We go through life with thoughts going in and out of our heads, intersecting with other concerns and plans, but we feel we can’t fully explore what it is we are thinking and feeling or even wanting. One way to pin down our thoughts, like capturing a fleeting butterfly, is to write a journal.
Journal writing is more than writing about our day. It is not the chronological catalogue of our doings but rather what our day meant to us. It can set out reflections about our situation in life; our concerns can be explored and the writing can over time help us to see things more clearly, to arrive at some possible solutions. Equally, our interests and passions can be laid out in naked detail and be a catalyst to engage in them in a more meaningful way. Our hopes and dreams for the future can be set out in the pages of our journal and help keep us on track with our plans.
As the poet, C. Day Lewis said, “We do not write in order to be understood, we write in order to understand.”
By putting down our thoughts on the page, we can start the process of understanding them and ourselves.
As Virginia Woolf wrote in her diary on 26 January 1920:
The day after my birthday; in fact I’m thirty-eight. Well, I’ve no doubt I’m a great deal happier than I was at twenty-eight; and happier than I was yesterday having this afternoon arrived as some idea of a new form for a new novel. Suppose one thing should open out of another – and yet keep form and speed, and enclose everything, everything? For I figure that the approach will be entirely different this time: no scaffolding: scarcely a brick to be seen; all crepuscular, but the heart, the passion, humour, everything bright as fire in the mist.
Virginia was talking about the novel that later became known as Mrs Dalloway. Her writing in her journal helped with her thinking through the themes and form of the novel. Likewise, for us, we can write down early thoughts of ideas or plans we have, until they take shape and are something that we can act on.
The American writer, teacher and political activist, Susan Sontag, wrote that “In my journal I do not express myself more openly than I could do with any person, I create myself.”
In her teenage years, Sontag recorded the things that she most enjoyed. On 25 December 1948, she wrote:
I’m completely engrossed, at this moment, in one of the most beautiful musical works I’ve ever heard – the Vivaldi B Minor piano forte concerto on Cetra-Soria with Mario Salerno – Music is at once the most wonderful, the most alive of all the arts – it is the most abstract, the most perfect, the most pure- and the most sensual. I listen with my body and it is my body that aches in response to the passion and pathos embodied in this music. It is the physical “I” that feels an unbearable pain- and then a dull fretfulness- when the whole world of melody suddenly glistens and comes cascading down in the second part of the first movement – it is flesh and bone that dies a little each time I am sucked in the yearning of the second movement –
How to start a journal? You can take baby steps. Get a lovely note book. Sit down in a quiet place. Write down your thoughts about the day, what you enjoyed, what bothered you. If you get stuck, write about how you feel about writing in the journal. Don’t analyse what you are writing or think about what you should write.
Diary extracts from: Virginia Woolf Selected Diaries Abridged and Edited by Anne Oliver Bell Vintage Books 2008 and Susan Sontag Reborn Journals & Notebooks 1947-1963 Edited by David Rieff, Farrer, Strauss and Giroux 2008.