I am doing a lot of journal writing these days. In this world of relentless self -presentation, where we state our opinions, position ourselves, and pose for pictures in those positions, the idea of self-expression for an audience of none can seem a paltry return on your investment of thought. Imagine. Only one hit – you. But that’s what journal writing is about and I am recommending it as a way to improve your life and change the world.
When I was a child these things happened: my aunt’s sailor boyfriend sent me a hula skirt from Hawaii, and a week later my aunt took it back and told me not to speak his name; my grandfather died and my mother covered the mirrors with sheets; one day I heard the word “Scarletina” and by nightfall I had the disease itself. When my fever broke, my father brought me five sharp pencils and a marble notebook (you know the kind) with space for my name and class on the cardboard cover. In it I put my address, phone number, height, weight, age, color of hair and any other quantifying bits of information I could think of, as well as the hula skirt, my aunt and her ex, the draped mirrors, the Scarletina. My first journal.
When the ifs and ors of life won’t let me sleep, I drop them into my bedside journal and then, confident that it is all there, safe until tomorrow, I can close my eyes. Or when I am in a bind and can’t see a way out, I brainstorm in my journal, corralling facts and detailing emotions. Even the unthinkable, when written out, is not as bad as it is when it is floating around in my head. I often discover my solution written in my own words. Did I mean that? Did I actually say that? Oh, I see! Literally.
Journal writing can teach about the workings of your own mind. For instance, I have learned how consistent I am in my prejudices. If I open a journal from 1981, I am likely to see myself complaining about the same things I complained about yesterday; my worries, updated to new circumstances, are the same. It is maddening/comforting to see that I yam what I yam.
Not all journals are the same. They are always and only what you want and need them to be. Memory book, travel book, worry book, sleep book. As a writer, I jot ideas and play with language. When I travel, it is my substitute for snapping photos. I write in the morning after I walk the dog, and in the evening if the day’s events need to be decanted before they spill over into my sleep. I write while the plane circles, in hospitals, and doctors’ offices; I write when the weird man on the bus breaks into song and I don’t know if it going to end up a comedy or a tragedy. I write to remind myself to do things.
Why am I recommending journal writing to you, and why now?
Because the world is fraught with trouble, everywhere we look. And while social media give the illusion that we are not bearing it alone, it comes at a price: the relentless sharing of every thought encourages a kind of group-think. Consumed by belonging to one group or another, how many of us can say for sure what our private thoughts – unprovoked or suggested by something someone else said –really are? it’s as if we have gotten out of practice with being by ourselves. Imagine writing in your journal, your private thoughts for an audience of none. It can change your life, and maybe the world.