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Leaving A Trace

Starting Out: Getting
Lost on Purpose

Once I begin the act of writing, it all falls away — the view from the window, the tools, the talismans, and I am unconscious of myself... one's carping inner critics are silenced for a time... there is always a surprise, a revelation. During the act of writing, I have told myself something that I didn't know I knew.
—Gail Godwin

JOURNALS. THEY BECKON everywhere. Stacked in neat rows in drugstores, fanned in pale rainbow hues in display windows, pyramided in bins at Wal-Mart, stocked near cash registers in bookstores. On corners of almost every major city, specialty journal shops have popped up overnight, as quickly and inevitably as Starbucks. And at midnight in a speck of a prairie town, someone can order dozens from catalogs. A single click on the Internet connects another country — France for handmade diaries, Italy for paper the color of fresh cream. Staring at the electronic images, a browser tries imagining a journal's weight in their hand.

But consider the most familiar, those from the local stationery store. Yesterday I went into mine and was instantly struck by the clean, dry smell of paper, the comforting sight of pens arrayed by colors. Stationery stores are the kingdom of childhood enjoyed in adulthood. The aisles brim with all that possibility, as if a 79¢ pen or a different type of notebook will do the trick this time. New pen, new paper, new self. Journals, once contained on a single shelf, now take over whole sections of stationery stores. I'm fascinated by the sheer range of them: blank or lined hardcover journals, their covers decorated with pale half-moons or tulips or ancient maps. Stacks of spiral notebooks marbleized like brain synapses. Others, so satisfying to the touch, are covered in canvas or burlap; a few are leather bound, discreet as expensive new shoes. From the practical to the private, they divide up a life — monthly, yearly, five-year diaries. Travel diaries. Nature journals. Children's first journals with covers the color of tangerines. Nearby, stacks of legal pads wait to be inserted into black vinyl covers.

Ten million blank journals are sold annually in stationery stores alone. Two million in specialty stores. Thanks to secret passwords and specialized software, an estimated four million scribblers keep some form of journal on a computer. If the information age has spawned a hunger for connection (and privacy), so, too, a need for the quickest way to access interior life. Web sites pop up daily. Our accelerated global age has left little time to slow down and reflect. In Japan, for example, those too busy to keep journals phone in their entries. At the end of the month, a company sends a bound transcript.

Familiar with the statistics, I also know how hard it is for many to keep journals. Yet when I ask people, as I often do, who they wish had kept a diary, a torrent of names is unleashed — my mother, my husband, my sister, the uncle whom I'm named after, the father I never knew. Why then the resistance to keeping them ourselves? Virginia Woolf put her finger on it best perhaps, when she asked her own diary: "Whom do I tell when I tell a blank page?"; Whom does one write for? Oneself, of course. "True to oneself — which self" asked Woolf's friend and archrival, Katherine Mansfield. (In her journal, she confessed that a single day's "thousands of selves" made her feel like a hotel clerk busy handing keys to the psyche's "willful guests.")

Watching someone pause in a stationery store, journal in hand, I can almost hear the internal voices chattering away. The same annoying voices that distract the moment a journal's purchased or opened to the first page. Why should I feel I have anything interesting to say? Isn't this a blabbing, confessional culture? Why add to it? What makes me so sure I'll keep up a journal this time? What if someone else finds it?

I'm always tempted to tap the hesitant on the shoulder. I'd say that I wish I'd kept journals more minutely. Better, longer records: the exact way sunlight fell in dusty slants on floors in childhood; the smell of lemon and bacon in the morning; the startling dare of a first kiss. (Like others, though, I often placed a journal back on the store shelf, sure I'd remember everything.) I'd warn how others I've met, their voices full of sudden urgency, say they never understood the importance of journals until theirs were lost or stolen. Or describe how, safe on a shelf, journals proved invaluable when starting longer projects, like a memoir or family chronicle. I'd cite a single entry from a diary someone lent me: On January 12, 1879, a woman whose family had crossed and recrossed the western frontier wrote, "I would like to write a journal that my children could own and be benefitted by if I were taken away. If I were to leave them now, what would they ever know about me?" Thanks to that journal, five generations later a huge family is now linked.

The seasoned journal keeper, of course, doesn't need to be persuaded. It's a habit as natural and expansive as breathing. "Two and a half decades later," says novelist Gail Godwin, "my diary and I have an old marriage. The space between us is gone. I hardly see my diary anymore. And yet, there is a confident sense that we are working together." But hearing how effortless that is for others is like knowing someone who always finds a parking space with time already on the meter. Some trick or lucky gene that makes some able to keep journals, others not. But for most people, their resistance to journals is as strong as their attraction. The following are some reasons behind that resistance and ways to overcome it.

Why Write?: Myths and Mazes

That vast group. I can't forget those faces. Or the mass of hands that shoot up when I ask who has a hard time even beginning a journal.

Journals, more than any other form of self-expression, are invisibly weighted with false preconceptions. (Including the most obvious. "I never keep journals," I hear over and over, only to discover that people do, but just not in a form they recognize.) For many, journals seem to come with operating instructions: all those invisible shoulds. You know them by heart: a diary should be kept daily, in longhand, only in hardcover notebooks, never crossing out, always in full sentences.

The most commonly asked question new chroniclers ask is, What's the difference between a diary and a journal? A diary, traditionally, is thought of as a daily factual record; a journal, something kept more fitfully and for deeper reflection. A diary is what I did today; a journal what I felt about today. Yet it's not so simple (or boring) as that. May Sarton, who began her still best-selling Journal of a Solitude at sixty, wrote daily yet called her diaries journals. Thoreau, who wrote two million words in twenty-nine notebooks, kept both factual and meditative accounts in a single journal. Virginia Woolf, who used hers as a writer's sketchbook, called her journals diaries. Here's a helpful heresy: call them both. Use the words interchangeably. What does it matter as long as either does what it's supposed to: allows you, as Woolf said, to net "this loose, drifting material of life."

Both words come from the Latin root for day. A fancy fact, but here's its simpler truth: a diary or journal isn't necessarily something that should be done daily so much as it is a clue to how to see the daily world around oneself differently.

More diaries have been killed by the idea that a diary must be written in daily than by any other single thing. Why? It feels like homework. (What's worse, you assigned it, making the guilt even stronger when you take days, even months, off.) For many, it triggers early memories of that first unsuccessful diary. Literary agent Sally Brady started her first journal when, at eight, she was "taken out of school for two months to drive from Massachusetts to California and back. I had to keep a log every day, mother's orders. I'd write the date and then ?I hate this log.' At nine, my grandmother gave me a fat, red leather five-year diary, five lines per day, impossible to say much in. All those accusing empty spaces."

While it's helpful for some to keep a daily log, most quickly get bored by recording just bare-bones facts. The trick is to spark them to life. It's best to start with realistic expectations, writing two to three times a week, alternating where and when you write. The exercises and journal prompts that follow at the end of each chapter will help. They're designed to jump-start you, get the writing out, generating material quickly so there's already a foundation.

Journals allow one to reflect, to step outside oneself. They create a third space, an invaluable pause between the conscious and unconscious self. Above all, journals are a way to let the world be reconsidered, not taking in the habitual. They're a master switch on tracks, moving us from the familiar, from not seeing, to seeing anew.

Getting Lost on Purpose

In "A Stranger's Way of Looking," poet Heather McHugh notes that a writer is "someone who has to get away in order to see what he was part of." The same is true for the journal keeper. "Each time we sit down to write," observes novelist Maria Flook, "we are leaving our homeport, our shoreline. We are getting ourselves lost on purpose." That, too, is one of the best ways of thinking about beginning a journal.

Getting lost on purpose is something our fast-paced, overscheduled lives rarely allow us to do. Those huge journal statistics hint at the hunger to do just that. It's behind the reason that journal has become a verb. At first it's enough just to record surface facts. Yet the moment they're put on the page, a deeper movement of the mind is set in motion. As any seasoned journal keeper will attest, one quickly learns to trust that a different, more supple kind of intelligence or memory bank is being tapped.

But why write? What's at stake? Like others who shared their stories, novelist Elizabeth Berg told me how vivid the memory still is of her first diary. In eighth grade she was given "a white diary with gold trim, and that all-important extra: a lock. Of course, I lost the key soon after I got the diary and had to cut it open. Then I Scotch-taped it shut and wrote KEEP OUT! in black Magic Marker — high security." Yet at age fifteen, "I remember it was summer, dusk, and I was at my Aunt Tish's house in Minnesota, getting ready for a party that my cousin was going to have that night. I was sitting at a dresser that had a big mirror, getting ready to do my makeup, and I all of the sudden looked at myself and thought, Who am I? I began to write the answer to that question on notebook paper, and I kept what I wrote, because it seemed important to me. It seemed like the truth. After that, I began keeping most of my writing — that kind of writing, anyway — in a black plastic notebook that I still have."

Often I ask others, "Who are we really writing for?" A future self, usually. Journal keeping is that rare activity centered in the present, contemplating the past, yet aimed for a future self. But writing about oneself is often an obstacle for many. Too selfish. Too self-absorbed. (Was that number one or two on your why-I-can't-keep-a-journal list?) That punitive attitude is best captured by Jessica Mitford. Growing up in England, Mitford was sternly taken in hand by her nanny before any social occasion. "You're the least important person in the room," the nanny hissed, "and don't forget it." (Luckily, the future writer used her invisibility to observe, training her eye instead. Remembering. Recording.) The nanny's message, played out, gets internalized, of course, as our Censor, whose multiple guises have plagued writers for centuries.

Why Start a Journal

Unfortunately, the nanny didn't know the secret history of diaries. In seventeenth-century England, Quakers kept them as records of conscience. Writing daily about the self was seen as a way to transcend it. Early Quaker diaries stressed spiritual confession and gratitude. As journals gained popularity, the daily world crept in. (Think of Samuel Pepys writing so brilliantly on the great fire and plague in London in 1665-66.) Over the centuries, self-examination took a new step forward. Journals became the private place where the public mask could drop. And with it, journals themselves became an important way to suspend self-judgment. Today, sitting for even five minutes with a journal offers a rare cease-fire in the battle of daily life, a time when we're not graded, not performing. It's a time when one attempts some truth, silencing those carping inner voices.

At their core, journals are about sharpening consciousness, not stoking egotism. Trust that the bore bending your ear on a plane or the ranting taxi driver on the ride home never keeps a journal. Their egotism leaks out publicly instead. You become their journal, a live blank page held hostage in a seat. Think of journals as a safe, private way to have it siphoned off, rethought, vented. (Even the health value is high. According to findings published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, such writing alleviated the symptoms of patients with asthma and rheumatoid arthritis.) The deeper benefit of keeping a journal is that it offers a way to be consistently aware or mindful. As Katherine Mansfield noted, her journal became a way "to lose all that is superficial and acquired in me and to become a conscious, direct human being."

Journal writing is, foremost, a way to order and reframe perspective. For Samantha Harvey, an American who interrupted studies at Cambridge University to compete in the Olympics, "keeping a diary means living deliberately. The diary helps me weigh thoughts and opinions about life. And yet the final ?meaning' of everyday events remains open-ended, since the writing and evaluating is continually evolving. For me, the diary is the outward expression of this inward quest — to understand my relationship to myself, to others, to the world, to the spiritual. Without the diary process, it would be difficult to make sense of all the impressions of day-to-day life. Each night when I sit down to write, on a tiny scale, I'm making coherence out of the chaos."

Journals offer invaluable clues at every stage of a recorded life. For Katya Sabaroff Taylor, who's kept journals since childhood, "keeping a journal over a lifetime has taught me a sense of compassion about the human condition, including my own." For ten-year-old Jessica Weaver, journals are where "I first heard my real voice, not the one already trying to please in school." For recent college graduate Arianne Miller, they are "a way to map and track decision-making in my life." For Ray Zager, a retired lawyer, "almost every part of me is in my diaries. My thoughts, dreams, awakenings, holding of the pen (as taught by my third-grade teacher), reading and writing, power and exercise of auditory skills. Other memory is empowered as well. Friends push their way into its pages." For Julie Houy, "I am eighty-one. It helps me to age well."

Most beginning journals are a jumble, an eclectic inventory, the patterns yet to be linked. Yet they're there. A diarist in her late twenties notes, "My journals have taken the form of discovering the undiscovered, a biographical sketch of my shadow self." To begin a diary is like a detective search, a natural activity for anyone who's ever loved reading a mystery, or tackled the simplest crossword puzzle. "Writing in a journal," a woman in her late sixties says, "has always been a way to gather up what I felt were the fragments of my life, a sort of follow-the-dots connection that ends up with a full-blown sketch of life, leaving behind a record for my children."

The Forms a Journal Can Take:
A Capacious Holdall

Like me when I was in my twenties, you can know why and even for whom you're keeping a journal and still be hobbled by the sheer mechanics.

Often people think that a diary should look like, well, a diary: a classic bound journal usually. Or something easily identified as a prop in a movie: a hardcover journal with a quill pen.

A journal is anything that's begun to be committed to paper and saved. A journal is as much an intention to record and save as it is a physical form. My own journals, depending on their purpose, range from Italian-made notebooks to files stuffed with paper to cheap spiral notebooks. The forms journals take are as idiosyncratic and varied as the millions who keep them. Among the ways: Several years' worth of the same 89¢ stenographer's pads. Filled-in pages of calendar squares saved yearly in accordion files. Computer disks. Three-ring binders. Scraps of paper kept in a shoebox. Legal pads. Joint e-mails printed out and saved. The same notebook lined up on windowsills: tiny spiral notebooks from Barnes and Noble, recyclable paper covers. Composition notebooks with black-and-white speckled fronts. Blue 5 x 7 cloth-bound artist's sketch books.

Some of the most successful diarists often use unconventional forms. Thoreau tore off birch bark as he walked around Walden Pond, jotting down ideas with pencils he'd made himself. Novelist Ron Carlson once stored scraps of paper in an old bag, now in computer files. One diarist I know finally got going by razoring out the few pages he'd managed to keep in a series of abandoned journals, transcribing them onto his computer. After a stroke, May Sarton was forced to dictate into a tape recorder. This, too, became a journal.

Woolf's metaphor of diary as a "deep old desk, a capacious hold-all," is also a license to use one's creative imagination, inventing forms. A diary should feel as comfortable as those worn slippers you refuse to throw out. Whatever its evolving form, it should help conjure up the feeling Elizabeth Berg describes when she thinks of her journals: "How wonderful they feel in the hand, how you can sit in a chair with your legs tucked under you and use a nice fountain pen to just quietly scratch away. No plugs, no keyboard, no screen. You write under a yellow lamplight, of course. A ticking clock nearby. And a dog at your feet, sleeping and whining out his nose when he comes to the good part of his dream. And, oh, it's winter, snowing."

The Well-Lived Examined Life

"The unrecorded life," Emerson observed, "is not worth examining." For many, though, the final, most stubborn lament is, When I try keeping a journal, mine are always boring, self-conscious, hard.

Consider the case of Jim Cummings, who, starting at thirteen, hasn't missed recording a day in forty-eight years. "To me, a diary is a record of verification. It is a proof that one has lived and that one has cared enough about a precious life to describe it." Keeping a diary makes him want to lead an interesting life, so he can record an interesting one. And he's done just that. In addition to keeping what's considered the longest continuous English-language diary, he has sixteen thousand diaries written by others that he stores in a special room in his Wisconsin shop. Since 1958, when he was just out of the army, he's earned a living as a bookseller specializing in published diaries of so-called ordinary lives. Shelf after shelf teems with journals, many of them centuries old. Among them are also rare ones kept by children, pioneer women, Civil War soldiers, gold rush miners, war prisoners.

He counts seven generations of journal keepers within his own family. "It's almost a genetic compulsion to keep diaries, like salmon spawning." His truck driver father, for example, kept nature and travel journals from 1933 to 1994, which have been purchased by the Minnesota Historical Society. Cummings's own diaries and collection are being sought by numerous historical and university libraries willing to offer $2 million to become the permanent site.

"A journal-keeper is really the natural historian of his own life," observes writer Verlyn Klinkenborg. "But many of the great journals," he notes, "are marked by a dogged absence of self-consciousness, a willingness to suspend judgment of the journal itself." Diaries, in the end, are about making connections. About getting around your unconscious mind. About breaking into your own store of preserved memories, stories, projects. About stealing them back to the light of day. To keep a journal is to learn how to play. Deeply. Even when a page is recording hard, impossible things, if judgment is suspended, there's always a surprise or shift. Connections made over time suddenly link, opening and transforming.

Freedom, play, insights, connections. These are what happen when a journal is defined on your own terms.

Released of the "should"s, even choosing a journal that feels right is a creative act. "In my closet there is a shelf entirely devoted to notebooks," says novelist Mary Gordon. "I buy notebooks wherever I go in the world. Just as each country has a different cuisine, each has a different notebook culture. And friends who know my fetish bring me notebooks from their travels." I love buying handmade Italian journals with pastel marbled covers. Often, though, they sit orphaned on my shelves. Their formality can make me too self-conscious, the task of writing too monumental. (I have terrible handwriting. It feels a crime to mar such perfect paper.) So I give them to friends who'd never write in anything but them.

British-born Kathleen Hornby has settled on just such notebooks for "ideas, inspirations useful to writing, quotations from famous writers, anything that pertains to books." For her and others, choosing a notebook is a ritual with rules as subtly complex as a Japanese tea ceremony. "Why do I put so much importance on the color of the cover, the feel of the paper, the very heft of such a humble object? Why can't I resist buying yet another one simply because I liked how it looked?" Because, she notes, it promises to "spark me." The paper is "silky to the touch, making it possible to believe I'm writing effortless prose as the pen on paper is so fluid, unobtrusive, even silent. I have a pile of notebooks on my desk, used and unused. They're like old, soft cardigans, comforting to have around, to pull on when the breeze blows."

Whatever physical form a journal takes, Italian handmade or deposit slips thrown in a shoe box, here are a few voices on what a diary truly is:
"A blank-faced confidante."
"My memory's memory."
"A hidden savings account."
"Where all my creative work first hides."
"Life's rough draft I can edit."
"A way to travel while sitting perfectly still."

And, finally, Gertrude Stein, ever to the point: "A diary means yes indeed."


Off the top of your head, list all the forms, physical or otherwise, you can now imagine a journal taking. The wilder, often the better.

On a sheet of loose-leaf paper, recall your very first diary. To start, simply jot details in sentence fragments. Divide the page into sections with the following heads: What did it look like? ("black cowhide cover, blank pages"; "a three-year white leather diary with a cunning little gold key I wore around my neck"; "red spiral-bound college notebook"; "a cheap drugstore diary with a Renoir on the cover.") When did you get it? ("8th-grade birthday gift — the most interesting thing truly is what I had for dinner each night.") Why? ("At 7, I was always telling stories. My great-grandmother gave me a book with blank pages"; "At 26, I went to France. I wrote down all I took in so I would still feel like I was sharing my life with my then-boyfriend"; "At 64, I bought one as a graduation gift for a niece and decided to keep her company.") What single good thing did it spark? ("My grandmother Baba sent me my first diary for my 13th birthday," writes Katya Taylor, "just when I needed it most: after the breakup of my first teenage romance, my parakeet, Keeto, was killed by my cat, and Baba was to die of lung cancer. But more than 40 years later I still keep a journal. It gave me a spiritual connection to my grandmother that continues to this day.") If you stopped, what did you most miss? ("My life.")

A premise and working technique throughout this book is using the flip side of a notebook page (or even a receipt) to catch the ways we split thoughts. Think of it as: Received Opinions; New Perceptions. Use one side to record, the flip side to comment on. (Ideally, one side is lined, the other blank.) Take a moment now before continuing, to jot your most deeply held beliefs about journal keeping; use the other side to explore which beliefs ring untrue, are inherited, or blindly accepted.

Leaving A Trace
by by Alexandra Johnson

  • hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Little, Brown
  • ISBN-10: 0316120200
  • ISBN-13: 9780316120203