For years, I’ve told people that I started keeping a journal at 13. But when I go back and look, what do I find? I was an elderly 15, already starting high school. That’s the thing about old journals—they have the power to keep your memory honest.
Fifteen? You always hear about artistic types who started being creative when they were 6. But I’ve always been a late bloomer (“Late Boomer,” I joked in my journal), and had only discovered my intellect in the seventh grade, when I had an amazing teacher, Mr. Marinello, whose instruction hit just right. A door crashed open in my brain: Hello, I can really think, and it’s kind of fun, but also rather terrifying!
What to do with all these insights that made my friends, my family, my whole life look strange? Not to mention the legions of insecurities they gave rise to. I was a nerdy, pretentious, emotionally underdeveloped teenager in a very small town. When I finally got around to keeping a journal, I was about to explode. I did it to save my sanity.
I still have that first journal, a dark-green spiral notebook full of rounded, slightly back-slanted printing. Here is part of the inaugural entry:
We have all been competing for the “tiredest of the week” award … [one friend] in particular has been applying herself. I should caution immediately that I am unsuccessfully attempting to exorcise a whopping jealousy of her – please disregard all sarcastic remarks.
This combination of seeing beneath the surface of things and articulating self-knowledge became addictive. Of course, it may have also kept me in my shell longer. But it furnished the shell. I have developed a cozy inner life with comfortable couches, interesting nooks, good views, great art on the walls—and closets stuffed with insecurities that I obsessively let out for air, which keeps them from blowing the whole place to smithereens.
Throughout my adolescence, I clung to my journal. It’s interesting but a little disheartening to read those early notebooks now. Maybe it’s good that we don’t always remember just how raw, how dire, things seem when we’re young. On the other hand, it’s not a bad idea to be in contact with that chubby, self-conscious teenager. “The child is the father of the man,” said Wordsworth. Like it or not, she’s my mother.
My journal followed me to France as a high school exchange student, faithfully lapping up my struggles with a strange language, culture, and family, and a curriculum that expected me to read Kant and Marx (in French!) and graded me for physical ability in P.E. I’ve always remembered proudly that my journal transitioned into French about four months in. But on rereading it, I discovered that this happened directly after a huge blowout with my French family. It came out that they had been mistaking my introversion (always squirreled away in my room, writing in my journal) for cold rudeness. They yelled at me: “You’re so selfish! You never try to be part of the family!” I cried and cried. Jolted into French, my journal described the shell-shocked, and then surprising, aftermath: After tip-toeing around each other for a while, we started developing into the family we had been trying for, and finally joyfully became. Could I have gotten up that steep slope to a real relationship with that family, that culture, without processing it in those pages? Growth is painful; my journal was a midwife.
By college so many things were happening that my journal became a chronicle, a bildungsroman, a satire—or was it a farce? It described in cringing detail a twee tea party I threw. It recorded my first bout with depression: a long, dark sophomore year. It documented the intense friendship that opened me up emotionally, the despair and elation of trying to be good at music, my surprise at liking calculus, my excitement as literature opened up to me—along with my stumbling inability to attempt romantic relationships without drowning in humiliation.
Later, my journal saw me through a flirtation with yuppie-dom and a period of adventurous travel. It helped me achieve that graduate school balance between intellectual exhilaration and disillusionment with academic politics. It got me through the bumpy start of my career as well as the revelation that depression runs in my family and is something that can be dealt with. It took in the richness that suffused my days when I finally met the love of my life.
Gradually, my entries got more spotty. I had work to do; it became harder to take my little life so seriously. But then something happened: I had to teach a three-week intensive class, and I got the idea to make it about keeping a journal. I thought it would be interesting to meet others of the journal-keeping kind and reflect together (in our journals, of course) on what the practice means. And oh my God, it was. We read famous journals together: Samuel Pepys, hoovering up the juicy 17th-century details and delivering a London so rank, energetic, and stuffed with life that you start to recognize how strange your own times are; Anne Frank, brilliant and incisive, a born satirist dropped into an abyss of evil; Edward Abbey, so sexist and egotistical you’d slap him if he didn’t write so gorgeously about nature; May Sarton, heroic voyager of the inner cosmos. What they all have in common is the secret super sauce of journal-keeping: honesty.
We tried writing like them. We did all kinds of creative writing exercises, the wackier the better. We wrote in the woods, in graveyards, on city corners, at the top of towers, in hidden greenhouses. We plumbed our memories, our obsessions, our dreams. We wrote collaborative poems. Our journals grew rich and fecund. And when we shared our work (only when we wanted to), we discovered a paradox: It is extremely fun to write privately in community.
As the 21st century unfolded, I uncovered another great truth: A journal is not a blog. On a six-month fellowship in Sri Lanka, I thought I might try blogging—to keep the friends and family abreast of my adventures. But I quickly discovered that I did not have the psychic wherewithal to publish a cheerful, or perhaps meaningful and incisive, account of learning my way in a strange culture. Rather, I needed to write privately about the bewilderment and terror that lurks beneath the surface when you skate along in a new culture, looking fine from the outside but not knowing how anything works, or what anybody means, or who the hell you even are in this context. I needed to record that afternoon, one month in, when I stood paralyzed on the steps of a university building for three hours waiting for a ride that never came, staring at my cellphone and trying to contain the seep of tears, while around me flowed groups of people who knew exactly who they were and why they were there. And once I, a 50-year-old professional woman, had gone through that, and written about it—I fell in love with Sri Lanka. My whole life changed, and I opened myself to its richness and complexity. This is what my journal is for: to help me pay attention as life flows by, so that I can live more deeply, grow.
I have kept my journal unfaithfully. I come, I go. I leave it, for weeks or even months. Then I pummel it with insights, gags, dreams, memories, and boring minutiae. I paste in letters, postcards, and doodles. I copy passages I like. I fool around. And when I need it, it takes my mewls of insecurity and dark depressions in its stride. My journal doesn’t care; it opens its pages and welcomes me back, every time. That’s the beauty of a journal. It’s better than a dog. OK, not really, it’s different than a dog, but it is an unwavering friend: it asks only for what is really going on, accepts all, and never dies.