Tuesday, March 02, 2010

A Journal is for ... What?

I first started keeping a regular journal when I began serving as a missionary for my church at age 19. Over the next several years I wrote faithfully, eventually filling two binders. In time I slacked off. Instead of writing four or five times weekly, I found myself writing several times monthly. That rate decreased to sporadic entries that were sometimes months apart.

Then in the dawn of the personal computer era, I began keeping my journal in electronic format. This was in the days before WYSIWYG was common. I once again kept my journal faithfully. But like many back in those days, I had a poor understanding of data security. My only copy was on a floppy disc.

I can still remember the desperation I felt when my journal file died. No amount of effort, even by my super geek friend, was able to restore the file. In the blink of an eye, an entire year of my ramblings disappeared forever. I was so upset by this that I quit writing for a year.

After repeated admonishments by church leaders to keep a journal, I made a New Year’s resolution 14 years ago to do so. I have kept that resolution to this day. I average about five journal entries per week. I keep my journal in word processing files, creating a new file for each month and keeping each year’s files in a separate folder. You can bet that I keep this stuff redundantly backed up. I don’t want to lose it again.

Recently I started working on bringing my older files up to modern protocols. Paper can deteriorate and ink can fade. But as long as it is kept from the elements, advancing technology usually doesn’t render your pen and paper writings obsolete. Not so with electronic files. No one can guarantee timeless support for old computing protocols. (Of course, it is difficult to do word searches using paper copies.)

Not only have I copied my old word processing files to new ones, I have been creating a composite file for each year, which I have then converted to PDF format. PDF used to be a proprietary format, but it is now an open standard. Hopefully that will keep it viable for some time. But even open standards drop support for older versions as they are updated. So I anticipate the need to repeat this exercise in the future.

I have long considered getting my journal printed. A local shop prints and binds long electronic documents for a fee. Of course, you pay extra for heirloom quality paper and printing. I do have some concerns about doing this. For one thing, I have realized during my project that I now have thousands of journal pages. Printing these would be somewhat pricey and would produce a number of volumes. What time period would be appropriate for a volume? Five years? Ten? Maybe it’s simply a function of size, say 400 pages.

Then there are privacy concerns. Although most of my writings are horribly mundane (and probably inane to others that might peruse them), there’s some pretty personal stuff in there. I’m not too thrilled about the idea of employees at the print shop having access to all of that.

During my upgrade project, I have begun to reflect on my purpose in keeping a journal. It turns out that there are times that my electronic journal has helped me find an important date or event. But that’s not really why I write. Is it for posterity? To be honest, I can barely stand to go back and read the glop that I record in my journal. It seems like gross fantasy to assume that any of my progeny might someday pore over thousands of pages of my routine daily events interspersed with mawkish musings.

A Romanian blogger named Ririan gives 10 reasons to keep a journal in this 2006 post. Most of Ririan’s reasons — stress reduction, improved organization skills, keener personal insight — focus on self improvement. Professional writer Jack Oceano gives eight reasons in this 2007 post. Some of these parallel Ririan’s thoughts. Others focus on the craft of writing. But Oceano’s number one reason is that journal entries are like snapshots that capture raw emotion in a way that photo snapshots never can.

I have just looked at a host of articles about how to keep a journal and have discovered that I have been doing it wrong all these years. Most articles suggest that your main writing emphasis should be your immediate thoughts and feelings. Humdrum details should be kept to a minimum.

My writings have this equation exactly reversed. I record what some would consider minutia. My personal feelings occasionally break through the particulars to spill onto the page, but even then they are often guarded and much less raw than Oceano proposes. I find that I am more likely to express my positive emotions in writing while being cautious about letting my negative emotions show.

I am not opposed to learning to do something different if I deem it to be beneficial. Positive growth entails (sometimes uncomfortable) change. But I am not certain that altering my journal writing to feature emotion above information would reflect me better than does my current tack. Nor am I certain I would find it as fulfilling. Details are important to me.

I guess that I write a journal for similar reasons that I exercise daily. It is a positive effort that requires a certain amount of self discipline and that provides certain psychological payoffs. I am not certain that anyone else will ever read from my journal. Frankly, I don’t expect them to. But if they do, I hope that they read enough to get a broader picture of who I am and gain some understanding of the growth process that led me to this identity.


Michaela Stephens said...

The benefit of including emotion in your journals is that it allows you to express that emotion. This is cleansing.

I once transcribed my great-grandfather's day planner from 1976. He wrote down all his errands and tasks in it. I had a great picture of what his days were like and how he spent his time, but I wish he had written what he THOUGHT and FELT about things too.

Jordan said...

I have just now begun again to keep a journal after many years of not doing so. I also have no idea what to write. I do so many things each day that it seems overwhelming to try to keep track of them. I also have so many conflicting feelings and emotions so much of the time (kept inside, of course) that I feel like if I opened up with those in a journal future generations would think I was a total basketcase. So what I end up writing often seems superficial and glosses over reality - or does it? Maybe I just concentrate on the positive aspects of my day...

The point is- I am having real trouble figuring out how to make my journal a real portrayal of a very complex me without (1) spending hours writing each day or (2) emphasizing the wrong things...

Suggestions, since you are such an experienced journaler? What do you normally write about, and how long do you spend each day?

Reach Upward said...

I have found that regular writing for me means having a regular time and setting for writing. Routine is the thing that works for me. What I write is sometimes a function of how much time I happen to have at that moment.

I usually include a brief chronology of the day's significant events. Sometimes I will write about what I did at work. I try to include names of people that I worked with at work, at church, at Scouts, etc.; names of people I interacted with in social settings, etc.

I like to capture brief stories about family interactions, especially when a child does something noteworthy. I like to particularly catch humorous anecdotes, but I also have been known to include disciplinary events. Sometimes I am good enough to capture actual quotes of family members that I think might be something good to remember.

Sometimes when I have more time, I indulge in philosophy or even rudimentary poetry. I frequently include personal religious insights, promptings, and events.

And I do include emotion. I write about how I feel about my wife and my children, my job, my co-workers, my civic duties, my extended family, my neighbors, etc. But emotion is far from my main focus. It seems to be a naturally occurring phenomenon that is interwoven with my recording of daily events.

But that's me. The way I write may ill suit others. I think each person needs to individualize their approach to journal writing. They have to make it work for them.

Michaela Stephens said...

"I also have so many conflicting feelings and emotions so much of the time (kept inside, of course) that I feel like if I opened up with those in a journal future generations would think I was a total basketcase."

Jordan, writing about conflicting emotions does not portray you as a basketcase. It shows that you are fully aware of the emotional complexity in your life. Other people have complex and conflicting feelings too, and future generations may read what you write and derive comfort from it, saying to themselves, "My great-great-GGG grandfather experienced this too! Oh! I'm normal!"

You don't have to make a big deal about it. When something happens that raises conflicting emotions, you can write something like, "I feel happy, but also sad about this. I'm happy because [blah,blah,blah]. I'm sad because [blah,blah,blah]."

If you look carefully, conflicting emotions can be found in the Book of Mormon in various places. Happy that the people of Limhi accepted God, sad that it only happened after so much slaughter. Happy to have the record of the Jaredites, sad that their society was so wicked it was destroyed.