Monday, December 10, 2012

The Perils of Journaling

(And if I may state right up front: I have very mixed feelings about using "journal" as a verb...)

As mentioned in some previous posts, I've kept a journal or diary off and on since before I could write. Journals have been different things for me at different times. When I was little, they mostly tended to be one or two lines about what I saw as the most interesting or important event of the day, and maybe a countdown to the next big holiday.

As I grew up, my entries expanded somewhat. I wrote more detailed reports of my days, some days almost minute by minute as I carried my notebook with me into the woods or watched younger siblings play. Once in awhile I recorded my dreams of the future or indulged in a bit of complaining about dealing with one particular brother or another, but for the most part, these entries remained primarily factual and in-the-moment.

I think it was after I joined the military and moved overseas that my journals became introspective and personal. I was alone a lot, especially when I first arrived. It took me awhile to find my crowd: I've never been much for the club or the bar scene, and back then I was a bookish, rather sheltered and naive kid, completely overwhelmed by new information and new places and new people. My closest friends were my family, who were now in a time zone six hours away, and this was before any of us had so much as e-mail. Mom and I wrote letters back and forth, and a few friends wrote now and then...but it wasn't exactly the same as being able to talk at any time.

So, partly at Mom's suggestion, I started keeping a journal again, but this time, I told it everything. At first (and this may be a little hokey), I addressed my pages as letters to an imaginary person--it made it easier to bare my soul to a notebook. Eventually I did away with that, but continued to write down anything and everything: not just daily happenings, but all the feelings and fears I would have told Mom or a friend had they been there.

It's a habit I've kept up, off and on, ever since. The proportion of facts to contemplation and complaining has fluctuated somewhat, but it's almost always a part of what I write. Some of the time, I believe it's helpful: when my head is spinning out of control, writing down my thoughts can help me pinpoint exactly what it is that's bothering me, so I can work on it. But sometimes...?

I came across this brief article recently and found it interesting. It's more to do with journaling about broken relationships, but I would think applies to other subjects as well.

I think there's likely some truth in it. I mean...I don't know about you, but I tend to remember things when I write them down. It's one reason I take copious notes in meetings and classes: even if I never look at my notes again, I'm far more likely to remember the material covered if I wrote something down. Writing things down makes them stick in my head. In some senses, it may be that writing down very negative thoughts gives them a credence and weight they wouldn't otherwise have.

I don't think I could completely give up the occasional vent, but perhaps I could make a New Year's resolution to avoid using my journal as a means of turing my psyche into a punching bag. I get very frustrated with my failings at times, but it would be better to come up with positive actions to work toward moving past them (and write about these postive actions so I remember!) rather than dwelling on them ad nauseum. A spiritual director I once had used to stress always stating goals in a positive way: "Practice random acts of kindness," rather than "Avoid being such a cranky sourpuss." Heh..or something like that. In any case, I think there's a lot of wisdom to that approach to life.

What about you? What is keeping a journal to you? Is it a bare statement of facts? A record of special happenings, the activities and accomplishments of your children? Or (if you're willing to admit this out loud) do you ever find yourself wallowing in the darkest bits of your life? If so, do you think it helps or hinders?


teeritz said...

I just put up a post about the diary that I buy each year. When I looked at the old ones from the past few years (I really should throw them out), I noticed a pessimistic thread running through them where my work life was concerned. This was good in a way in that I quit my job last year to return to study. But I thought to myself; "What do all of these little sentences about your job say about you?" If somebody picked up one of these diaries, they would think; "Gee, this guy really hates his job."
I now think that writing down the negative stuff does tend to give it more importance than it deserves. And therefore, I will attempt to just stick to the facts with my diary next year and just use it for jotting down the admin of my life, to do with appointments and the day-to-day things that need doing.
A couple of years ago, I tried starting a journal, but found that it took me away from my creative writing pursuits. There are only so many hours in a day, as they say.
Writing down the negative stuff on a regular basis merely lends it greater importance than it should have. Unless you sit down and try to brainstorm solutions to whatever negativity you may have. In that way, it can be beneficial.
But I think the trick is not to spend too much time on it.
Life is good, and the good should be celebrated.
Just my humble op.

Art said...

Fr me, writing something down, ie the negative, gets it out of my body and psyche, so it no longer is roiling around, drawing more bad stuff to me. Once it is on paper, it becomes neutral--how i felt at the time, but it loses its power to keep me in a not so good place, or at least that 's what i hope it does...

Adwoa said...

This is an interesting post, in that it confirms something I subconsciously suspected... and makes perfect sense. I bought a huge stack of journals a couple of years ago to go with my fountain pen obsession, and cracked open a few and started writing. My entries tended to be rather negative as well, and I came to dread writing - I suppose I did not see a point in only writing about joyful things and I would make an effort to dig deep and come up with troubling stuff. I abandoned the whole enterprise a few months ago and have suffered no ill effects - in fact, I only felt relief and a twinge of regret at having so much unused paraphernalia. It is nice to know that dwelling in angst has no particular value and is even detrimental... so no need to feel guilty about not journaling. I do think it would be fun to start up a "dry data collection" sort of thing, just to document the day-to-day humdrum, so I shall give that a try next year.

Little Flower Petals said...

In some ways, I think giving up the verbal stewing can make journal writing a more interesting challenge: what else can I write about my day? What news events happened in the world today, and what do I think about them? What books am I reading, what music am I listening to, what did I see on the way home from work or at the grocery store?

It makes you look outside yourself for inspiration, which makes you better at noticing details, which, I would guess, makes you a better writer.

And I do still think writing about goals may be a good type of introspection. Even on a practical level, if I start out a weekend writing out what I hope to accomplish, I'm more likely to pull it there's that as well.

Anonymous said...

I learned back in grade school that taking notes helped me remember the subject better, which meant easier study when exams approached. The same applies to journals whether I’m mentioning positive or negative matters. The problem: I have a volcanic temper and unforgiving nature. Reinforcing the negative just makes things worse and is especially foolish when I can’t do anything about the situation. No more. Life is too short to wallow in the miseries of an entire planet.

I don’t keep a journal as such, but I do write down the pleasant things that happen as reminders and reinforcement. It can be something as simple as the first appearance of a migratory bird at our feeders, vegetable seeds sprouting in winter, or as profound as realizing why certain forms of music effect me so strongly. I also jot down phrases and passages that are a delight. Here’s one from a book review I found on Amazon. “This title would be among the last you would part with as you sold your collection, one volume at a time, to buy life sustaining soup.” What a gem!

BTW, I finally broke down and got some Palomino Blackwing 602 pencils. They really are superior and are a physical pleasure to use. They also help when my wife’s hands hurt (arthritis type symptoms) because they require so little effort to produce a sufficiently dark line. They’re damn expensive but are worth it.

Hope you have a wonderful Christmas.

Jeff The Bear

Bill M said...

Nice to have a bit of an insight to your journalling.

I disagree with the referenced article though. I kept a journal ever since I moved out on my own. One of the things I found on relationships and jornalling is that I often noted all the great things about the person when we started out and as things progressed.

Often I wanted to rant and note terrible and bad and rotten things about them when we broke up. As I sat to write positive ideas and thoughts came to mind and I wound up writing nice things about them and well our relationship just did not work and we went our separate ways.

I think that because of that I seldom felt any bitterness and we could go on with life as friends.

It is not that I never noted anything negative or complaining about something. I think I did plenty of that.

Most of my journals have only boring day to day happenings unless something special happened that day.