Theroux’s ‘The Journal Keeper’ celebrates the examined life
Memoir is an ode to the journal at its best – as literary and psychological helpmate, as a “flashlight” for self-discovery and as “a place to save small places of beauty.”
by Pamela Miller
I ran across this book in an unusual way. Near the end of a packed flight to Atlanta, my seatmate, a lovely woman in her 60s, and I got to talking about newspapers (my living) and books (hers). As we deplaned, I expressed regret that we hadn’t started chatting earlier. As if to provide her half of that lost conversation, she pulled a book — her brand new book — out of her purse and pressed it on me as a gift.
She was Phyllis Theroux, a writer and teacher from Ashland, Va., and the book was “The Journal Keeper: A Memoir” (Atlantic Monthly Press, 281 pages, $24). When I finished reading it, I had marked more than 20 passages that I wanted to return to, or even copy out into my own journal. (more…)
Writing a journal is an intensely personal act, an exercise in which one’s most private thoughts and painful experiences can be set forth through an act of deliberate self-examination. So when a writer of Theroux’s stature chooses to share such introspective feelings with the world, readers are afforded an unparalleled opportunity to observe how such crystalline powers of observation are developed and nurtured. Friendships, finances, homes, health: all have gloriously embraced her or just as unceremoniously abandoned her. Through it all, however, one constant remained: Theroux’s steadfast devotion to recording her emotions and impressions in journals, which proved to be a haven where she could reflect upon and retreat from life’s challenges in order to discover paths of clarity and purpose. A subtle and sympathetic witness, Theroux is an equally ardent proponent of meeting confrontations head-on. Editing more than six years of her personal reflections, Theroux goes public in this elegiac memoir of love and loss, an elegant tribute to the resiliency of human nature.
Phyllis Theroux shares her wisdom and insight in this lyrical and humorous book collection of six years of her journal writing when she was in her mid-60s. In it she writes about her mother’s last years as her amusing and sometimes clairvoyant housemate and also about a man she’s met and whether she should marry him.
To read the entire review, visit jacksonville.com.
Phyllis Theroux is best known for a perceptive memoir, “California and Other States of Grace,” and stints as an essayist for The MacNeil/Lehrer Newshour and House Beautiful. She excels at closely observed and elegantly expressed portraits of domestic life that fondly recall the tradition of E.B. White.
Theroux is a lovely writer, but she doesn’t publish often. In her latest book, The Journal Keeper: A Memoir, Theroux suggests that writing without a tenured job or a supportive spouse presents special obstacles. She also confesses to writer’s block. When a writing project about Theroux’s mother hit a creative impasse, a fellow writer suggested that Theroux put the project aside “and work on something a bit easier – like editing your journals.” The result is “The Journal Keeper,” which distills six years of Theroux’s journals to detail her life from 2000 to 2005. (more…)
Valley Haggard sits down with Phyllis to discuss The Journal Keeper and the benefits and challenges of journal writing in this Style Weekly Interview, which begins: “Don’t be fooled by the placid scene of a wing chair on a swatch of grass in front of a white picket fence, which appears on the jacket cover of Phyllis Theroux’s memoir, The Journal Keeper, published this month by Grove/Atlantic.
An unexpected love affair, 9/11, Hurricane Isabel, financial disasters, windfalls, insecurities, creative angst, miraculous blessings and all manner of death zing through the pages of Theroux’s life in her 60s, as chronicled in her journal from 2000 to 2005.”
Read the entire article on the Style Weekly website.
I loved this singularly honest and graceful book. The Journal Keeper reminds us that there is no such thing as an ordinary moment, and certainly no such thing as an ordinary life.
– Elizabeth Gilbert, best-selling author of Eat, Pray, Love
In lovely, straightforward prose, Theroux speaks honestly about the quotidian and miraculous aspects of loss and new chances. It’s all here—births, deaths and marriages—and the reader is invited into the intimacies of a world that is both familiar and full of surprises.
– Elizabeth Strout, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Olive Kitteridge
What a wonderful, wonderful book! I felt like I was on a little journey. It really made me think beyond the page. The Journal Keeper reads like a case study of a person’s life. You will read it more than once.
– Amy Sedaris, author of the New York Times best-selling I Like You: Hospitality Under the Influence
If I were in one of Phyllis Theroux’s writing classes, she surely would disapprove of my using seven enthusiastic adjectives all in a row. But no fewer could do justice to The Journal Keeper, her open-hearted, honest, honorable, wise, generous, brave and utterly captivating book which sheds a clarifying light on the pain and possibilities present in the third-third of our lives. Read it. You’ll love it, and her, and your own newly promising future.
– Judith Viorst, best-selling author of Necessary Losses and Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day
The Journal Keeper mesmerized me! There’s the double narrative of the writing life and the life going on around Theroux that is utterly absorbing. I read it straight through in twenty-four hours and could not put it down.
We read writers’ journals with the gimlet eye of voyeurs. Here, for new fans and long-time admirers of Phyllis Theroux’s elegant essays and books, a sampling of mid-life adventures that are both individual and universal. I found myself marking the margins with Theroux’s bracing prescriptions for writer’s doldrums. Theroux’s uncommon mother—a captivating psychic whose quirts capture the imagination—and her wary discovery of mid-life love leap from the pages.
The Journal Keeper is a radiant display of Theroux’s considerable talents with pen and paper but even more remarkable is her window on a mystical world of universal wisdom that she unveils in her daily task of record keeping.
I can well see how you would be proud to be involved in the publishing of this book! And I have indeed fallen in love, or great interest, at least, with her while I read her book. It is rare for me to be so reluctant to finish a book…It is not just that I want it to continue. I do, but this time I want to keep my connection with author Phyllis and her life. I am also a woman of a certain age, even older, and her memoir fulfills and enriches me, makes me glad to be able to know her on this level. Her bibliography and frequent quotations from Emerson, Mary Oliver, John Muir and more give me ways to continue following her trains of thought down unexpected and rewarding trails. What a delight The Journal Keeper is! Thank you!
I am a lover of the novel, but there is nothing for me as pleasing as a well-written, thoughtful, and intimate journal. I find them much more satisfying than a biography and The Journal Keeper is one of the best. I feel as if Phyllis Theroux is a dear friend and I am grateful to her for sharing her life with us.
– Penny McConnel, The Norwich Bookstore
Deep thoughts surrounded by stylish writing…
Phyllis Theroux’s captivating new work, The Journal Keeper, is a multi-dimensional pleasure… whatever her subject—growing old, spiritual growth, life in a small town, her students and teaching life, even a new romantic passion (at 64! Break out the old Beatles record!) — Theroux is able to reach deep inside and step outside herself with inspiring aplomb.
– BookPage (read full review)
The Journal Keeper is discussed along with two other recent memoirs, all tackling how women cope with life’s challenges. Of Phyllis Theroux, Juliet Whitman writes, “Theroux seems to possess a certain calmness and wisdom. She is not… plagued by the sense that something essential is missing from her life. On the contrary, looking over her past writings, she feels “that a hand much larger and more knowing than my own was guiding my life and pen across the page.” (more…)
Jann Malone of the Richmond Times Dispatch reviews The Journal Keeper, and writes: “In addition to offering her smart observations on issues that concern us, too, she opens a window on an intelligent kind of journal keeping, the kind that relies on considered thoughts instead of rants… At the end of her book, Theroux gives us three pages of advice on keeping our own journals. It’s good advice — “Lean toward the light,” and make it a place “to save small pieces of beauty” — but it’s unnecessary. With The Journal Keeper, she has already shown us how.” Read the entire review on the Richmond Times Dispatch website.
As a “sixty-something” who often finds herself reading memoir (May Sarton, Anne Morrow Lindbergh) I had rather high expectations for this book. I was not disappointed. The book in fact inspired and nudged me to once again take up the practice of journaling. The book begins as the author is in her sixty-first year. At this stage of her life, she yearns to “prune my life so that the strength flows into fewer branches.” She honestly chronicles challenges—emotional, financial, physical, mental—and coping mechanisms. Certainly writing—i.e., journal keeping—is one of those mechanisms. In the section ” If You Want to Keep a Journal,” she advises that a journal “should be a wise friend who helps you create your own enlightenment.” Let the writing and the pruning begin!
— Cedar Falls, IA
A beautifully written book, this book makes me think every time I pick it up. I read memoirs hoping to learn something about how to deal with the curve balls life throws at me, and this book helped me springboard from her journal entries to situations in my own life. Theroux has also written some lovely essays which I have read.
— San Carlos, CA
My shelves are overflowing with books, so much so that I can’t keep them all; however, I will keep and treasure this book. The Journal Keeper is a thought provoking, sometimes depressing, sometimes uplifting read. I have highlighted many passages, and each time I pick it up, I find more to highlight. The everyday events of the author’s life are intertwined with her writing life. Her themes are universal and honest. I learned from and often identified with this extraordinary memoir.
— Roswell, BA
The Journal Keeper is a book for people who like to reflect while reading, whether it be on their own personal lives when something in Theroux’s own experiences resonates or on the bigger picture of the world around us. I earmarked a large number of pages so that I can go back and delve more deeply into interesting tidbits, stories, quotes. It seems to be a great book for a writers’ group or writing program. It inspired me to pick journaling back up. I really enjoyed reading this book!
— Roswell, GA
The Journal Keeper has been a personal book of inspiration for me. The writing is marvelous. It is for everyone. If I had had the opportunity to read it years ago I might have been able to hear my own voice. The Journal Keeper has given voice to the silence within me. It has led me to offer it as a gift to many women in my life and as one of them said last night when we were talking about the book and the author, The Journal Keeper is like a warm blanket I can wrap myself in every night. I eagerly anticipate turning the pages and being swept away by the author’s life and wisdom.” I believe she captured it perfectly. Few books have had such a profound impact on me. There are classics, yes, but The Journal Keeper deserves a shelf of its own. I would absolutely recommend it to anyone, it is the perfect gift because it’s meant to be shared – just as the author shared a glimpse of her inner soul with all of us.
— Laguna Niguel, CA
This book carries all the wit and charm of the writer herself, as anyone who knows Phyllis will tell you. That is just “it” about Phyllis–she can let you feel like you really know her, as she does on the pages of “The Journal Keeper”. By cutting and pasting the vignettes from her diary/journal, we traverse a six year period in her life from 2000-2006. I was astonished and delighted at the surprises, treasures and secrets she revealed. The great gift of this book: it will make you want to write. With words, she is able to bless everyday, ordinary moments and make them sacred.
— Glen Allen, VA
It’s a charming book. I love the way she weaves together numerous places — Ashland, VA, Carmel, CA, San Francisco, Washington, even Italy — and numerous people. Her descriptions, framed by a meticulous wordsmith, are rich in imagination and thoughtful in perception. But it is her insights into the human dimension, sometimes gentle, sometimes less so, which make the book meaningful, as she addresses relationships, writing, illness, aging. In the end she writes a love story, and we are touched and uplifted. Can all journals be so inspiring?
— Carmel, CA
If there was one word to describe The Journal Keeper it would be `rich’. Phyllis’ wit and insights into the very ordinariness of our lives leap off the page into the very centre of my heart. From cover to cover it is a courageous journey borne of experience and a celebration of life.
— Toronto, ON (Canada)
It’s been a long time since I’ve picked up a book and immediately fell in love. This is THE book I’ve been searching for for months now and didn’t know it. Only half way through (I’m purposely taking my time, like savoring a delicious homecooked meal) but already I count it as one of my ten most treasured, alongside writings by CS Lewis, Elizabeth Gilbert, Henri Nouwen and others. In a home shared with my husband of 30 years, 3 teenage boys, and mother age 75 who has just come to live with us, I feel that Phyllis Theroux warmly invites me into her corner of life to share a cup of tea and precious words of wisdom each time I open the book. She empathizes, affirms, rebukes and encourages me all in one fell swoop. Who could ask for more? I can’t wait to get my hands on all her other writings!
— Amarillo, TX
At this point in my life, with three active sons and a full-time job, I just can’t find the time to keep a journal of my own. Fortunately, I had the great good fortune to be a journal READER when I was given a copy of Phyllis Theroux’s The Journal Keeper. I managed to read the entire book in two sittings, and I found myself laughing and crying by turns. The writing itself is beautiful, and the glimpses of a life not my own quite thought-provoking. Pour yourself a cup of tea, curl up in your favorite chair with this book, and prepare to be mesmerized. It is a read well worth your time, even if, like me, you have very little time to spare.
I spent one whole night reading this book while a lashing rainstorm was practically upending cars out the window and barely noticed the weather activity. This is one of those books you sink into. It’s comforting and provocative and hilarious in places. (A conversation between the mother and a friend stands out there.) The author reminds me a little of Abigail Thomas, in the way she spins out a mesmerizing world, and also because her writing is just beautiful: “the scrubbing sound of surf.” I’m bumping this one up to the top of my book club’s list.
— New York, NY
I suspect you will discover parts of yourself in this book. Her words touched my own poignant feelings about my new role as a mother of adult children and helped me to better understand my relationship with my mother.
What a treasure! There is truth and uplift in this delightful memoir. What an antidote for all the negitivism that abounds.
by Evelyn Renold
Phyllis Theroux began keeping a daily journal… when her personal life was “going down in flames,” in her words, and her professional life as a writer was just taking off. Divorced with three small children, Theroux used the journal to record her thoughts and feelings as she careered from “one drama-filled day to the next.” The diary helped ground her, she recalls in this memoir, so she was “not so easily blown off course.” (more…)