Why You Should Keep A Journal

January 31, 2016 | By | 3 Replies More

Once upon a time I had tiny children.
And during that same time period I longed to write.
Dishing up Cheerios and worrying about Word Counts aren’t a happy mix and I knew where my priorities lay; happy children would be a better contribution to the world than my words could ever be.

So, I figured out a way to blend my passion for my kids with my passion for writing. In 1989 I decided that I would keep a daily log so that when the three of them grew into adulthood they could see how things were. It has occurred to me since that if I should one day find myself in a retirement home and still have eyesight I might like to read these journals and relive my past. Perhaps it will make my heart smile. Anais Nin, the French-born diarist of Cuban parentage, said “We write to live life twice.”

I had my eureka moment when I realized that Journal entries would be the ideal way to have both a keepsake and become a way of polishing any writing skill I may have had.
I made three important decisions about what my journals would be:

1. I decided against buying soft-covered notebooks. There is something about soft covers that scream “This is not serious work; you can throw me out.” I wanted to embue my journals with longevity. I spent good money to buy hardcovered solid ones at a stationer’s. I’d fill one up and then go to buy another. Depending on how often I wrote an entry a journal could last me for a year or more or even less, depending on my own diligence.

2. There was something else too that I knew I didn’t want to do. I did not want my journals to read like this: “Got up at 6. Two loads laundry. Walked the dog. Stew in crockpot. Picked up the kids from school. Dinner. Homework. Bed.”
No. I’d have none of that. I knew enough even back then to know that each day is filled with so much more than the mundane and that would be my objective; to make our daily lives sing new songs.

Like the novels of Barbara Pym, Honore de Balzac, Edith Wharton et al I’d become a keen observer of what was going on behind the scenes, of the nuances that stood offside the obvious, and then I’d enhance the mundane.
I once had the opportunity to interview a contemporary British novelist whose privacy I will keep. She told me that her scenes take on real life because of her ability to observe. She said that if she was invited to dinner she’d take a trip down the hall to the loo so she could peek in opened doors, observe colours, furnishings, new ideas.

She’d use this new information to recreate in her novels the lives lived in each room. Who was the young woman whose bedroom was bedecked with horseshow ribbons? Whose bookshelves were stocked with the tales of Narnia? These new scenes tripped the switch of her imaginings and added reality to her writing.

So me too. I’d use my journals to enhance the everyday. If I wanted to talk about the laundry then I determined I’d write that “the red-blue stripes and the colourful checks of the socks tumbled overtop of one another in the washer like unwanted thoughts in the dark of night.” That is how I’d train my writer’s voice.

Here’s an example. This one I wrote on August 28th, 1997. It was just an ordinary Sunday morning at church. At least I could have written it that way. But his is how I trained my writerly–self to record it:

“ An elderly frail woman who is not much larger than a sparrow fainted in church today and it caused great commotion which in turn generated some excitement amidst the Te Deum. She’s done this before and I suspect it’s got something to do with her medication being wrong. One of the parishioners suggested that “perhaps it’s all this popping up and down that we Anglicans do” but I doubt that. She just kind of crumples now and again and she and her little red suit end up in a heap and we all come running. And this was in the middle of a Christening and the baby screamed and the people were attending to Mrs. So-And-So and it was all a bit of a mess. She came to eventually and the baby settled. All in all it was a wonderful sideshow.”

3. The third thing I promised myself was that I would never use the names of people in a derogatory fashion. If somebody had annoyed me, I’d talk around the situation and work my feelings through on paper but the culprit would go nameless. If it helped anyone else who might read it down the road all the better, but I didn’t want to be dragging friends and family through the dust.

And here we are now, in 2016. That makes twenty-seven years worth of journals. Some are stacked in a huge plastic box, some on a bookshelf and the one I’m working on now sits in a drawer near my armchair. There are to date twenty-five of them. I’m soon to begin a new one. I’ve told my kids they can auction off the furniture when I’m no longer walking the earth but puleeeze don’t ditch the journals.

I love reading diaries of diplomats and writers. I love knowing how they thought and how they worked things out. Historical journals are loaded with records of long ago, like those left behind by the British Canadian Pioneer sisters Susanna Moodie and Catherine Parr Traill. And I too I have unwittingly written my life and the lives of those I love. You could look at it as a sociological study of the era.
There are stories of much loved grandparents wearing their paper hats at Christmas dinner.

And there are also pages dedicated to our goodbyes to those same dear ones. The children’s highschool years are detailed, their driving lessons, successes and failures, the rock bands the boys joined, the universities they all chose. There are tales of new work challenges for both myself and my husband. The marriages of all three kids are recorded there and the joyous births of our sweet grandchildren.

TS Eliot said in his Four Quartets, “At the still point, there the dance is.”

Writing down your life helps you to locate that still point.

And the dance.

DSC03140Judy Pollard Smith writes from Hamilton Ontario. Her book “Don’t Call Me Lady, The Journey of Lady Alice Seeley Harris” is available through order at your favourite bookstore, online at Amazon, or through Abbott Press, either in hard copy or e-reader.

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Category: Contemporary Women Writers, How To and Tips

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  1. Patsy Trench says:

    Very nicely put. I wish I’d been so thoughtful with my diaries. They’re like bad versions of Brigid Jones. As a family historian (and writer of a novel based on a secret diary) diaries are like gold dust, but unfortunately I’m going to have to burn/shred/nuke mine before I die. But they are a fascinating reminder of one’s ridiculous youth.

  2. Very timely Judy – I’ve just found a hardback, lined notebook tucked away for the ‘next journal’ I would start. That was four years ago. I was a dedicated ‘journalist’ until a near career got in the way. Your post as reconfirmed that I need to start again even for all the reasons you mentioned. Thanks! Jeannie

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