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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