Archive for June, 2012

Some Reasons for Keeping a Journal

It is well to begin with a distinction between a diary and a journal. After all, Anne Frank was said to keep a diary and not the journal of Anne Frank.  I like to think of a diary as a circle contained within the larger circle of the journal. At its simplest, a diary is a record of the events of the day, quotidian in nature; whereas a journal may journey into commentaries on current events, philosophical disquisitions, analyses of the journalist’s opinions, emotions, motivations, conflicts both internal and external, critiques of art, film and books; records of conversations both overheard and participated in; descriptions of travels and personalities; dreams and fantasies, in short, anything and everything that form the subject of a work of fiction or non-fiction. It is a hotbed of ideas, an incubator for books. Diaries often make for pedestrian reading; whereas journals may range into graceful, artful prose. Sometimes they contain snatches of poetry and sketches.  That is not to say that the mundane account of getting up, eating breakfast, or who came to visit today are not included in a journal, but it is not primarily a record of hours but an ongoing interior monologue with the journalist’s thoughts and feelings.  If the entries deal more with the state of the weather than the state of the journalist’s mind, then it becomes more diary than journal.  Despite this effort to draw a distinction between the two, the terms diary and journal continue to be used interchangeably.

The thirteen volumes of Queen Victoria’s journal, which she kept from age thirteen to her death in 1901, are now available online (  Victoria began journaling in 1832 to record her journey to Wales. Browsing these journals, I learn Prince Albert was her cousin, and she was instantly taken by his appearance.  As Queen of England she made the marriage proposal.  Her love for him was so great that after his death in 1861, she continued to mourn him the rest of her life. Much of the journals, however, read like a diary, reporting when she arose and when she dressed for dinner. Boring stuff to read through to get to the gems that really tell something about her and history. Many famous people keep journals because they realize they are in a position to observe historic events and influential people.

Others have started a journal to record their travels in the way Queen Victoria did.  Lillian Schlissel collected such diaries of nineteenth century pioneer women crossing the Great Plains in her book Women’s Diaries of the Western Journey. Whether penned by noted people or obscure individuals, diaries provide a valuable primary historical source.  Anyone who has ever discovered in the attic an ancestor’s musty journal in a steamer trunk has experienced the excitement of reading these first-hand accounts of a bygone era.

Beyond leaving an account of what it was like to live at the beginning of the twenty-first century for family descendants, today’s journalists may want to leave something of their personality to their descendents, maybe even harboring the notion that the faded notebook will appear in an antique shop decades from now among equally worn photograph albums to be picked up and purchased by some curious bibliophile or history buff.

For others, keeping a journal is a method to achieve psychic health. The process of writing through problems and emotions has a therapeutic effect and has been recommended for those undergoing psychotherapy.  For this reason, I like to term journaling as my mental enema.  The flow of writing clears the head of negativity and confusion, facilitating better decision-making and attitudes conducive to emotional well-being.

Like Queen Victoria and those pioneer women,  I have kept separate travel journals of major trips.  Long after I have returned home my journal observations serve as better memories of the trip than a photograph.  I typed my South American trip journal into a Word document, thinking that some day I might want to shape it into something more polished. In a journal the cauldron of impressions and feelings does not always translate into felicitous prose. And the journalist should not be overly concerned about that. Just write. Stream of consciousness does rule in keeping a journal.

May Sarton, more than any other writer, revealed to me the joy of journaling.  I admired her writing so much that I went through a period when I strived to read everything she wrote from her poetry, to her novels and to her journals. Over her lifetime her journals were published in separate volumes, among them Journal of a Solitude, House by the Sea, At Seventy, Recovering, and After the Stroke. Sarton shows how the habit of journaling can become an art form. I was entranced so much with May Sarton that on the occasion of my mother’s seventieth birthday, I gave her a copy Sarton’s At Seventy.  Mainly appreciated for her journals, Sarton’s other work is undervalued and not well-known. Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing is an exquisite novel with psychological depth, which I wish was more widely read, as is Sarton’s A Reckoning, a portrait of a woman dying of cancer.

A journal keeps any author writing even during those dry spells when there is no work in progress. Whether novelist, poet, or creative fiction writer; ideas, plots, and characters are explored that can balloon into new books. I like to call my journal a compost pile where all this humus can feed a flower–a single poem or story–or a novel can grow a garden. Who knows which seeds will germinate from a particular journal entry? Jour is French for day. The journal is a journey of our days and nights, tracing the intricate patterns of our mind and heart.

For us obscure nobodies scribbling in our journals, perhaps our prime motivation for keeping this habit alive, is to provide a testament long after our bodies are ash, that we did once pass this way.

The journal rests upon the ash heap of history.