Monday, May 3, 2010

Keeping a journal: Two perspectives

Columnist Beverly Beckham wrote in yesterday’s Boston Globe about keeping a diary. I always read Beckham’s columns not because I find her ideas particularly profound but because I really admire her simple, direct way with language. She has a talent that I do not for expressing her ideas with un-self-conscious clarity. As Strunk and White would say, she uses subjects and verbs. As some one who struggles with a surplus of adverbs and adjectives, I envy Beckham’s ease with the written word.

I wrote a few months ago in this blog about my writing streak, but that entry focused more on how to write regularly than why to write regularly. Reading Beckham’s column, I realized I hadn’t given that much thought recently. Yes, I’ve kept a journal regularly since I was in sixth grade and daily, with my 1,000-words-a-day streak, since late 1994. But why?

Beckham ends her essay with this typically eloquent statement: “My journal makes me remember. And that’s why I write.” Interesting, I thought when I first read it. Because my journal doesn’t make me remember at all, for the reason that I barely ever reread it. My journal is for me a process, not a product. It doesn’t matter what I’ve written; the act of writing it was what mattered. In writing one thousand words a day, I process certain thoughts so that I can then move on and, ideally, get to other, fresher thoughts. Or maybe not; maybe I keep dwelling on the same few thoughts. I wouldn’t know, since I don’t re-read except on very rare occasions.

But within Beckham’s essay is a very good explanation for why she and I differ on this point. Her journals sound like small works of art, with ticket stubs, postcards and emails pasted on to the pages. She spends considerable time choosing the actual vessel for her journal, too, perusing Barnes & Noble’s journal shelves with an eye toward color, size, materials and cover design.

Not me. In fact, my journal doesn’t actually exist. Not in any form that I can paste ticket stubs and concert programs into, anyway. And the color of the cover certainly isn’t a factor. My journal has been solely electronic since about 2000. First, of course, as a girl in the 1980’s, I wrote longhand; then in college I typed (with my little portable electronic typewriter, a long-gone precursor to today’s laptops; my roommate always said that I looked like Schroeder from the Peanuts comic strip bent over the piano). In my 20’s I started writing on computer but printing out. Not until about a decade ago did I question the point of printing out the entries. I was filling up a lot of attic space with binders – this was private, after all; not something I’d be displaying on my living room bookshelves – and the printing and filing was somewhat labor-intensive.

So now I simply save to an electronic file. And yes, I do back up those files. So if I really need to look back at something, I can find it with a mouse click. But that hardly ever happens.

If not to remember, then, why do I write? Because writing what’s on my mind every morning frees up metaphorical desk space on my metaphorical hard drive – the one inside my brain – to think about other things. And because I believe that thinking is circular whereas writing is linear. When I mull over a problem, I keep circling back to where I began; but when I write it out, I tend to progress from point A to point B. I’m also a believer in the “Write it down, make it happen” credo: many days I write rambling breakdowns of tasks I need to accomplish during the day, believing that recording in my journal increases the odds it will get done.

Both journal systems – electronic and ornately designed, shelf-worthy hard copy – are worthwhile, and both of us have reasons that make sense. Beverly Beckham and I are both writers; we feel better when we write. Neither of us expects our journals to matter to anyone but us. But we write anyway. To remember. Or to forget. As practice. As process. To commemorate and to move on. For so many reasons, we write.

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