The Joys of Journaling

Moleskine notebook.
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I keep a journal. Not a daily journal — I try to update it at least twice a week or so, though sometimes more. It’s a Moleskine journal, because those are sturdy, have good quality paper, and also because in certain respects I am a pretentious piece of shit.

The first entry in this journal was written on December 13, 2008, most likely around 2 or 3 AM. The very last entry will likely be written some time this week. I started out with 240 blank pages, and now I have five to go. Once the last page is filled, I’ll move on to a fresh Moleskine.

Before December 13, 2008, I had made other attempts at keeping a journal. I alway knew it was the sort of thing Very Serious Writers are supposed to do, and I’ve always wanted to be one of those. But I also am not so great at finishing big personal projects, and so I had notebooks scattered all over my room, maybe the first 15 or 20 pages or so of each filled with chicken scratch. What would happen is, I would forget why I was keeping a journal, and so I would toss it aside until, months later, it would occur to me that I should keep a journal. But not that one, the one that had already been despoiled by my past failures. I needed to start a fresh one.

When I started the current journal I didn’t worry about the why so much. I just wrote what popped into my head — I wrote to write. Some of what I put down was traditional journal fare: events in my life, personal observations, and so on. Feelings and shit. Other times I would note down story ideas, or just scratch out little doodles of people. I didn’t force myself into a regular schedule, and there are gaps in the chronology of a couple months or more. But unlike with the other journals, I always came back after those gaps.

I think part of what always drew me back is journaling’s meditative qualities. Like anyone who has lived in Manhattan at any point, and like anyone who spends any significant amount of his or her daily life online, I’m used to being perpetually bombarded with more stimuli than I can effectively process at any one time. Even as I write this I’m carrying on conversations on GChat, flipping to other tabs in Chrome, listening to music, and so on. But when I write in my journal, all of that goes away. I write in silence, without interruption, focused solely on my own thoughts and the physical sensation of writing. Writing full sentences with a good pen on decent paper is a really pleasing tactile sensation that I don’t get enough of in the age of Microsoft Word and WordPress. And Moleskines themselves are nice to look at. They’re stylish and minimalist, and they seem to give a sort of austere dignity to whatever thoughts you put inside them.

(Aside: That actually used to discourage me from keeping a journal. I would have thoughts that I would consider writing down, but then I would start wondering if they were good enough thoughts to record in a journal that nice. Eventually I decided that dropping $9 on a notebook meant I had to put something in it, and my thoughts weren’t getting any more profound from just sitting around and wondering whether they were worthy of a pretty nice paper product.)

That all makes my Moleskine sound like a Zen garden. But it’s really more like my shrink. Believe me: I’ve tried real shrinks, and the notebook provides me with nearly the same level of service at a drastically reduced price. Granted, that’s just me. If you’ve got a serious condition, it requires professional help. Hell, probably everyone could benefit from a little bit of professional help now and then anyway. But if you’re like me — not clinically depressed and not struggling with some nightmarish childhood trauma, but beset by mild paranoia, moderate-to-intense social anxiety, and spasms of congenital whininess — then the therapist is mostly there so you have someone to whom you can kvetch, in total confidentiality, about the things you can’t share with anyone else. Sometimes saying those things aloud automatically takes the air out of them, and that’s always nice. Other times, saying them aloud at least means you have a better idea what you’re dealing with. Often therapy is just venting. Like Tony Soprano said to Doctor Melfi: sometimes what goes on in here is like taking a shit.

A journal is just another impartial, confidential, professional receptacle for all of the things you need to put into words and all the shits you need to take. And whereas my shrink never let me look at her notes, I can always flip a few pages back in the journal and look at how much progress I’ve made. The results are often heartening.

And the best part? It’s all 100% private. My journal is the only thing I write intended only for my eyes. Everything else has an audience, or at least a potential or intended audience. I will always try, consciously or unconsciously, to manipulate that audience. I’ll withhold details, skew facts, and put on sort of an authorial persona that bares less of a resemblance to how I actually am than it does to how I think of myself and would like to think of myself.

That all happens when I write in the journal too, since it’s basically unavoidable. We all lie to ourselves — that’s what makes it so much easier to lie to each other. But when you write for yourself alone, you at least slough off the layers of deception a third party observer necessitates. What I write in my journal is often bullshit, but it’s honest bullshit.

There’s another advantage to a journal’s privacy as well: dignity. Now that we children of the Internet era volunteer more personal information for public consumption than any prior generation in human history, it’s more important than ever to have a space set aside for private reflection. To constantly shirk solitude, to speak and write only in front of an audience, is to assiduously avoid that space where 95% of our really serious thinking and self-examination gets done. Besides, living in public really is deeply, deeply undignified. Maybe dignity’s going the way of answering machines and the Whig Party, but goddammit, it still means something. As long as there are people out there who are willing to keep their shit to themselves and deal with it discretely, dignity is still alive.

Anyway, I encourage others to give journaling a shot. Or if you do keep a regular journal, to share your routine and experiences in the comments.

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4 Responses

  1. I’ve always been pretty sporadic in my journaling. Like you, I’ve got a Moleskine; I think the first entries are from 2008, but having taken some pretty huge breaks, I’ve barely used any of the pages.

    Right now I’m using it to keep track of what I’m reading–it’s more of a commonplace book than a confessional. I am curious about what modes of journaling other people find helpful. I can think of four modes in my own attempts at journaling: chronicling events, expressing emotions, working out thoughts or arguments, and recording notes or quotations. Of course these will be all mixed up in practice, but what’s interesting about the journal is that the privacy makes all these modes appropriate; when you switch over to online tools, each mode seems to demand a different technology.

  2. I’ve never been able to keep a regular journal.

    I own a lot of Moleskines, for the same reasons you do – and also they beautify Pilot ink like nobody’s business – but they always end up being writing receptacles rather than actual journals. I don’t think I’ve ever really had a space that’s purely for my own eyes, as you put it, where the only person I am lying to or manipulating is myself.

    I might grab another one, though. I’ve been looking at alternate practices to meditation itself, and I could use a space to just record what I actually think, rather than what sounds funny to my Twitter feed or all three of my blog readers – though sometimes the two manage to coincide. Thanks for the recommendation.

  3. [...] some entries in my journal. Nothing of particular interest to outsiders… But go read “The Joys of Journaling” by Ned Resnikoff for some fantastic reflection on the [...]

  4. Excellent reflections on the process. I’ve been keeping a journal for about 30 years, now–sporadically. No set timelines. But it’s always there when I need it–and need to see how far I’ve come. What you have said about writing “just to write” is pretty true for me. Occasionally things crop up that I use for other writing, but mostly it’s personal, private reflection that never sees the light of day, and more about the process than the product–(I never set out to have a multi-volume journal, ever!) Thanks for your thoughts.

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