Journaling along

  • journals

    As I write this at my desk, there are two crates next to me with a sheet thrown over the top. This curious structure is an occasional lie-down place for Senator the Cat, who grudgingly concedes that he can’t share desk-space. But it’s not the makeshift construction that gives me twinges of guilt — doesn’t everyone’s house have at least one odd thing in it? It’s what’s IN the crates — journals. I used to try to find shelf space for them but I ran out. I used to have them in a closet, but they outgrew that as well. Two crates full of journals, and I am writing pages more every day. I really have some guilt about that — how much can I possibly have to say about my moods, thoughts, speculations, theories, plans, dreams? Isn’t it just ridiculous to need to journal every morning before you can start the day?

    I felt a lot better after reading author Madeleine L’Engle on the subject. The book is “Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art.” I loved her book “A Wrinkle in Time” when I was a kid, and was very excited to find that she is Orthodox. But more to the point, re: journaling — she’s a REAL writer, an honest-to-goodness writer, whereas I am only a writer in the most generous sense of the word. So when she writes that she has to journal, it carries some weight.

    A help to me in working things out has been to keep an honest — as honest as the human being can be — unpublishable journal. Granted, much of my non-fiction work is lifted directly from my journals, but what I use is only a small fraction of these numerous, bulky volumes. If I can write things out, I can see them, and they are not trapped within my own subjectivity. I have been keeping these notebooks of thoughts and questions and sometimes just garbage (which needs to be dumped somewhere) since I was about nine, and they are, I think, my free psychiatrist’s couch.

    The problem of my percentages

    journaling_pull quoteThat is just how it feels. I have told Greg before, I am fairly certain that 80% of what I’m writing is nonsense – just drivel that sounded profound over a morning pot of tea, or stuff that was bursting to come out even though I knew it was pointless. About another 15% are things that are immediately useful; 3% turn out to be useful later. And 2% is some Pure Truth, or as close to it as I can stand. The point is, if I knew what part of the total morning entry was that perfect 2%, I would just jot that down and have more time in my day. But somehow, I have to go through the other 98% to get to the 2%.

    And similarly, I can make a case to myself that journaling is narcissistic, self-important time-wasting (a lot like blogging, now that I come to think of it). But it’s not just that — there is some benefit to its self-analysis and the ordering of thoughts and impressions. It turns out that my oldest sister Joan finds that to be true for her as well, which surprised me because she is an accomplished research scientist and incredibly self-disciplined. I knew that all three sisters in my family journal every day, but I assumed that hers would be hard, lean things bereft of any wasted words. But she says that she will take many, many pages going over some personal problem, feel at great length that she may have solved it, and then find out to her chagrin that it’s the same problem with the same solution that she might have solved one or two journals ago.

    So why spend so much time on a process that has so little efficiency in it. For me, it’s just a grim matter of pragmatism. I really need this activity, even if it is a crutch, and an inefficient one at that. Like Madeleine L’Engle, I feel like it’s one of the things that keeps me off medications and out of rubber rooms. I should be able to maintain equilibrium without it. But why lie to myself? I don’t seem to be able to do that work without the action of writing, and after trying unsuccessfully, I have just given up and gotten used to the idea of filling up crates until I die.

    I think I just mention it in case anyone ever reads a story in the paper of a woman in Las Vegas who suffocated when her cat jumped off a stack of crates and pushed them over onto her. That will probably be me.


3 Responses and Counting...

  • Photini 05.06.2014

    Funny. All my life I have wanted to write. All. My. Life. But I also have been afraid to have my deepest thoughts read by the world. I think that I got that somehow from my mother without even realizing it. She was loath to write letters. The entire time I was in college, she never wrote letter to me – sent packages, but didn't write. Daddy would write the note that was in the package. I know she wrote – infrequently – to her mother and a brother in the Marines (he was a veteran of WWII, Korea, and Viet Nam). And she wrote to my father daily when she spent 6 weeks visiting me whe I lived in Europe. But rarely to anyone else. A sister who is 13 years older than I told me after her death that she was fearful that others might read what she had written. I must have developed that fear by osmosis.

    And yet I LONG to write. So I spend my time taking notes of everything I hear. I CANNOT sit and listen to a sermon or lecture without a pen in my hand. I have notebook upon notebook of retreats, sermons, lectures. I even have pen and paper when I watch TV to write down a particularly good line from a program. Every now and then I look at them and know that I will never ever look at them again and yet I can't seem to part with them. (I have managed to have, when I was in my mid 30's, 2 non-fiction magazine articles published for which I was paid!)

    I have tried to keep a journal, but most times I was able to write for a week, maybe two before collapsing in exhaustion from revealing my thoughts. The only time it worked was during Desert Storm. Then I kept not one, but two journals. One was the basic: this happened, that happened. The second was all that went behind the first. I somehow knew that there would come a time when I would look at the first and think I behaved badly – how could I have said/done those things? The second allowed me to see that at that moment, it was the proper response to the situation. That was 13 years ago. I have been ale to dispose of both. I am comfortable in my actions at that time and have no need to "relive" them anymore.

    There is something about the exercise of handwriting that I find calming. So I am currently filling a notebook with my handwritten copy of various Bible verses. I know I should just copy something in entirety – like the book of Psalms. Maybe that will be my next project when this notebook is filled. But these I needn't worry about anyone reading my innermost thoughts and they are easily parted with as the information contained is available anywhere.

    Lists. That is my real area of expertise. I am a great list maker. And not at all fearful of someone reading it.

  • Wow, so many good points that I don't know where to start. I'll take refuge in bullet-pointing, but if you're an inveterate list-maker, you probably won't mind:

    Writing by hand — big-time. I have to write longhand — blogging is the best I can do with online writing, but it has a whole different feel, and I worry about carpal tunnel enough already.
    Privacy — That's another reason I think I can't journal at a computer. There is only one physical copy of these stupid journals, and I'm not worried that some hacker creep living in his basement is going to steal them and put them on the internet. Of course, there is the chance that someone I'm talking about might read them. But I'm willing to accept that possibility in exchange for some personal honesty and occasional venting.
    Re-reading — I almost never read what I've written. My sister makes an annual occasion of re-reading the year's journals, but I don't. It's the act of getting it down that provides the benefits — reading later either has no effect or else it bums me out.

    So I think my best-case scenario with the journals is that toward the end of my life (whenever that is), I am informed that I have two weeks to live. I sit down and read all the journals. And then, most likely, I burn them. As I said, I'm almost certain that 98% of what's in them is crap — no point in leaving my loved ones with that much excrement to deal with.

  • Have you ever read "A Severe Mercy" by Sheldon Vanauken? It is a love story and the road this couple traveled to Christianity and facing death. Magnificent book which I recommend without reservation. The thing that brought it to mind is that they journal and when Davy is dying, then in remission, they reread them all and relive their lives together. I stumbled upon this book in 1984. Four years later I had lost both my parents and a favorite uncle. This book prepared me for the grieving process.

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