“I read what I write so I know what I think,” said Carson McCullers. She must have been speaking of journaling. Whether or not you’re a writer it’s good to record your thoughts. There are many reasons why, and they fall into three main categories:
Logging – The simplest reason to keep a journal is to record what happened. Captain Kirk did it – “Captain’s Log, Stardate 1329.8: The USS Enterprise is in pursuit of an unidentified vessel…” – and so did thousands of captains before him. Gardeners keep records of the rain, what they plant and where; and scientists record their experiments. Like scrapbooks these logs are filled with snapshots, each of a moment in time.
Those moments tell a story when read with a discerning eye. There’s almost no effort involved: in the same way our brains take a two-dimensional graphic and give it three dimensions, we can take a series of entries and find a narrative. You don’t have to be a writer for this kind of journaling to be of value. Record-keeping also helps you determine what does and doesn’t work: What did we do that attracted the Klingons? Was it better to plant the crocus bulbs in September or May? Do weather patterns support the concept of Global Warming?
Transformation – Another reason to keep a journal has to do with personal growth. As in physics, this type of writing makes use of the “observer effect,” where paying attention to something (your process) alters what is being observed (your process). Unlike logging where we record only the facts, this kind of journaling can be very subjective. One of my favorite examples is Don’t Push the River (It Flows By Itself) by Barry Stevens. Published in 1970, Stevens’ journal contains an account of self-discovery which took place while she trained with the father of Gestalt Therapy, Dr. Fritz Perls.
Stevens’ journal contains a lot of objective material in the form of dialogue between Dr. Perls and those who volunteered to work with him. Yet it also contains her reactions to those conversations. For instance she writes,
“Because” is a dirty word in Gestalt [therapy]. Experimenting with this, I noticed how “because” takes me farther and farther away from me and whatever I’ve done, and how without that following “because” I say simply that I did it. My strength comes back to me.
So many projects thrive from this kind of attention: child-rearing, healing, learning a new skill – almost any effort that involves a goal. Knowing we will record something causes us to pay a particular kind of attention: a kind that avoids judgment and offers surprise instead. Close observation creates an opportunity to see our progress and make tiny adjustments along the way.
Sketching – The final reason to keep a journal does have to do with writing. Just as visual artists practice by sketching, writers practice by setting down bits of dialogue, scenery and behavior they observe. Journals are also useful tools for recording ideas – ideas that, in my experience, often arrive at inconvenient times. Thus I‘ve found it’s good to bring writing materials wherever I go. It’s easy to keep pen and paper in pocket or purse. (You’ll notice I make no reference to electronic devices. More about that in Part Two.)
The Truth (with a capital T) – All three types of journaling have to do with insight. Yet no matter which you choose, it is very important to write down what is true for you. Not what you think someone else wants to read, nor the way you wish things to be, but how things really are for you. Often the route into “how things really are” is through the senses: what you hear, see, smell, taste or feel (hot/cold, tight/loose). Focusing on the senses will keep you away from judgment. For, as we all know, judgment squelches insight.
In Part Two, I will describe journal-keeping in more practical ways. But for now, let me close with this quote by novelist and playwright Dodie Smith:
I should rather like to tear these last pages out of the book. Shall I? No – a journal ought not to cheat.
Have you ever kept a journal? What about your appointment calendar?