“[Keeping a diary is] an invaluable aid when it comes to winning arguments. ‘That’s not what you said on February 3, 1996,” I’ll say to someone.” David Sedaris.
Kidding aside, how much would be lost if it were not for people writing about their lives in journals? This question motivates me to promote journal writing. And before you say you can’t keep a journal, that you’ve tried and failed, that you aren’t a writer, that it’s too much trouble, or that you feel that you have nothing to say, please hear me out.
If we look at social media today, where people are sharing everything from what they ate this morning to cute pig videos, or whether they are having a bad day or a good one, we know that many people do, in fact, have things to say. And they want to share them, for whatever reasons. There is nothing wrong with that. But if we can take the time to post it online, why not commit to our thoughts and experiences to paper so they are not lost in the ether?
Keeping a journal of our lives so that it might be accessible to others in the future, or just for our own eyes, preserves memories and provides a landing place for our thoughts and dreams. It’s a place to gain clarity of thought, to vent, to wonder, to pull in the day and lay it to rest. It’s an opportunity to grow, emotionally and intellectually. Recommended repeatedly by experts for our mental health, journal keeping has proven useful in managing the anxieties of daily life. It is a way to fully inhabit our inner lives. It offers a way to better know ourselves and become better.
A more compelling argument for journal keeping, however, may be as a link to our shared history. So much of what happens in the lives of everyday people is lost and usurped by the accounts of those in power. Times are recorded through the lens of social and political power. Yet most of the essentials of life we learn not from those sources, but from the everyday – from lives of artists, scientists, explorers, farmers, workers, lovers, parents, daughters, sons, the quiet ones, the creators, and the helpers.
“I can shake off everything as I write; my sorrows disappear, my courage is reborn.” – Anne Frank
What a loss it would have been if Anne Frank had not kept a diary to let us into her world. Samuel Pepys’s diaries, written in the 17th century, gave us first hand accounts of the Great Fire and the Great Plague of London. Emilie Frances Davis, a freeborn young mulatto woman, wrote in pocket diaries she kept from 1863-65, sharing her giving us a glimpse into her black community in the nineteenth century.
Nelson Mandela’s last diary entry in prison
Nelson Mandela kept journals while incarcerated and buried the entries in the prison garden. Emma Gatewood, a woman who, escaping her abusive husband, kept journals as she hiked to become the first woman to thru-hike The Appalachian Trail in the 1950s.The book Grandma Gatewood’s Walk based on her record of the trek is a great read, by the way. The list goes on.
Diarists have enriched the world immeasurably through the simple act of journal writing.
If, like me, you don’t consider yourself in the company of those I’ve mentioned, and you don’t want to (and certainly no one has to) ever have anyone read your journals, writing them is still worthwhile. Do it for yourself. The act of writing about your life is a gift to yourself in the present and to your future self. It may be to your family and others as well, if you decide to share them one day. I certainly wish my parents had kept diaries so that I might have the privilege to have read them.
“Preserve your memories, keep them well, what you forget you can never retell.” Louisa May Alcott
I have chronicled my life in journals for years. Much of it is unexciting, of course. The writing is not well crafted. Nonetheless, it has been transformative and worthwhile. Generally, it’s effortless. In dark times, putting pen to paper has been a lifeline. Most pages, though, simply recount times that I cherish such as days of my pregnancies: July 20th, 1989 Talked to Dr. Waxman a little after 12 noon. [Pregnancy] Test was positive! Hurray! Aug. 16th, 1994 Jeremiah and I were doing paperwork for the club when I got the news today…it’s going to be a girl! Daily life with my children and husband: March 8, 2000 Kevin made his own fake driver’s license to put in his new wallet – a license for driving his field car. Dec. 6, 1995 Sarah’s first real steps, today on her 11th month birthday, she took 5 solid steps forward! Jan. 14, 2012 Gren has the floor and walls up in the bathroom he’s building for mom moving in with us. Truly amazing to me all he can do. Travel adventures: June 21st, 1986 We got to the California border about 6:30am and soon got to Needles, where we got gas for the bike and prepared to battle the Mojave desert. April 28, 2014: Earthship vacation. Sarah is sleeping and I went outside to catch our last Taos sunrise at 6:12 coming up behind the mountains. Time with friends and family: Oct. 6, 1999 We went to the Coffee Gallery for dinner while Kev was at Cubs. Sarah played with Alex. July 23, 2016 At Jeremiah’s and Jenn’s after coming from mom’s. We were all here, which was lovely. Jenn always makes delicious food and we had a perfect, simple summer meal last night. Work: Dec. 6, 2006 Worked at the Picton branch today then Gren and the kids met me for dinner at Angelos’s, followed by going to Macaulay House for the Candlelight Tour. March 23rd, 2002 I’m going to do my first interview for my magazine with The Frere Brothers! Christmas journals: Dec. 25th, 2015 Sarah suggested we all go outside to see the full moon. I wish I could truly capture all the feelings of the Xmas day – so wonderful. Dec. 18, 2011 Listened to “Mom’s Christmas Caroling Mice” CD that Kevin and Sarah made so many years ago. I still love it. Community organizing: June 8th, 2014: Had our first outdoor Food Not Bombs meal of the season. Beautiful weather. And mishaps: Jan. 18, 2011: Yesterday, around 11:50am, I wrote my car off on my way to works at the library in Milford!
Looking through my journals for this post was a bit of an emotional rollercoaster, to be honest. But beautiful, too. I’m so glad I can look back on those days (and actually remember them fully!). I’ve never regretted the little time I’ve spent keeping journals and I’ve gained so much from it. During these pandemic days, it’s been comforting and a pleasure to look back and read about my pre-COVID life. Continuing to record the days, especially during this time is, for me, a privilege. Life is fragile and full of precious stories worth keeping. You might ask yourself, what is happening in your life that you hope you’ll be able to look back on, and maybe share, one day?
Until next time, I hope you stay safe and well. Christine
Never forget that writing is as close as we get to keeping a hold on the thousand and one things — childhood, certainties, cities, doubts, dreams, instants, phrases, parents, loves — that go on slipping, like sand, through our fingers.” —Salman Rushdie