The wall of notebooks was the sexiest place in the bookstore. I would stand before it, searching for just the right one that might be perfect for recording all of my brilliant thoughts. When I found the one—often the one was both beautiful and pricey—I would take it home, set it in a conspicuous place, and wait for inspiration to strike. I’d mean to write in it, and sometimes I would for a day or two before it would peter off like so many well-laid plans. Months later I would try again with another notebook, one that seduced me with its promise of a second chance, or a third or fourth. This happened a lot. Journal keeping never really stuck.
That is, until the beginning of 2010, the year of jounaling fearlessly.
The trouble I always had with journaling arose from two things: perfectionism and navel gazing. My particular brand of perfectionism dictated that I always write in my best handwriting, in perfectly straight lines, and in perfectly correct English. Especially in a fancy notebook, the contents would have to match the container and the fear that I wasn’t good enough or smart enough or fancy enough always loomed over me. I had admired a roommate in college who unapologetically scribbled into her journal. I asked her if she ever felt like she had to get it right before she put the words on paper to which she said matter-of-factly, no. I was confounded.
Navel gazing, the other problem I had with journaling, had less to do with personal hang-ups than simply becoming bored with the daily goings-on that often seemed too tedious to warrant recording. Perhaps my future self would like to read about all the things I did (and to an extent I think this more and more true), but the process of getting these things down on the page seemed both self-important and dull.
Earlier this year, a friend had written on her blog about keeping a homemaking notebook, a place where she could collect quotes, daily activities, ideas, and to-do lists. It was mostly a commonplace book, not a place to record deep thoughts, not a place that would require a lock and key. In spite of being journaling averse, I was still attracted to keeping a journal, and I liked my friend’s low-key approach. Armed with a gift card from Christmas, I went to the bookstore. I bought a large hardbound sketchbook, light blue with birds perched on the front. I took it home, dated the first page, and wrote two quotes I had scribbled on scraps of paper from a book I had just finished reading. I drew a few flowers in the corner. I promised myself I would write again the next day. Then I did.
This time was different from all my previous unsuccessful attempts. This time I allowed myself to be disorderly, to rebel against that terrible beast of perfectionism. And I allowed myself to not have to write about me. I purposely set out to only keep track of quotes I came across and lists of things to do. That didn’t last long. Five pages in I wrote a short paragraph trying to make sense of what was happening in my interior life. Several pages later I ended up pouring my heart out, not because I wanted to keep track of those thoughts in a diary I’d later look back on, but because as a writer the way for me to best process things is to write them down, especially when I feel clogged up with what I call mental clutter. Mostly I wrote out passages from books, drew sketches, and made lists of future projects.
This journaling became a daily habit and later in the year I started keeping another journal, one full of what Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Way calls “morning pages.” Simply put, it was a daily three-page brain dump that I kept in a one subject spiral-bound notebook. This journal was, as poet Luci Shaw writes in her essay “The Writer’s Notebook,” a place where I could “[name] the confusion of the mind and heart . . . to make it seem more manageable.” Shaw goes on to say, “Though we are often moving too fast to notice it, there is in each of us a profound need to be still, to be alone, to reflect, to meditate, to contemplate, to wait, to reach a kind of bone-deep honesty with our own souls.” In the midst of keeping two journals I found that bone-deep honesty, not in recounting the moments of my days but by exploring the undercurrents in my daily living, the threads that tied the whole thing together.
I sat down recently and read through both journals. It was scary at first, until I started seeing patterns emerge: wanting to take my writing more seriously, wanting to live a creative life, wanting to find healing and restoration in some of the tender areas of my life. W.H. Auden famously asked, “How can I know what I think until I see what I say?” I have never found that to be truer than I do now. Keeping a journal has become invaluable to me because as Henri Nouwen writes in Reflections on a Theological Education:
“Writing is a process in which we discover what lives in us. The writing itself reveals what is alive. The deepest satisfaction of writing is precisely that it opens up new spaces within us of which we were not aware before we started to write. To write is to embark on a journey whose final destination we do not know.”