If You Want to Keep a Journal

January 18, 2010

Listen to Phyllis read this excerpt:

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One of the reasons why people resist keeping a journal is because they assume it will quickly become a garbage can for all of the spoiled plans, bad news and other dark developments in their life. The journal I keep is the spiritual equivalent of a personal light box or cheering section which I create as I go along. This isn’t to say that the pages are without pain or perplexity. The dilemmas in my life were one of the main reasons I began to keep a journal in the first place. But I use it as a tool for solving or understanding them. Whatever insights or glimpses of the truth I glean when sitting quietly in a wing chair – thinking, reading, or simply gazing out the window at a neighbor walking her dog – is what I write down.

There are other, less self-involved motives for keeping a journal. Knowing I have a place to save them keeps me on the lookout for beauty on display, even in a checkout line in Safeway, or on the other side of a grimy train window in the rain. These are my butterflies, halted mid-flight on the page. Then, there is the “Journal As Ragbag” use, where I store stories, anecdotes or phrases that please my mind and ear. When my children were small, they would often say something so heart-breakingly astute or funny that I rushed to preserve it – sometimes for tomorrow’s essay, which used to drive my children crazy. “Nobody else I know has this problem” wailed my daughter, Eliza after she found herself trapped in a car full of other Brownies listening to her mother read an essay on the radio – about embarrassing her children!

Should you censor what you say? I think that should go without saying, unless your intention is to finger the person you think wants to murder you, or make someone who hurt your feelings hurt, too if they read what you say. Children, of any age, should be protected. Messages from the grave can too easily be misconstrued or considered the final verdict on their worth, when all you’re doing is blowing off steam.

The type of journal you use is important. My advice is don’t get anything too fancy. The cover might intimidate you, the paper seem to expensive to “ruin” with your humble observations. For the past twenty years I have used the same 5 x 7 black cardboard journals with red binding that come from the Pearl River Market in Greenwich Village, New York. They are cheap, durable and fit easily into my purse when traveling. To date I have filled up at least three dozen, all neatly labeled with a pair of dates on their spines. It is the only organized thing about me.

Keeping a journal for posterity should be a minor, even inconsequential reason. The one place you want to be unselfconscious is on the pages of your private diary. That being said, there is a public dimension to writing – even if it is a laundry list – and I am not a fan of those who urge you to dump whatever comes to mind upon the page. No, no, no. Your journal should be the one wise friend who helps you create your own enlightenment. Chose what you think has some merit or lasting value, so that when you re-read your journal in years to come it continues to nourish you.

Some days I can think of nothing worth writing down. Fortunately, I am not alone. By my chair, I keep a small, revolving collection of essays, spiritual autobiographies, poetry, other writers’ journals to inspire me. When I’m out of fuel, they pull me out of the creek and into a broader, deeper river. I have attached my own personal list of light givers, which may illuminate you – or not. We are different people, on the lookout for different things. But if f you want your journal to have any lasting value, for yourself or others , I can only think of one rule to follow: lean toward the light.


14 Comments


  1. catherine mattingly

    Dear Phyllis,

    What an unexpected and delightful surprise! If it’s okay with you, I will share your email/website with Laurie Quirk, our dept. chairman, who is always on the lookout for speakers for the Mother/Daughter book talk. This newest creation seems ideal, a wonderful link between the generations.

    Dana Gioia is speaking next month, and I’ve heard him speak on the influence of his mother on his writing life. I hope, hope, hope he replays that lovely tribute, as he opens up the world of poetry to the Visition audience. I hope you and Eliza are well. It’s been forever since I’ve seen Judy and Bart–and you.

    Best,
    Catherine

  2. I have very much enjoyed listening to your reading of If You Want to Keep a Journal.
    It heightens my anticipation of reading The Journal Keeper: A Memoir.
    I’m looking forward to your book release on the 28th.
    Paige

  3. Dear Phyllis,

    As always, thank you for your vision, your inspiration, and more of your words to keep.

    Yours,

    Mary

  4. Dear Phyllis,

    What an unexpected and delightful surprise! If it’s okay with you, I will share your email/website with Laurie Quirk, our dept. chairman, who is always on the lookout for speakers for the Mother/Daughter book talk. This newest creation seems ideal, a wonderful link between the generations.

    Dana Gioia is speaking next month, and I’ve heard him speak on the influence of his mother on his writing life. I hope, hope, hope he replays that lovely tribute, as he opens up the world of poetry to the Visition audience. I hope you and Eliza are well. It’s been forever since I’ve seen Judy and Bart–and you.

    Best,
    Catherine

  5. Hi, Catherine, I just got back from addressing the Catholic Women of Richmond, Virginia. It felt so cosy. I confessed my current status doesn’t square with my past credentials as a Catholic, but I could tell they didn’t mind. A mother’s day talk is always fun to give. I hope Dana Gioa’s talk goes well. I told Eliza about you, and hoped you’d be in touch. All my best, Phyllis

  6. Hi, Catherine, I just got back from addressing the Catholic Women of Richmond, Virginia. It felt so cosy. I confessed my current status doesn’t square with my past credentials as a Catholic, but I could tell they didn’t mind. A mother’s day talk is always fun to give. I hope Dana Gioa’s talk goes well. I told Eliza about you, and hoped you’d be in touch. All my best, Phyllis

  7. Dear Phyllis,

    What an unexpected and delightful surprise! If it’s okay with you, I will share your email/website with Laurie Quirk, our dept. chairman, who is always on the lookout for speakers for the Mother/Daughter book talk. This newest creation seems ideal, a wonderful link between the generations.

    Dana Gioia is speaking next month, and I’ve heard him speak on the influence of his mother on his writing life. I hope, hope, hope he replays that lovely tribute, as he opens up the world of poetry to the Visition audience. I hope you and Eliza are well. It’s been forever since I’ve seen Judy and Bart–and you.

    Best,
    Catherine

  8. Dear Phyllis,

    What an unexpected and delightful surprise! If it’s okay with you, I will share your email/website with Laurie Quirk, our dept. chairman, who is always on the lookout for speakers for the Mother/Daughter book talk. This newest creation seems ideal, a wonderful link between the generations.

    Dana Gioia is speaking next month, and I’ve heard him speak on the influence of his mother on his writing life. I hope, hope, hope he replays that lovely tribute, as he opens up the world of poetry to the Visition audience. I hope you and Eliza are well. It’s been forever since I’ve seen Judy and Bart–and you.

    Best,
    Catherine

  9. Dear Phyllis,

    As always, thank you for your vision, your inspiration, and more of your words to keep.

    Yours,

    Mary

  10. Elizabeth McCullom

    Dear Phyllis,

    I loved your book….just finished it and hated it to end.
    Please let me know where I can get the journal (5 x 7
    black cardboard with red binding). I tried calling the
    Pearl River Market but they couldn’t understand me. I am
    inspired by your work!

    My best,

    Elizabeth

  11. Dear Phyllis,

    As always, thank you for your vision, your inspiration, and more of your words to keep.

    Yours,

    Mary

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