"Writing itself becomes the subject of the writing course..."

 — Michael Carter       

Why Keep a Journal

May 26th, 2014 by

Writing in a journal might seem the pastime of a bygone era. Mention it and we picture someone with a dreamy look and a sketch pad in a meadow under a partly cloudy sky in the 19th century. Why write things down every other day or so when our friends post six times a day through social networks what they had for meals and who they are spending time with? Why write when we have the photos and the “like” icon? Surely with so many camera phones, our era is being well documented already.

I will admit to being a bit out of time on this. Off and on, probably more off than I’d like, I’ve been writing things down in various notebooks since 1975, after my first creative writing course, where it was required. I’ve never kept flowery notebooks or little lined books with lockets. But I do have various notebooks lying around now that catch different periods in my evolving penmanship, though penmanship has never been the point. Neither has the point been some narcissistic belief in the importance of my own autobiography.

My journal has always been all about writing.

Writing is the Point
I’ve written down stray conversations after I’ve heard them, trying to capture how people talk—how humor works, how we try to evade issues and protect ourselves psychically. I’ve written down stray thoughts. I’ve tried to capture people I’ve known and characterize where and how I am living at the time I’m writing. I’ve tried to capture my gravest concerns at different times, and I’ve found it instructive that these have often turned out not to be grave after all.

I’ve written my responses to my reading and quoted passages and imitated the style of writers I’ve admired. I’ve tried to render in words what I’ve seen. I’ve recorded my dreams. Some of these have wound up in stories or essays. Most don’t. In one journal, a dream of a hamburger is followed by an elaborately symbolic dream with a running narrative.

And I’ve captured friends and acquaintances—some of them I no longer remember thirty-one years later. For example, who was Sally, who in 1983 told me I should just relax about the job market because, after all, employers should understand that I was a writer? She was trying to convince me to travel more as we walked her dog.

That last one was a learning experience. It reads today like a conversation that someone else had. What kind of dog did she have? Where were we walking? What did she look like? I realize now that I didn’t say enough about this person so that I could remember her, and this tied back to writing fiction. I began to wonder, am I writing memorable characters who stand out as more than stick figures delivering lines of dialogue?

Wasting Time?
When I consider the time I waste on my computer posting on social networks, it seems to me a small discipline to spare a few moments every few days to jot things down. For my writing or for contemplation, I’ve used these moments I would have otherwise forgotten except that they are captured in all of their strangeness because I bothered to jot down everything I remembered. This includes one of the last conversations I was privileged to have with my father before his health got bad. I didn’t know this was going to happen to him as I began to write, though I might have had a sense of it.

These are just a few of the good reasons I’ve found for keeping a journal. They all have to do not with constructing an autobiography, but with developing as a writer.

Teachers today generally don’t require journals, though some, who are writers themselves, recognize the importance of them. They know that keeping a regular journal means writing in a place where the writer will not be graded or judged, and this can help students to become fluent. I agree that this is a benefit of journal writing. And so is the connection between word and life. Rendering ourselves into language is a challenge, and writing in a journal is the first best place to begin that process.

Posted in Uncategorized| 6 Comments


Comment by Denise J. Hughes on May 26, 2014 at 5:18 pm

“Rendering ourselves into language is a challenge, and writing in a journal is the first best place to begin that process.”

This is so true.

You’ve articulated and shown by example some of the finest reasons for keeping a journal. Thank you for sharing.

Comment by Emily Griesinger on May 26, 2014 at 5:29 pm

I agree. We can also use journal writing to record and reflect on Scripture, jot down prayerful musings about or directly addressed to God, and just think, whine, and grumble. Sometimes I incorporate stick drawings, snippets of hymns, and quotes from whatever novel or poem or essay I’m teaching.

Let’s hear it for JOURNAL WRITING!

Comment by Katie Manning on May 26, 2014 at 8:42 pm

Thanks for sharing this, Tom. I remember hearing Charles Simic talk about journal keeping at AWP a few years ago, and he shared some excerpts from old journals. I’ve also kept some sort of journal since I was 8. My younger self wanted to record all of my loves and concerns, but I shifted in college to recording things that I thought could be interesting fuel for poetry, and that’s the sort of journal I still keep–dreams, snippets of conversation, responses to visual art, and other random ideas.

Comment by Tom on May 27, 2014 at 4:19 pm

Denise, thanks for your comment. I don’t know how many writers have kept journals–many, I suspect.

Emily, the spiritual benefits of keeping a journal, for me, have been many. Thanks for that reminder.

Katie, it sounds like you were a natural even at 8. I haven’t heard Charles Simic on journal writing, but I have appreciated his work, and I could see how journal writing might support his work.

Comment by Maria Mayer on May 28, 2014 at 1:44 pm

Thanks for these thoughts you share with us, Tom; I have a doubt, though, whether for me it would work to have such a journal because what I do in Google is post a variety of spontaneous and non- important things about my day: a comment of the news, a funny video, a response from a friend, an excerpt from a work I discussed in my Mexican Literature class today. If I were to write a journal about my daily thingies, I would become deliberate, a deliberate “writer”, self-conscious, prepared. What value would that have? and for whom?

Comment by Tom on May 28, 2014 at 1:48 pm

Maria, it sounds as though your “googling” is similar to what I do when I write in my journal. I also found myself being deliberate and self-conscious when writing in a journal, but I’ve learned to do this as a kind of rehearsal also. I think that your “deliberate, self-conscious, prepared” work would have great value to many people. Anyway, I have benefited from hearing your presentations in the past. Thank you for this doubt you’ve expressed.

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