A belated happy 2018!
The festive season has come and gone, we’ve picked the discarded Quality Street wrappers from our somewhat ruffled feathers, put the empty Jack Daniels bottles out for recycling, and gotten over the creeping lurgy that seems to have floored so many people in recent weeks. And now, in chilly January (almost February – where did the time go?), we finally have time to take a breath and mull over the year ahead.
We’re pondering big things: the state of sexual politics in a world increasingly fed up with entitled men, the fragility of our planet in the face of climate change and seas of plastic, the ramifications of Brexit, and of course, a second year with the Great Pumpkin in charge of all our fates. But the personal is also political; and a good way to home in on the personal, is to write it down.
Long centuries ago when I was a teenager, whatever else happened over Christmas, I knew I could rely on starting the New Year with a page-a-day diary and a box of Ferrero Rocher from my favourite aunt. This always got a look of disapproval from my mother, who didn’t think I should be encouraged in either eating chocolate or introspection. But it was my introduction to something that’s become one of the linchpins of my life over the years: journaling. So this seems as good a time as any to take an introductory look at what can be, for many people, a valuable spiritual practice.
Journals (from the French jour, a day) and diaries (from the Latin dies, a day) are both much the same thing: a ‘book of days’, in outer events or inner thoughts, usually dated, usually written by hand in a book or series of books. Although, some people’s journals are a looser collection of written material. And you can also keep a journal electronically – which is basically what a blog is – or as sound files.
Published journals offer us insights into other places and times, but the real joy of them is that they’re not dry, straightforward accounts. They give us personal details that mean little to history, but everything to the minds that originated them. Sei Shonagon’s dry, witty descriptions of ‘Elegant things’ and ‘Things that piss me off”. Samuel Pepys’ encoded details of his sexual exploits. Anne Frank’s speculations about whether her feelings for Peter van Pels are really love or just the result of being cooped up hiding from the Nazis together behind a jam factory. Kurt Cobain’s complaints about his mysterious stomach disorder. We don’t just read these things out of a voyeuristic urge. Ultimately, we need to know that people, no matter what their circumstances, are as human – meaning as flawed, complicated and extraordinary – as we are. And in accordance with the first rule of literature – ‘Show, don’t tell’ – we don’t learn that through grand statements, but through the particulars of their lives. God, here as much as anywhere, is in the details.
Fiction writers, of course, also know the power of the form. In Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, we get into the head of Winston Smith, secretly struggling against a brutal regime, by means of his illicit book from Mr Charrington’s junk shop. At the beginning of Dodie Smith’s charming coming-of-age story I Capture the Castle, we get an immediate picture of eccentric, impoverished Cassandra Mortmain sitting with her feet in the kitchen sink, writing her life in a sixpenny notebook the vicar gave her. And the late Sue Townsend gave us the self-penned chronicles of one Adrian Mole – tormented in turn by spots, family life, politics, poetry, his thwarted love for Pandora and the size of his ‘thing’. These people are as real to us as the people we know – perhaps more so – because we get to see inside them.
Keeping a journal yourself gives you a place to deal with your ‘stuff’, outside of your own head. It can be a practice space for creative endeavours, a sounding board for opinions, and a confessional for the things social or personal restrictions won’t let you say or discuss out loud. If you keep one for any length of time, it’ll find its own focus, and it’ll take you into deeper aspects of your psyche than you realise.
First, you need something to write in. Stationers and office supply stores sell dated diaries in various sizes and formats – on sale, this time of year – but an undated blank book will give you more freedom. You can use a larger book at home, but a small one will slip into your bag or pocket. And keeping a journal on your phone or tablet is also an option.
Privacy is important if you’re going to write freely; if you share your space with other people, make it clear that your journal shouldn’t be read without your say-so. Partners, parents or others who object to your having a place for your private thoughts probably have other issues around trust and boundaries that you need to deal with. In the meantime, lock your journal away or keep it in a location where you know it won’t be touched. If it’s electronic, protect it with a secure password – and always, always keep a backup copy!
If your journal is small enough, you can write in it anywhere. But many people find having a particular quiet spot to go to, and some kind of ritual to get them into journal mode – perhaps lighting a candle or putting on some favourite music – helps create a place where they can feel safe to express their feelings. See what works for you.
What do you write? I’ll come back to this in future posts, but there are some basic techniques that you may find useful to kickstart your journaling.
Freewriting. This stream-of-consciousness method is great for getting straight down to the deeper layers of your mind. Without thinking too hard, just start writing whatever’s in your head. Don’t worry about spelling or punctuation – just keep writing. You can set a timer for a set length of time – even five minutes will do at first – and then stop. Freewriting is most effective if you don’t read it immediately; set it aside somewhere and come back to it after a few days or weeks, or even longer. You’ll notice themes and connections you couldn’t have been aware of at the time.
Lists. Most of us have made ‘to do’ lists, lists of New Year resolutions, and in recent years, what have become known as bucket lists (although, I hate that term – does it mean you should be kicking the bucket when you’re done all the things on your list?). But there are lots of other possibilities. Try a gratitude list, list of things you believe, or no longer do, the pros and cons of a course of action you’re planning, your favourite or least favourite things in any category, your fears, things you want to change…
(Of the famous diarists I mentioned earlier, Shonagon is particularly known for her list-making. And if you like this method of dealing with your thoughts, you may want to check out Lisa Nola’s series of Listography books.)
Letters. Many journalers draft letters they intend to actually send, but you can also write to those with no forwarding address: people who are no longer on this earth, God/Goddess/Spirit, your guardian angel, fairy godmother, inner child, muse, imaginary friend, a current or ongoing issue in your life, a body part you’ve had an awkward relationship with, or any other being or entity you choose. You can also try writing their reply.
Dialogue. Rather than a continuous letter, alternate words in a dialogue directly with the chosen recipient. Simply write your question, then their response, then yours, and so on. Act as if, and see what happens.
Quotes. Your journal is a good place to put down anything you hear or read that moves, inspires or intrigues you. Always try to write a few lines, at least, about what it means to you.
Also, if you’re going to try any of the written explorations I offer in this blog, your journal is a good place for them. In future posts, I’ll be offering journal prompts to get you thinking and hopefully, writing. And, as I said, I’ll explore some of the ideas above in more detail. (Using visual art alongside or instead of writing is a whole other subject, and a big one, and I hope to go into that in more detail elsewhere, too.)
You might also find the following books useful, if you want to look into written journaling further;
The New Diary – Tristine Rainer
Journal to the Self – Kathleen Adams
Writing and Being – G. Lynn Nelson
Life’s Companion – Christina Baldwin
The Creative Journal – Lucia Capacchione
I can vouch for all these personally, but if you have any other favourites, please feel free to share them.
While journals can no doubt be Very Serious Business, perhaps the final word on them goes to Gwendolen Fairfax, in Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest:
‘I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read in the train.’
Life may not always be sensational, but take the time to look at the small moments a little more closely, and they can be more significant than you think.