may be, I’ve found that providing a focus and a framework for my writing helps me be much more genuine. I just only write one facet of my life.7 years ago

  • Talia: I am a sporadic journaler. I also love to write down a few things I am grateful for each day. It is a lovely reminder to find the good in every day. When I was younger, I would keep a fashion log. I’d jot down what I wore each day. How I loved doing that!

    Your boss from earlier days sounds so chic! What a blessing to have had her influence. LOVE your blog. Such a cheery place!7 years ago

  • Maryann Kelly: I enjoy your blog so much. Everytime I stop by, I leave with a smile. Thank you for writing. 🙂

    I used to journal all the time and found it very therapeutic! These days, I am not so good, but I try to always keep something to write in (or on) with me. It’s so funny reading through the old ones. Sometimes painful, too.

    I remember one I took on vacation when I was a kid and I code-named the members of my family with the character names from The Curse of Monkey Island (the computer game!?! I know!!). My stinky little brother was Herman Toothrot. Ha ha ha. I miss being a kid.7 years ago

  • Alicia: First off, I love the design of your journal.

    Secondly, I’ve just recently started keeping a journal (after many failed attempts), and I absolutely love it. You’re right – it is so different from any of the online blogs, or facebook. I can write things in there just to visualize my thoughts – something I’d never be able to or want to do online. Also, it’s so convenient!

    I’m an aspiring editor/publisher, and I find that keeping this journal is really bringing me back to my love of writing and the written word. In a time when I’m away from home, it’s my constant companion, someone to talk to when I’m lonely or want to work out my frustrations.

    It’s funny you post this now, because I have lately been thanking God that I started this journal.7 years ago

  • ruth@gracelaced: I used to have a fear of starting a new, fresh journal…like I had to have the perfect thing to say because it was the first page, and it was so permanent. After many years of half-used, half-hearted journals, I’m more convinced as an adult, that it’s not the perfection of what I leave behind, but the process, that is the thing.7 years ago

  • Brie.: journalling has been something i’ve fallen into and out of at different times in my life. in many ways the jotting-to-remember has been replaced by my blog, where i can have a venue for posting my photos. but my blog rarely gets super personal in the way my journal does. i often use my journal for my conversations with god – and so in a sense it’s a prayer journal or a reflection on my journey.

    it’s kept tight in a moleskin, and the bits that are collected in the back pocket by the end of the journal are almost as important as the thoughts in the journal and the journey experienced itself.7 years ago

  • Antonia: PoPoCoCo= <3 Thank you for that new abbreviation.7 years ago

  • Roxy: Blogging and Journal-ing. Two vastly different things. I do both. Blogging requires a degree of tact and consideration for those in my life. I’ll gladly post anything to do with myself alone, but I definitely edit and omit when it comes to my husband and family. When I journal I let it pour out in an unedited mess of thoughts. Half the time I can’t even read my own writing, which is fine since I’m writing more to get it out somewhere then to be able to revisit it like I do with my blog.7 years ago

  • Jessica: I did the tortured angsty teenage confessional thing for years (Sarah, I think I could give you a run for your money as the most embarrassing person in life), but didn’t find that sustainable past high school–thank goodness! For the last several years I’ve done my own version of the gratitude journal–I write 5 things I’m grateful for or just got a kick out of that day every night before bed. It makes for such a great snapshot of the day to look back on 🙂7 years ago

  • Bethany: Your posts continue to inspire! I started morning pages a few years ago and though I don’t do it regularly anymore, I remember how much I loved how centered it made me feel.

    I definitely still do my gratitude journal.

    I was given a “Stylish Blogger award”/ shout out and asked to pass it on to blogs that I delight in. I love your sharing and love that you’ve been posting everyday! Such a treat! So I included you in the blogroll.

    Thanks for your sharing! I linked your blog in this post “awarding” you for your fabulousness!

    Bethany7 years ago

  • Marion Roach Smith: Ah, the joys of a cheap notebook. They forever and ever reveal themselves. What a fine and wise tale this is.7 years ago

  • Sara Rose: I am journal insane and list obsessed. There is always a small notebook in my purse and I have several notebooks and journals scattered though the house and by my bed that I ca pick up when a thought strikes me that must be written down or when I need to, sigh, make another list. Is there help for Listaholics?7 years ago

  • Tami -- Teacher Goes Back to School: i am a full-on morning pages girl. it helps me sort it all out and keeps me honest about what is really bugging me.

    i definitely go through phases of doing the religiously. these are the times when problems seem to solve themselves and answers to long asked questions seem to appear out of no where.

    honestly, it’s the only way i can sort of my real thoughts. plus it’s way less expensive than counseling.7 years ago

  • Ana @ Confessions of a Designer: Oh my Gosh Sarah! You took me back to the past with the description of your childhood journal. I had one just like that when I was in 1st or 2nd grade. Pale blue, castle in the clouds and a tiny lock. Can you believe I still remember that quote?

    “What is a dream? A wonderful thing, a rainbow of joy in your heart. Your own secret corner where no one can go, where the path to fulfillment can start. A dream lures you on, always one step ahead. And when you have caught it, there’s always another to capture your soul and lead your heart onwards again.”

    What that what it said on yours? I guess it must have made an impression on me, that after years of not even thinking about that journal, it all came back to me in 5 seconds. hehehe =) I used to keep diaries all through my teenage years. Now I get my therapy reading my Bible (highly recommended, solutions for every possible ailment you may have!), but every once in a while I get some pen and paper and let go. It feels great!7 years ago

  • Look Back, Move Forward « Pink of Perfection: […] There, in my childhood bedroom, on the bottom of a rattan bookshelf, were nineteen years of journals lined up like little time bombs. I thought it would be fun––funny, maybe?––to start reading […]4 years ago

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