I’ve run the “Excerpts From My Journal” bit for a few weeks now, and I wanted to pause a moment to explain them.
As a writer and an INFJ, it’s strange, but journaling has never come easy for me. I kept journals off and on for years when I was younger, but never consistently. For years at a time, I didn’t keep them at all. As I got older and consciously tried to, I found that typing was better, so all of my journals since high school are typed.
I’ve lost some of those pages. At various points, I’ve gone back and read certain things and deleted them. I just couldn’t face them or wanted to make sure that shame was never brought to light. Whatever the case, there are some things in my life that were documented that are now lost.
I’m not even sure why I think it’s so vital to have journals. So many people talk about using them later for writing prompts, or for posterity’s sake, or to show your kids or whatever.
None of those reasons really made sense to me. In fact, the reasons why I kept journals at all escaped me until just recently when I read Joan Didion’s essay on journals. It was one of those times when I read something and said, “Yes. Yes!,” out loud as I read. I do that sometimes. Her reasons struck a chord. They’re the reasons I write.
(I have butchered the essay terribly, taking out lines that strictly relate to feelings about the journaling itself, but that is not how essays are meant to be read. I encourage you to read the full essay at the link below.* And ask yourself, if you journal, why.)
“I sometimes delude myself about why I keep a notebook, imagine that some thrifty virtue derives from preserving everything observed. See enough and write it down, I tell myself, and then some morning when the world seems drained of wonder, some day when I am only going through the motions of doing what I am supposed to do, which is write – on that bankrupt morning I will simply open my notebook and there it will all be, a forgotten account with accumulated interest…
…I imagine, in other words, that the notebook is about other people. But of course it is not…
…Remember what it was to be me: that is always the point.
It is a difficult point to admit. We are brought up in the ethic that others, any others, all others, are by definition more interesting than ourselves; taught to be diffident, just this side of self-effacing. (“You’re the least important person in the room and don’t forget it,” Jessica Mitford’s governess would hiss in her ear on the advent of any social occasion; I copied that into my notebook because it is only recently that I have been able to enter a room without hearing some such phrase in my inner ear.) Only the very young and the very old may recount their dreams at breakfast, dwell upon self, interrupt with memories of beach picnics and favorite Liberty lawn dresses and the rainbow trout in a creek near Colorado Springs. The rest of us are expected, rightly, to affect absorption in other people’s favorite dresses, other people’s trout. And so we do. But our notebooks give us away, for however dutifully we record what we see around us, the common denominator of all we see is always, transparently, shamelessly, the implacable “I.” We are not talking here about the kind of notebook that is patently for public consumption, a structural conceit for binding together a series of graceful pensees; we are talking about something
private, about bits of the mind’s string too short to use, an indiscriminate and erratic assemblage with meaning only for its maker. And sometimes even the maker has difficulty with the meaning…
I have already lost touch with a couple of people I used to be; one of them, a seventeen-year-old, presents little threat, although it would be of some interest to me to know again what it feels like to sit on a river levee drinking vodka-and-orange-juice and listening to Les Paul and Mary Ford and their echoes sing “How High the Moon” on the car radio. (You see I still have the scenes, but I no longer perceive myself among those present, no longer could even improvise the dialogue.) The other one, a twenty-three-year-old, bothers me more. She was always a good deal of trouble, and I suspect she will reappear when I least want to see her, skirts too long, shy to the point of aggravation, always the injured party, full of recriminations and little hurts and stories I do not want to hear again, at once saddening me and angering me with her vulnerability and ignorance, an apparition all the more insistent for being so long banished. It is a good idea, then, to keep in touch, and I suppose that keeping in touch is what notebooks are all about. And we are all on our own when it comes to keeping those lines open to ourselves: your
notebook will never help me, nor mine you.”
In the end, journaling is an inherently selfish act. And for me, one that keeps me grounded as well, by reminding me forcibly who I used to be. If that is the sole aim, then Didion is right: “your notebook will never help me, nor mine you.” But I think a journal can also be a bridge, and that’s one point where I diverge from her thoughts. If I write truly what I feel when I do things, as truly as I can, even if the events themselves get muddled by time and perspective, and if you also happen to feel the same way in a similar circumstance, then we establish a common link, and finding commonality is good. It helps us feel not so alone, and vindicated, and seen.
I have a friend who is British-Nigerian, and she told me that in Nigerian, when you greet someone, you say, “I see you.” It means much more than to just notice. You are looking at someone. They exist for you. Seeing is important, and finding threads of commonality help us feel seen.
So I write journals for me. Solely for me. But I share them for you. To see you. To show anyone in a similar position to mine (expat, woman, INFJ, HSP, empath, teacher) that I have experienced things as you have.
Even if you don’t find a bridge, I hope you find understanding. And I hope everyone keeps a journal.
*On Keeping a Notebook – Joan Didion