The Magic of Keeping a Journal

Recently, a request for volunteers to decorate personal journals caught my eye. The organization requesting help—The Family Partnership—says journaling is helpful to their counseling clients. I’ve kept a personal journal off and on since I was a teenager, and it certainly improves my mental health. Journaling also provides useful material for my writing projects.

Writers are always advised to keep journals. In high school, when I first realized I wanted to be a writer, I drafted poems and stories in spiral-bound stenographer’s notebooks. In graduate school, I made notes about some of the encounters I had as an ER clerk.

One of my early journals

One of my early journals

From the beginning, my journals also included impassioned blurts—here’s what’s bothering me and why. Finding words for my surging feelings made them concrete and more manageable. The process of writing calmed me. Often I felt like, “There. Now I understand what upset me and I feel better, so I can move on.” I thought the insights might be useful someday. If I ever feel so concerned about XYZ again, I can return to this hard-won insight and get feeling better, faster.

That’s funny now. I’m never going to be 19 again. Why would I need to look up the entry about fighting with my parents?

 

The journals became historical as well as therapeutic.

Journaling reminds me about how I got to this place in life, and that’s useful. I’m not still a heartbroken 24-year-old graduate student or an overwhelmed 34-year-old mother. Seeing that I’ve grown and changed is reassuring. I do figure things out. Things do get better.

Asking why and wondering about the meaning of certain events, comes naturally to me and is central to the essays, memoirs, and blogs that I write. I’m making sense of the big world as well as my own world.

A friend hand made this journal, which I used while teaching at UMM

A friend hand made this journal, which I used while teaching at UMM

When I was in my late 30’s and early 40’s, I began writing essays and memoir in earnest. Then the old journals offered valuable documentation about what happened when I was 24 or 27 and what I thought of it.

Rereading passages from old journals can be cringe-inducing. When skimming old journals, I understand why some people view them as the height of self-involved navel-gazing. Who is that whiny awful person? But that’s the magic of keeping a journal—within its pages, I can be my worst self on my worst day and spare the rest of the world a lot of my angst, anger, depression, and tedious analysis.

That’s also the danger of keeping a journal. The words and feelings included there would necessarily be taken out of context by anyone reading them. I journal when I’m confused or distressed. Good times don’t require explanation and analysis. I want to keep the journals for my use, but at some point I will need to get rid of them, since I won’t always be around to say, “I was having a bad day when I wrote that. I don’t still think that.”

My recent journals are much smaller-- 5x7, in this case

My recent journals are much smaller– 5×7, in this case

But the writer and philosopher in me resists. I’ve been writing about my life for 20 years. There might be some good material in there. I hate to dump it now!

If you keep a journal, how do you use it? Will you get rid of them at some point?

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“Is there anything about me in here?”

Crystel

Crystel

“Is there anything about me in here?” Crystel said with a hint of despair in her voice.

“Yes,” I answered. “There’s a sentence. Keep reading.”

She was skimming my recent blog about our 3-legged cat.

“This story is mostly about Antonio,” I added.

“Grrrrrr,” she responded.

I laughed. “Do you want the next blog to be all about you?”

“Yes,” she said emphatically.

Writers often worry about writing about their kids online. Using them for fodder when crafting a story. Much is written about the ethical implications of mothers writing about their kids and the online privacy of children. Mothers don’t want to betray their children.

I’ve had a different experience with Antonio and Crystel, both now thirteen years old. My children want to be seen, noticed, and heard. They want to be important enough to be blog material. They would feel betrayed if I didn’t include them in my writing life.

Crystel helping me with squad maintenance checks.

Crystel helping me with squad maintenance checks.

From time to time, I get squeamish blogging about my children. Not because of what my kids might think but what other writers might. Mothers should protect their children, not exploit them for media attention. Sometimes, I feel tempted to add an aside to blogs and tell the reader that my children have read and approved of the story and photos. I don’t do that. Another voice emerges in my head, a much louder voice. That it’s my business what I write and readers have a choice whether or not to read my material. I won’t be silenced as I was when I was a child.

If the blog is about them, Antonio and Crystel know the contents before I even start drafting the blog.  Before it’s published they’ve read the article and seen the photos. They might ask me to change a line or to take a sentence out or to use a different photo. Most often the blog is published as is with their approval.

There are benefits to having a mother who will blog about you. Last week, Crystel was finishing a class project for her Language Arts class – a 3 panel brochure – that needed to include pictures of herself when she asked, “Do you have any photos of me?”

In the trunk of squad cars there are stuffed animals for children. Crystel is picking one of her monster dolls to add for a give-away.

In the trunk of squad cars there are stuffed animals for children. Crystel is picking one of her monster dolls to add for a give-away.

Antonio answered her, “Just Google yourself. I put a picture of me and my birth mom Rosa on mine.” He looked at me and explained. “That was the most recent picture I could find online.”

Crystel was positively gleeful. “You’re right.”

Crystel’s desire to be a part of my writing life isn’t limited to the WordSisters blog.

She visualizes herself sitting next to me signing copies of House of Fire, my yet to be published manuscript.

House of Fire shows that thirty years of breaking free from a cycle of silence and betrayal was not enough to prepare me for the trials of starting my own healthy family.

Jody and I have worked hard to create a home of love, safety, and joy where no one gets silenced.

Crystel’s been practicing her autograph. I’ll be so proud to have her next to me. Both of us will be seen, noticed, and heard.

Her only complaint about this blog – “It doesn’t have enough pizaaz.”

Well, next time kid.

5 Procrastination Tips Writers Can Really Get Behind With

  1. Read the newspaper thoroughly while eating breakfast. Beside the news, be sure to read the book reviews and the funnies. It’s important to know who’s being published and by whom. And the funnies help you keep your perspective.
  2. Those dishes aren’t doing themselves. Before tackling revisions, better get the dishes out of the way. That food will be congealed and disgusting later.
  3. Don’t be antisocial. It’s been days since you’ve scrolled (and trolled) through Facebook and Twitter. How will you ever build an author’s platform if you don’t keep up?
  4. Pay a few bills. If you leave them, they might get lost among the stacks of How-to Write-More-Effectively books you haven’t finished.
  5. 15 minutes isn’t enough time to do anything. Better to start fresh tomorrow. Whoa! Where’d the time go?

Do you have any tips for how to be a better procrastinator?

Grammar Insecurity Is Alive and Well

While visiting with my former neighbors, one of them asked me to explain how to use semicolons. As a writer and former writing teacher, I’ve got that one covered. However, her question opened the floodgates. It turns out that the majority of these smart, well-educated people harbor a secret fear of embarrassing themselves, because they aren’t well versed in some fine point of grammar, punctuation, or word choice.

How does grammar insecurity get started?

I picture some picky 7th grade English teacher or stern editor shaming writers so they feel incompetent. I’m not immune to that fear either—people expect more of you when you write for a living. Although I like correct grammar, punctuation, spelling, and word choice, I’m philosophical about the inevitable errors.

Screen Shot 2015-08-05 at 10.05.02 PMHere’s a secret—the experts don’t agree on the rules.

For example, the rules about comma use depend on what style is being used. If you’re a journalist who follows the Associated Press Stylebook, you omit the comma before “and” when punctuating a list or series. But if you’re an English teacher who teaches the Modern Language Association Style Guide or a journalist taught to follow the Chicago Manual of Style, you would use the serial comma (also known as the Oxford comma). No wonder people get confused about commas!

I’m a big fan of the Oxford comma. This example from Captain Grammar Pants illustrates why I prefer it:

This book is dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand and God.

(It’s unlikely the author meant that his or her parents are Ayn Rand and God,                          but without a comma after Rand, the meaning isn’t clear.)

This book is dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand, and God.

(Better! Now all I’m wondering about is why the author is enamored of Any Rand . . .)

The next example isn’t about serial commas, but it’s too much fun to resist:

Let’s eat Grandma!

(How’d Grandma get on the menu?!?)

Let’s eat, Grandma!

(Oh, thank goodness—she’s just being called to dinner.)

The Comma Queen at The New Yorker provides even more insights about commas.

Even when the experts agree on the rules, the rules change. Languages evolve over time.

When I was in grade school, I’d get marked down for splitting an infinitive (the “to be” form of the verb):

To boldly go (OMG—a split infinitive!)

To go boldly (This version keeps both parts of the verb together but it sounds stupid.)

These days few editors concern themselves with split infinitives. English has evolved. Old English turned into Middle English, which gave way to Shakespearean English and was eventually followed by Contemporary English. When was the last time you used “cozening” when you meant “cheating” (Shakespearean English) or “anon” when you meant “soon” (Old English)?

Sharp-eyed readers may notice several errors in this blog. Yeah, I know. I was just testing you!

A Fool’s Errand or a Worthy Risk?

I just submitted my memoir manuscript to a publisher. I sweated over every word of the query. I drafted the synopsis and revised it and revised it again so the narrator’s growth was woven into the plot. I fussed over the manuscript sample to make sure it was tight and engaging.

I believe in my book. If I didn’t think it was worthy, I wouldn’t have spent more than 10 years on it.

But as I read and reread my handiwork, doubt crept in. I thought, “Am I wasting my time? Will this book even appeal to the publisher?” I sent it off anyhow.

Next, I polished and fussed with my entry for a writing contest.

Once again, I was assailed by the same suspicion that this is a fool’s errand. I’ve entered that contest half a dozen times and haven’t won yet. Will this year be any different?

Some stubborn, optimistic part of me persists.

While working on these submissions, I countered my doubts with platitudes like, “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t try.”

Then I questioned the platitudes. It’s ingrained in the American psyche to believe that you’ll succeed if you try hard enough. That isn’t always true. Sometimes you fail anyhow. Then you have to live with the failure and wonder if it’s your fault because you didn’t try hard enough. Huh?!? What maddening logic.

Americans also love noble failure and tell ourselves, “At least you tried.” That is comforting. Like many Americans, I do believe that it’s better to risk failure than to attempt nothing. Risk is scary, but safety is stifling.

Finally, I come back to Margaret Atwood’s sensible advice: “Writing is work. It’s also gambling. You don’t get a pension plan. Other people can help you a bit, but essentially you’re on your own. Nobody is making you do this: you chose it, so don’t whine.”

I’m going to stop whining. As for the entries? Stay tuned.