On Keeping a Journal


Yesterday, I spent 5 solid hours on a plane correcting a toddler, who was banging with both fists on the seat in front of him, throwing his shoes, and screaming like I was sticking pins under his toenails. It has been a long time since I was so desperately beside myself.

The good thing about your life exploding is that it twists your arm behind your back and manhandles you back to square one. Beginner’s mind. Humility.

The growing pains of going from one child to two, both of them with lots and lots and lots of needs, has left me little dedicated time for writing. I steal an hour here and there, early in the morning, late at night. I have to fight for even that much. I know it won’t be this way forever- it will change as all things do. I also know that when it changes I will be both relieved and beset with panic. Because change does that to me.

Part of me wants to follow the path of least resistance and check my creative life at the door of motherhood. Find ecstatic joy in macaroni collages. Marvel at the potential of the popsicle stick. Instagram whimsical, earth-friendly ways to decorate for each holiday.

I’m not knocking the creativity, even art, we bring to mothering. Not at all. But I am also a writer and an individuated being. I’m not interested in pouring every ounce of my creative inner life into my children. I need sacred space in which my mind can wander and my self-expression doesn’t have to be stamped with a G rating.

Before kid #2, I had a pretty manageable schedule, in which I had hours at a time to work. To daydream. To write and write and write. And now I don’t. The end.

I can’t shoehorn 3 more hours into my day.

So what now?

It’s easy for me to get stuck in resignation and self-pity. It’s also a convenient out. I have a perfectly reasonable excuse to not write right now. Writing is very hard- I’m tempted to surrender far too easily.

Whenever I find myself facing this dangerous mindset, I return to a place of curiosity.

What is it I really want to say right now? What’s burning to come out of me? What’s essential?

Then I look realistically at my limitations, and summon all my creative resources and say- how? How am I gonna do this? Is there a way of accomplishing this that I never considered before?

I’m someone who works things out on the page. I ask myself questions and I write and list and chart until I come to some semblance of a conclusion or a next action. This may take minutes, or hours, or weeks. I usually do this in my journal. So journaling has again become so important to me, with my radically limited time. There’s almost always time for a journal entry.

The most important thing I’ve learned in all my years of writing is not to expect every word to be a publishable pearl.

I have kept diaries for roughly a billion years. I have stacks upon stacks of them moldering in the garage and there they will stay until I die, when they will be shredded and donated to the SPCA for kitty litter. They are process documents. They are research and therapy and muscle building. They are not works of art.

I’ve employed a lot of different journaling methods over the years, and I recently did a complete overhaul. I had grown pretty lackadaisical about it, so I gave my journal a hard look and noticed that my writing was completely compartmentalized. I had a tiny notebook I carried everywhere, a large journal I kept in my bedside table for morning pages, a legal pad with an ongoing albatross of a to-do list, a smaller legal pad for grocery list/stuff we needed….

And then I happened upon this post by my friend Karen Walrond at the wonderful Chookooloonks, which suggests putting everything in one notebook. At first, I blanched. I mean- my grocery list next to my Deep Thoughts? Heresy! But in the spirit of curiosity, I decided to give it a try. If I didn’t like it, it only cost $15.

When you organize your thoughts differently, your perspective shifts. Man, I needed that shift so badly. I realized I was compartmentalizing not just my actual physical lists, but also the various aspects of my life. My Writing Time was sacred, as opposed to the to-do list- the minutae.

Combining all has caused me to notice it’s the same me- same heart, same mind, same soul- wandering the aisles of Whole Foods or sitting down at my desk with my important frown on. And life, all of it, is what art is made of. Not just the lofty parts- the passionate love affairs, the dazzling sunsets, the childhood tragedies. Toothpaste, tin foil, animal crackers, crushed tomatoes… has its own poetry.

When we let the high and low- sublime and ridiculous- coexist, a certain kind of magic happens. Without any extra effort, just by proximity, the creative work is lent texture by the daily details and the daily details demand a different level of consciousness.

I also find that having a “friend” always nearby to whom you can tell your most awful thoughts helps those thoughts to not leak out the sides.

For instance- Tariku has been having trouble sleeping lately.

A few nights ago, I had been around and around with him for 4 hours. It was 11pm and there he was, sitting in front of me and I was at THE END. THE END. I wanted to say the worst things. You don’t even know.

Instead I said, “Just sit here and color for a minute.”

And I turned to my journal and wrote all those awful things in giant, psychopath lettering. Then I turned back to him, and said, “Let’s try again.”

Not exactly a gratitude journal, but I got to say it all! With zero consequences. Because there is no such thing as a thought crime.

I can’t say enough good things about putting it all in one place. When I color with the kids, I do my crappy drawings in my journal. When I give my students a writing prompt, I do it along with them.

I almost never look back at it. But as a result, all of my work has many more layers of richness.

What goes in your journal?


(photo credit: Casey Sjogren)

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