This image is from Unsplash.

A lunch date on September 2, 2019. A class skipped on January 21, 2020. A Zoom meeting on February 17, 2021. 

Years and years, days upon days of experiences compressed into several bullet points on a notes application. Ever since I was young, I’ve found solace in journaling. During my early years of high school, a particularly troubled time in my life, I recall drowning in the judgments of others, allowing the discriminatory attitudes of other people to affect my own identity — to control my narrative. Back then, I relied on the act of expressive writing to help me take back that narrative and rewrite my own story in a way that was constructive, truthful and looked at the whole picture. Fast forward to today, deep into an ongoing global pandemic with no discernible end in sight, the continued act of journaling has sustained me throughout these especially uncertain times.

But what is it about this mere act of what Jose´ van Dijck would describe as “writing the self as mediated memory” that gives way to such productive potential? Evidently, the health benefits of expressive writing are extensive. Van Dijck claims that autobiographical writing allows us to construct “continuity between past and present while keeping an eye on the future.” In other words, we write so we remember, and by remembering we allow ourselves to realize and keep in touch with our true nature. In a study by Daniel L. Schacter and five others on “The Future of Memory,” his group’s findings suggest that a link between “remembering the past and imagining the future” allows us to simulate future events with greater specificity and improves our ability to emotionally regulate. When we have an accurate account of our past experiences — what we’ve done, who we’ve seen, where we’ve been — we’re able to better imagine what our anticipating circumstances will be, even in the face of adversity and uncertainty. The sheer act of writing in a journal reinforces our thought patterns allowing us to develop healthier coping mechanisms.

I’ve personally experienced this myself. Journaling over the years has gradually helped me understand my perspectives towards life and the subtle ways they shift over time. It’s helped me recognize my values, my attitudes and my beliefs frozen in the context of time and place, and prevented me from falling victim to hindsight bias. I look back on past experiences, good and bad, and am able to accept what happened for what it was holistically. Sometimes we feel compelled to lie to ourselves, to forget or deny events and actions in our pasts in order to feel better about who we are in the present. I strive to subvert this by cherishing even struggles, and looking for what I can learn in the pain, since it is often our suffering that takes us to where we need to be by forcing us to become better and make progress. 

As a writer of fiction, I often find thrill in creating conflict for my characters in order to orchestrate their development. I see God as the Creator of our story, the Universe as our setting and our family, friends and others as the characters. The relationship between the writers and their characters is one in which the writer originally inspires their characters, but soon over time the characters come alive and inspire the writer. In the flow of my writing process, my characters speak to me, compelling me to enact their will. It’s the great joy of the creative process. In the same vein, I use my journal to thoroughly see the themes and arcs inherent in the story my Creator is writing for me, in the hopes that I can better help them write it. When reflecting on my entries, I notice the niche details in how events end up unfolding. I see the ways in which what I give to the Universe is given to me. I understand the immense intricacies of our intertwining lives, and recognize that we can only plan up to a certain extent, and that by giving up control and accepting things as they are we can live more fulfilled. In journaling, I see how even the everyday average and mundane moments of life are our mere means for our Creator and the Universe to lead us along the right path to our higher selves.  

In these observations, I maintain the moments of warmth and affection, celebration and cheer, sheer joy and laughter and allow those memories to soothe my soul in times of suffering. A journey through my journal allows me to relive past events, better understand the context leading up to those events and reflect on what that event means to me now. I meander the multitudes enclosed in me. In these mere observations and of the major and mundane, I see the story of myself more coherently — and realize that I have a narrative of beauty and pain, strength and weakness, tears and laughter, comedy and drama, dullness, danger, and duality. I see the contradictions in the actions and behavior of myself and in others, but I recognize it as a reminder of our humanity. 

Columnist Karis Clark can be contacted at kariscl@umich.edu.