Journal and diaries

The City Lit is running a course – Journal inspiration: creative approaches to writing about your life.  I’m one of the participants. I couldn’t resist enrolling on it when I saw the info about it: 

‘There are few activities more meaningful than reflecting on the events of our lives, those we care about and the world we live in. Whether you are journaling to create a keepsake containing your most precious moments, to improve your creative writing or simply want future generations of your family to know about your life experiences, this short course teaches a range of journaling approaches and techniques that will open new avenues of reflection in your life.’

Every morning, immediately after breakfast, I write three pages of a journal.  I’ve done this since 2003 having read Julia Cameron’s book The Artist’s Way in which she recommends writing ‘morning pages’. 

First published in 1996, the book, as the New Yorker reviewer says, ‘can be classified as self-help but is more like common sense. Billed as “A Course in Discovering and Recovering Your Creative Self,” the book is a program designed to help readers reject the devils of self-doubt on their shoulders and pursue creative activity not as a profession but as a form of therapy. At the core of the process is a ritual called “morning pages,” based on the belief that writing out three pages of free-form writing, in longhand, each morning, will unclog one’s mental and emotional channels of all the muck that gets in the way of being happy, productive, and creative. Simple enough.’

I write mine in a Leuchtterm 1917, A5 red, lined notebook each one holds about three months of morning pages.  I now have shelves of them.  I’ve no idea what I will do with them, or if I die having done nothing with them, what my executors will do with them.  I’ve experimented with different notebooks at intervals, as the Leuchtterm ones are expensive, but I find I like their layout and the pocket they have at the back, and the two ribbons for marking pages.   I keep returning to them. 

What they contain is a mish-mash of thoughts, ideas, to-do stuff, parenting of myself (admonishments, praise, irritation, encouragement, etc), recounting and reflection on what’s happening or has just happened, and discussion with myself on who I am and who I want to be – my several roles and identities, quotes I’ve come across.  At roughly weekly intervals I read back and index, in case I want to look for a specific item – often a quote or a ‘what did I say about … ?’.  The index also shows up repeated themes and patterns.  I wonder why I talk so much about running, for example.  

I continue the writing of them because I do find it, a way of unclogging my mental and emotional channels.  I carry the journal with me, and sometimes write it additionally at other times, on the train, or when I’m stuck in my decision making about something or other.  (Running, which I also do, serves a similar purpose, but expressed differently).

I enrolled on the course as I was intrigued by the idea of ‘new avenues of reflection’.  I’ve done two of the six classes so far, and already there are new avenues.  It’s a lovely adventure into reflection using different triggers.  For example, an exercise we did last week was ‘memory mapping’, drawing a map of the street we lived in as a child and then writing a bit about the street.   This simple exercise brought back many memories – one of them about the phone box on the street. 

My mother was insistent that we had skills to survive independently. One of the tasks she gave us (me – aged about 7 and my brother, 5) was to walk down the street by ourselves to the phone box and call her from it.  We clutched the three pennies (each), and dialled, on the rotary dial, the home number we’d memorised, and when she answered we pressed button A.  (This was in the mid-1950s).  First, I did it, to show my brother how, and then he did it.  It was thrilling. Then we walked home, confident we could call our mother if we got into difficulties (and had three pennies to hand).

But the memory also included the big yew tree beside the phone box which bore red sticky berries which we used to squash and wipe the juice on our fingernails to make ‘nail varnish’.  I recently discovered the berries are considered poisonous, but we suffered no ill-effects, I think we knew not to eat them, or use them as lipstick.

The activity also brought into play a class discussion on memory, what it is, how memories change over time, how the same people have different memories of the same event, and so on.   And that’s where journaling and keeping a diary offer insights.   

I also keep a 5-year diary which is simply a very short (5 lines max) record of the day’s activities.  It’s a fairly constant reference source as I try to remember, for example, when we visited York, or what the name of the film was that we saw the week before last.  I’ve kept that for longer that the journal.  My first one is a swish zipped brown leather one that has entries in it from 1970.   

I can’t imagine not keeping both diary and journal – they are now an integral part of my daily life – they take time, but they also save time, they’re a source of reflection on things that enable me to form decisions and make choices, and ponder what is going on with no intention of forming a view, but coming to some kind of understanding – and sometimes a point of view.  Very little is directly about the external political, social world of Covid-19, Ukraine war, or other specific world events.  The journal and diary are much more about my smaller world – my family, the garden, beekeeping, running, things to be grateful for (all of these recurring themes).

Someone sent me an article on diary writing.  Anthony Quinn, the author, lists three reasons for writing a diary, which hold for a journal too. (I think a journal is free-flowing and a diary is a record of events).  First, benefit to one’s mental health – you are writing to yourself as the sole reader. Second, ‘the long perspective of diary-writing furnishes a picture not just of what you did but of who you were. To read diaries of old is to chart the progression of the self – “the varieties of ourselves”, as Penelope Lively puts it – as it changes through time.’  Third, it ‘is as an aide-memoire to your work.’  Certainly, I find all three come into play as I write my journal and my diary.   

Spurred by the course, I’ve just bought another 5-year diary.  This one to record my gardening progress – essentially to become a garden record of what I plant when and how it is progressing.  I wonder if that will become as essential to me as my current journal and diary?

Do you keep a journal or diary, if so, why?  Let me know.

Image: On the Journals of Famous Writers

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