While writing on projects, fiction or non-fiction, there’s an easy measure of success: word count. However, when people talk about the health benefits of writing and say it’s so good for you, it’s a beautiful way to express yourself, or how great it is to develop artistic skills, I kind of want them to shut up. Writing on projects is hard! Writers have their own expectations of their work, and those expectations are often sky-high and only really grasped by themselves. The fight is to get it understood by the reader in the intended way.
By “right”, I don’t mean to say there’s a wrong way to do this. A personal record, whether you call it a journal or a diary, is only what you make of it. The purposes behind writing innermost thoughts varies widely, and you make that happen and make it work.
Many voices on this subject comment on keeping a journal in terms of its benefits or effects. Joan Didion comments, “Keepers of private notebooks are a different breed altogether, lonely and resistant rearrangers of things, anxious malcontents, children afflicted apparently at birth with some presentiment of loss.” (Brainpickings.com) It’s this first part of the comment that reflects one of the psychological roots of diary-keeping, but also writing in general.
Human beings process memory and experience into conclusions, and these conclusions often form the foundation of our reactions to future experience. Consider, for example, hearing a compliment from someone at work about something you did. That day, you would be feeling pretty good about that person, and would frame what you did as a good and positive thing. Then consider what would happen to your opinion and frame of mind if you heard that same person make a negative comment about you that contradicts what they said to your face about the work you did. The first experience with the compliment would look completely different, and what you think of that experience in this new light would be thoroughly altered in this new context.
In a more expanded way, consider the friends you had in high school (or grade school, or some past period in your life). How has your experience since then affected your feelings for them? Have they been made sweeter knowing how much they supported you? Or have they soured in the context of what they’ve done to you since then, or with the knowledge of what true friendship looks like?
Writing in a journal is this rearranging done on paper. It’s often prescribed as therapy in cases where reframing and releasing effects of traumatic experiences is proving difficult, or where there isn’t a person in whom the individual can fully confide.
Keeping a personal record also comes with a common assumption of privacy, of keeping exclusive confidence with the pages alone. However, there is always an audience to writing, even if it’s limited to the author they’re writing. It’s a stunning thing to see what you will tell yourself, especially after the most difficult times. This is something Franz Kafka reflects on when he said, “In the diary you find proof that in situations which today would seem unbearable, you lived, looked around and wrote down observations, that this right hand moved then as it does today, when we may be wiser because we are able to look back upon our former condition, and for that very reason have got to admit the courage of our earlier striving in which we persisted even in sheer ignorance.” (Flavorwire.com)
I experienced a poignant example of this in my own journal writing when, in the middle of writing for its own sake and recording my mundane experiences, I received a call from my grandfather. He informed me that a good friend of mine, while on a road trip to CA with several other friends, was in a fatal car accident. She was killed on impact. I was in high school at the time, and this loss was both sudden and painful. When I hung up, I couldn’t think what to do. I already had my pen on the paper and just kept writing through it. I wrote through one of the most shocking revelations of my young life, moment by moment, in the instant it broke on me. Being that present with your own emotions, pressing the working motions of the mental process onto the paper through some form of articulate language, is like sitting next to yourself while simultaneously inhabiting your experience.
Keeping a personal record is obviously not always that intense. Often, just maintaining the habit proves elusive, let alone accessing deep emotion on a regular basis. To be honest, my journaling habit never fully recovered from that experience. Stopping, restarting, and lapsing is perfectly common. It’s if your journal writing supports your purpose that matters.
Below are some great articles on journal/diary keeping, as well as a few interesting tools to get you started or keep you going. Writing for yourself (you in the present or in the future) has a lot of good to offer!