Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The Art of Journaling


When I was ten years old, my family took a trip to Nova Scotia. I decided to bring along my new diary. It had blue and orange stripes and the all-important lock on the outside. The pages were gold-tipped, and soon the sparkles were flaking onto me and the backseat of the car. When we stopped at a local restaurant to eat, my Mom spent the first part of the meal wiping the endless sparkles from my nose. 

The thing that I treasured the most about my new diary was all the empty pages waiting to be filled. Do you know that feeling? With the right pen, the sky was the limit. Pages were awaiting my brilliant thoughts and recorded memories. For three days, that dream was a reality. I wrote about the beauty of the Cabot Trail, the Bay of Fundy, a nice retired couple I’d befriended, and the cozy inn where we stayed. 

By Day Four, I decided to take a break. I’d start up again the next day. That was a promise but, by Day Five, that promise was broken.  I was only ten years old, after all, and covered in sparkles. Not to mention, I’d discovered something about diaries. There was a lot of pressure attached to this daily recording.  So, the rest of my diary remains empty to this day. Crisp, clean, boring.
Not until I became a writer did I realize the trick to the art of journaling: a journal is different than a diary. A diary is something that includes the date on each page. Some folks love this method. My Uncle Warren is a Civil Engineer. In meticulous fashion, he logs in every day, things like the weather, the barometric pressure, the day’s highlights. He would be the perfect witness at a trial. The problem is that many of us lose our drive to write when we are trapped by the “rules” of daily recordings. 

Journaling is a whole different experience. Journals can have various subjects or themes: a travel journal, a baby journal, a memory, an idea journal. The latter is what I do best. My journal entries aren’t chronological or neat or profound or earth-shattering. Well, at least not all the time. Sometimes I glue in a picture or a postcard. Sometimes I scribble an idea onto a receipt from the gas station (I have a lot of those) or a torn paper bag. Then I’ll tape or glue that idea into my journal. To me, a  journal captures moments and memories and ideas, all without guilt. Guilt-free.

It was my own love of journaling that compelled me to share this art with others. I’ve led many journaling workshops over the years, but I have one that I truly treasure. With a nudge from Pam Chubet at Norwood Housing Authority , I began to lead a journaling workshop at the Walsh Housing over a year ago. We meet on the second Tuesday of the month and we explore memories.  I bring a simple canning jar with a pop lid, and from the jar I pick out a few prompts for the day. It’s amazing where these questions take us. We write for several minutes and then we feel free to share. I’m blown away by the detailed memories that my participants recall: the ice man coming up the street for deliveries, the day President Kennedy was shot, the boy who greeted his neighbor every day while she was healing from an illness on her front porch. My prompts are simple, but the responses are always unique.                                                                                                                                                                       
As with any art, we can find ways to improve our technique with time. Over the years, I have found several sources to guide my journaling. My own desire to journal was fostered when I took a class with Alexandra Johnson. A teacher of memoir writing and creative nonfiction at Wellesley College and the Harvard Extension School, Johnson won the James E. Conway Award for her distinguished teaching .  Her book, Leaving a Trace: On Keeping a Journal, serves as a guide to enriching “your experience of recording your thoughts and impressions of the world around you.”  By examining the journals of famous writers, such as May Sarton and John Cheever, Johnson is able to coax others to try the same techniques.

For those journal keepers who prefer to mix art with words, there are two other useful sources. Visual Journaling: Going Deeper than Words by Barbara Ganim and Susan Fox demonstrates how this combination can be extremely powerful. Sometimes we can’t find the words to express ourselves, especially when we are younger. Visual journaling uses art to reduce stress, release anger and give voice to your soul, all within the confines of a journal. You don’t have to be an artist to record your memories in picture form. 

For those who are artistic, there is another book entitled Artist’s Journal Workshop: Creating Your Life in Words and Pictures. Cathy Johnson draws on her own insight, having used this process for structure and inspiration in her own life. However, she also shares pages and advice from 27 international artists and their journals. 

Of course, it is up to the journal keeper to decide who will read her words. Journaling may serve as a cathartic process and that may be enough. On the other hand, the journal keeper may discover a book waiting to be written after unearthing unique and captivating memories. Author Phyllis Theroux did just that with her memoir, The Journal Keeper. Well-known for her essays, Theroux takes her reader on a journey through six years of her life as a writer (from 2000 until 2006), revealing topics that occupy all of  us—love, finance, death, loneliness. 

And really, at its best, this is exactly what journaling should accomplish: your thoughts, your words, your memories, captured for time. Only you can record your story as you see it. As Holocaust survivor and author, Elie Wiesel said: “That is my major preoccupation --memory, the kingdom of memory. I want to protect and enrich that kingdom, glorify that kingdom and serve it." After all, the human story is your story, too. Don’t be afraid to write it down.

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