Thursday, August 13, 2015

The Wild Art of Journal Keeping

I've been reading several articles recently about keeping a journal - those who do, those who don't, and the surprising benefits of writing about one's life. As a writer of nonfiction, I am often embarrassed to admit that I spend a fair amount of time writing about myself. Well, not necessarily my SELF but different aspects of my life experiences.

My first diary entry! Jan 17, 1994
I have been writing about my life since as far back as I can remember. My childhood bedroom has a shelf full of journals dating back to 1994, when my mother gifted me my first diary at age 7. My first entry stated the name of my best friend at the time as well as a current crush (Jose with blue "ese"). I also noted my five-year-old sister's boyfriend's name  and a piece of hard news: the Northridge earthquake in L.A.

Since then, my journal entries have waxed and waned. Some journals have dates that skip months, even years. Other notebooks, often when I'm traveling, are thick with scratchy pen ink and mementos, and span just a few weeks. Depending on my life circumstances, entries might be long, drawn out soliloquies about life and love. Or, an entry might be a bullet point list of flowers I've learned to identify or a snippet of conversation overheard at the deli counter.

My journal might never be a completely accurate account of every detail about my life, but if  nothing else, it serves to jog my reflective capabilities. What did I do today? What was significant about my waking, or non-waking, hours? (I keep my journal beside my bed to jot down my dreams first thing in the morning.)

Another reason why I continue to scribble in my journal every night before bed is because it keeps me writing. Even if I'm dead tired, I can still manage to squeeze out a few lines about my day. Usually, what starts as a quick list might turn into a deeper exploration of my friendship with a garden snake, or a growing attachment to my daily bike commute. Later, when I'm writing for "real," I often find myself pawing the pages of my journal, looking for certain passages or reflections. As a memoirist, these notebooks become my primary research later on. Still, when I am writing in my journal today, I can never know what moment might be gold to be in a few years time. Interestingly, it is often the most mundane moments that are most significant.

In Robert Olen Butler's book about writing fiction, From Where You Dream, he writes about using your journal as another way to practice the elements of fiction writing; write in scene, use all the senses, incorporate dialogue. This is another great way that journal writing can inform our "real" writing.

Do you keep a journal? Do you keep a hard notebook or documents filed away on your laptop? Do you write every day or only when something great or terrible happens? Tell me about your journal keeping life!


A small sampling of my journal collection