What it means to journal

Sunday, November 1, 2020 - 1:13pm

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Illustration by Taylor Schott

Flushed cheeks, flitting eyes, lunchroom seating arrangements: These are the topics that used to populate the pages of my notebooks. I wrote about what I was experiencing, which at that time of my life were the dramatics of who was crushing on whom, what new shoes I desperately wanted or a playground trick I had just learned. 

Being in college now, and in online classes at that, means that my eyes wander. It’s hard to focus solely on the glaring screen, so instead I choose to hold my gaze on the glinting sunlight and the sway of leaves. Because I’ve moved back to my parents’ house indefinitely since the stay-at-home order was announced in Washtenaw County, my attention also arrived at the white wicker basket where my old diaries and journals are kept. Flimsy, wide-margined ones, firmer, hard-cover ones and even a spiral-bound one with a Van Gogh painting as its cover — they’re all there. 

Predictably then, I’ve picked up a new pastime: rummaging through them, searching for meaning among the current disarray. What was it like to be me at age 10? How callow was I when I’d concluded that I would inexplicably get sad in the wintertime? Why did I make those series of decisions that led to quitting soccer, piano and swimming? Though I shouldn’t have worried so much, because I had delved into long-distance running and would enjoy it much more than soccer, piano and swimming.

Reading them years later is as much of an exercise in finding theme and pattern as it is in withstanding my senselessness. What is with my tendency to exaggerate, or how I describe the various ways in which I feel I have been slighted? I can see so clearly now that with nearly every friendship, family or relationship dilemma, I had it all wrong — that I was asking the wrong questions. I would wonder why someone hated me when, instead, I should have focused on what I had done to hurt them. Though I suppose I am slightly better off than those who are simply unaware of their past faults and missteps and potentially avoid making a similar, if not identical, misstep in the future.

Reading past accounts isn’t always this frustrating, though. I managed to find the entry of the day I was admitted to the University of Michigan. Completely disregarding the page lines entirely, I had scrawled, quite largely, "I GOT IN!" Though my entries from freshman year of college are slightly tainted by the knowledge that this year is nothing like it, I am still able to appreciate what was so new to me at the time: elevated autonomy, shared living spaces, drunken rambles. When you’ve realized how little time it actually takes for change to occur, it becomes oddly easier to grasp. 

Keeping a diary as a child is a fairly easy thing to do: Time is always in abundance, experiences and events have that curious newness, fantastical stories are easily drafted. Maintaining that diary and having the patience to develop it into a consistent journal at the age of 18 or 20 or 22 is a considerably more difficult task. While in diaries, one writes of new love interests, a friend’s haircut or what happened at last week’s soccer game, journals are reserved for meditations on future career paths, reflections on a first love, emotional recounts of the difficulties of college. Both diaries and journals are similar in that they both are relatively chronological accounts. Where they differ lies simply in their connotations — a diary being of the more private, maybe childish sort — while a journal carries a more mature reputation. 

Whether it’s called a diary or not, writing down one’s thoughts is a useful practice for many reasons. Its immediate benefits include greater mental and emotional health. By writing down experiences as you perceive them, unchecked emotions or any other account you feel compelled to record, a particular release takes place. It relieves you from continuing to think such thoughts only in your mind, where words and ideas come and go, sometimes without recognition. If I didn’t write down so much of what I experience, even if at the time I thought it nothing, I wouldn’t now describe myself as someone perceptive, attune to the innermost workings of a busy life. At times, I have placed journaling above schoolwork, starting an entry before a project, because I believed it to be that crucial to my state of mind. By journaling, you get to claim the title of being self-aware, however pompous that claim may initially come across. It is the act of creating, for purposes beyond the academic, that fosters such a substantial release. 

However easy or tumultuous any given period of time may seem, we are well-advised to write down what we think of it — our predictions of what is to come, our choices when making a decision, our analyses of our mistakes or successes. If we don’t, we then become quite susceptible to misplaced blame; we may remember a situation inaccurately.  

But what does journaling mean for a college student with little time on their hands, for those who don’t particularly enjoy writing or for those who find themselves seemingly unable to find the subtle yet crucial words to describe their days? At perhaps one of the busiest periods of our lives, should we spend more time hunched over at our desks, rearranging thoughts as they come? Keeping an account of what is happening right now, regardless of however lacking you perceive yourself in creative or expressive ability, is the best thing you can do.

There are, however, more analytical and, potentially, even ominous opinions on journaling that one can hold. Joan Didion, a famed American writer whose work carries an inordinately high level of self-awareness, published in her 1968 book “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” an essay titled “On Keeping a Notebook.” This essay, much like many of her others, tends toward the cerebral. It is sharply conscious writing. At times, it is even a bit too sharp. For instance, Didion notes only two pages in, “Keepers of private notebooks are a different breed altogether, lonely and resistant rearrangers of things, anxious malcontents, children afflicted apparently at birth with some presentiment of loss.”

I slightly resent that last bit, and I suppose that is what I mean when I say that her writing can be too sharp. Too sharp for me — too close to what I think of myself. I’d like to imagine that keeping and rearranging and rereading personal reflections is only indicative of a healthy mind, but I won’t pretend that that’s all it is; surely there is truth to the inklings of neurosis that Didion hints at.

She continues, “I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind’s door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends.” If we make the unwise decision of letting our past selves slip by without recognition, we may be doomed not to repeat, but to rhyme. In order to truly grow, we must reflect on experiences as they happen, while they are new and haven't been sullied with hindsight.  

Arguably the best part about writing for only yourself is that you don’t have to fret about the state of your sentences, whether or not your thoughts make total sense — it’s the act of expression and attempt at articulation that counts. It’s in our best interest to sit down at that notoriously uncomfortable desk chair, and try (or for some of us, try again) every tactic that we can in order to sort through versions of ourselves, past, present and future. 

We may not want to remember negative experiences such as loss and its accompanying grief, anger and residual bitter taste, but we do want to remember how we got through it. More than that, we want to recognize, as tangibly as we can, the transience that takes place as we age. The graduation from diary to journal is a barely perceptible but nevertheless important one, and the content we work through finds its own maturity, eventually. We are all a curious amalgam of likes and dislikes, dips and peaks, realizations and realizations waiting; and when you write down as much of it as you can, you won't care how it’s worded, you’ll care that it’s there.