On Journaling

Photo by Puuikibeach

Photo by Puuikibeach

My daughter got me a snazzy new journal recently. Its designers cleverly titled it “My Dysfunctions,” and its funky yellow cover carries further explanation (less we be unable to figure out what it’s for!): “A journal for chronicling my immeasurably fascinating dysfunctions, neuroses, emotions, inner children, moments of shame and doubt, projection, self-loathing, misanthropy, and completely normal insanity, because the only difference between me and the rest of the population is that I acknowledge how crazy I am and they’re all in mind-numbing denial.” Hilarious and so apt!

While I’ve always wanted to create the kind of journals or diaries you can pass on to loved ones after you die (You know the kind I mean—leather bound beauties, filled with perfectly formed lines, a.k.a. legible ones, that share deep thoughts and entertaining tidbits that somehow manage to speak of the “human experience.”), one only has to flip one or two pages into my scrawls to realize my actual journals are the furthest thing from those daydream ones.

They’re completely random, messy, meandering things—half rant, half . . . boring.

Entries are inconsistent blurts of this and that. I do record small stories about my days, but more often I just vent—journaling to get things out of my system and process (deal with!) things that are going on around me-and/or in my head. And all that’s very valuable—just not something you want your family to stumble upon when you’re gone.

Or maybe it is.

I have a couple of my mom’s old notebooks. I was thrilled when my dad gifted them to me. But then I read them. And was . . . disappointed.

Only the beginning few pages in each were filled out. And there wasn’t a personal vignette to be found.

They were sermon notes. Now don’t get me wrong. I respect (and share) my mother’s faith. And I know the value of note taking—how it aids comprehension and retention. But there was nothing of her in the notes.

I poured over each page, hoping for a tiny visit—a whisper of her voice, her opinion, her humour, her angst, her . . . anything. I’d thought there might be snippets about my little toddler brother, tales about her and my dad, thoughts on parenting . . .

But these were not that type of journal.

What her journals aren’t, however, makes me think mine are okay. Maybe more than okay.

What if I’d read some never-before-guessed secret in my mom’s notebooks? I’d have been delighted, intrigued, curious, not incensed. What if I read her no holds barred inner response to a fight she and my dad—or she and I—had had? Would I be devastated? No. I’d grow from it, learn from it . . . And what if I read about unfulfilled dreams or came across scribblings about things she’d like to do in the future? The words might bring some pain, yes, but mostly they’d bring joy.

We often waste time hiding ourselves—or trying to, anyway. We try to disguise the darker sides of our nature, and strive to avoid what we perceive as “burdening” to others—the sharing of any sorrows, or questions, or doubts. Journaling should be an attempt to bust through that self-censor. A fight against the lonely notion that we can’t—or shouldn’t—say what we honestly feel and think, lest we offend, lest we unintentionally wound, lest people, really knowing us, cease to like us.

I’ve read extremely personal things taken from miscellaneous journals, and I’ve never thought less of the author—just the opposite usually. Uncensored details or observations about love, hate, confusion, beauty, ugliness, relationships—heck, about tea and simple pleasures, make me think, Ah, so that’s what it’s like to be him. To be her. And, perhaps ironically, help me understand myself better.

Someone famous once said something like, “I never worry about what someone might think of my diaries after I’m gone. I’ll be dead.”

Wise words. I wish I could fully embrace them—but the idea of someone reading all my journals makes me cringe. After all, I burnt all my childhood diaries when I was 13. I couldn’t bear the idea of someone perusing me. Sometimes I assure myself that’s what I can do with my spiral bound notebooks, too. But I don’t think I will.

While I can’t imagine anyone ever wanting to wade through my impossibly messy, navel-gazing cycle of snooze-inducing blah-blah-blah, my journals are part of me and I’ve made tenuous peace with them. And if someone does page through them when I’m long gone . . . Well, perhaps I should decorate each one with warning labels, similar to the one on my new yellow journal. . . .

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

“On Journaling” by me, Ev Bishop, was originally published in the Terrace Standard, April 24, 2013 as my monthly column “Just a Thought.”

12 thoughts on “On Journaling

  1. Ev, I’ve journaled since I was 8 years old, now 60. I am amazed by mine and they serve as inspiration while writing.Yes, a lot of it is ho-hum and I can’t imagine anyone else pouring through the pages of 52 books so far. But they are about my growth in faith, inspiring bits, historical bits, and inside thoughts into my character development. I often pull my character development from these pages.

    I’ve recently cataloged my journals so it was easier to find tidbits of gems to make it easier on me. It’s a nonstop view of decades at various ages. Every year since my youngest daughter’s 12th birthday, she received two decorated journal embossed with the year. Yes she writes that much. She includes poems she writes and song lyrics she likes too. She is now almost 30 so the sagas continues. She doesn’t hope to be a published author like her mother. She just does it to practice her writing skills. She is a traumatic brain injury survivor. Never discount the power of a journal.

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  2. I can’t do personal journals. I have this massive fear of being judged. Blogging is hard enough. Attempting to bring me into my blog is a feat, but real, written down honesty? Ooh. No. But, like you, I would like to read those of others. Strange how that works.

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  3. I’m with you. I want to leave something about the real me because even when I found my mom’s recipe box with her childish handwriting, it was amazing to see that part of her. But, when I write them, I don’t write with raw feeling, I write assuming that someday my children may read them, which defeats the purpose. Why is it so hard just to be honest? Interesting isnt’ it?

    I also destroyed my childhood diaries. So sad! I really need them to peek into my 12 year old brain now that I’m writing YA. Dangit!!

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  4. Insightful column! I have felt guilty about not writing stories about my kids in my journals, mostly I write my own emotional process, but I see now that this is a gift to them of who I am (if they ever read it someday.) But mostly I try not to think of who else might read this, because it takes away the privacy, and I need to trust that no one else would read what I write, that it honestly is for me alone. So I understand people who burn their journals. I can’t, or won’t, because I treasure too much the words that came to me during my struggles, they are so beautiful to me because they were gifts of truth. I wonder if someday journals will be the highest art form, like poetry in its own category, because it is a unique situation, a soliloquy on stage or in a drawer, a bag of random assorted thought, a field full of wildflowers.

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  5. I think you got it right. Journals, personal journals, should be “completely random, messy, meandering things—half rant, half . . . ” Catharsis.

    I’m probably ok with yellow books designed to be a record of your perceived dysfunctions. But you can’t really be honest in a finely bound journal labelled “Journal”. That kind of journal is meant for others to read. (Censor, censor.)

    I scrawl my thoughts and feelings on random scraps of paper, bus transfers, sheets of loose-leaf paper in scattered binders. I’ve tossed some of them, buzzed them through the shredder, but I’ve still got quite an assortment of pages (many of which I’ve not reread – yet). They’re for me. I might share some of them. I’ll leave them behind when it’s my time to go. (You’re right. Who cares at that point.) But I don’t think they will mean much to other readers.

    I am also considering turning out a nice, sanitized, finely bound journal.

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  6. Ha! I still have my childhood journals — slim notebooks carefully hidden deep in the bottom of the underwear drawer. I also have a box of colourfully decorated letters written to me by my best friend between the ages of 11-18, after which we went off to university together and were roommates. She has kept a similar box of letters from me. I keep the journals and letters as representations of the young me. I keep them for myself, not others (although from another perspective they constitute a rather interesting sort of qualitative data. But can one ever really see what is interesting about oneself, being so close to the subject?) The letters do help me remember my dear friend as she was when she was a girl, and those memories bring smiles and nostalgia.

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  7. Wow, what a treasure, Jude–the journals AND the letters, especially seeing as you are still friends? I have a box of old letters too–plan to peruse them this fall. 🙂 (Nice to see you again, btw.)

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  8. It really is interesting why it’s hard to be honest . . . even in our own personal journals, A.B. Fascinating, actually . . . Good luck to us both (and NO MORE BURNING OUR PERSONAL WORKS!!! :D)

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  9. Dear Susan,

    I love your attitude towards your personal journals: “because I treasure too much the words that came to me during my struggles, they are so beautiful to me because they were gifts of truth.” That’s a very powerful way to look at words that come out of pain or anger.

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  10. Dear Vello,

    I think your right–there’s a huge difference between an official, labeled “Journal” and the kind of journaling that’s most helpful (scribbled wherever the mood/need hits).

    I related a lot to your comment, “I scrawl my thoughts and feelings on random scraps of paper, bus transfers, sheets of loose-leaf paper in scattered binders. I’ve tossed some of them, buzzed them through the shredder, but I’ve still got quite an assortment of pages (many of which I’ve not reread – yet). They’re for me. I might share some of them. I’ll leave them behind when it’s my time to go. (You’re right. Who cares at that point.) But I don’t think they will mean much to other readers.”

    I don’t think my rantings will mean much to others, either! 🙂

    And I’d love for you to write–even publish–a “sanitized” journal. Your blog comes to mind. Excellent fodder for deep thinking _and_ fun.

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  11. Jo! I can’t believe you visited and commented and I didn’t respond right away. Got a bit busy this summer. Thank you for stopping by.

    I love that you have a book for each year since you started journaling when you were eight. What an amazing accomplishment (and record)! I also love that you use yourself for some of your characters–and admit it, lol. 🙂

    I’m curious about how you catalogued your journals, and can see a lot of value in doing so. I may ask you further questions about _how_ to do so at some point.

    And your daughter does _two_ journals per year. I think I need to be more diligent!

    “Never discount the power of a journal.” — I won’t. Thank you.

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  12. Dear Rebecca,

    >>>I can’t do personal journals. I have this massive fear of being judged. Blogging is hard enough. Attempting to bring me into my blog is a feat, but real, written down honesty? Ooh. No. But, like you, I would like to read those of others. Strange how that works. <<<

    LOL–and oh, dear . . . I relate, but I also think it's so important to bust down those walls of fear. Have you ever considered doing a personal challenge, maybe 3 mths or 6 mths, or whatever, of no holds barred personal journaling (You can hide the book, lock it away, whatever you need to do to commit to total honesty) and see if it yields any surprising fruits or changes for you.

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