Keeping a journal: I finally get it

Ever since my kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Grigg, told my mother I’d be a writer many people in my life have had very high expectations of me.

I’m sorry to have disappointed so many of you.

Although florid description comes naturally to me the actual process of writing and storytelling does not. Plus, let’s face it–Mrs. Gregg’s prediction put a certain, shall we say, pressure on me to achieve.  If ‘writing’ is something that came so naturally to me, then I should have been able to do it successfully on my own, without training, while dropping from my mother’s womb, even.  Because I supposedly have this talent already, I’ve resisted regimented methods of trying to develop it.  I’ve not taken any classes in fiction writing, I don’t have a particular technique or ritual, and (probably thusly) I haven’t even finished a noteworthy piece of fiction.


So there.

And that was the sound of me cutting off my nose to spite my face.

I’m not saying that’s a good action plan, as it certainly hasn’t worked well so far.  Because what I want more than anything in the world, more even than a pony, a Jeep Wrangler, and an ofume bathtub combined, is to make a living by entertaining people with stories.  To create a narrative which opens a door into another world for a fascinated reader, to divert someone from their own life into an exciting and attractive place of both our minds’ eyes making, what a gift that would be!

Anyone who’s ever found an author who ‘speaks’ to their reading tastes knows that avaricious joy of reading their new novel, or even re-reading an old one; you are re-fascinated by the scenery, re-engaged by the characters, and sucked in to a new storyline which takes you away from your own world, and maybe gives you a different glass through which to see it when you come out the other side.  It’s almost like visiting with old, beloved friends…sometimes in a creepy, voyeuristic way, but still.  You know and love these people, because you’ve spent how much time reading about them, becoming invested in their travails.

So one would think that I’d be dedicated to pursuing whatever means were necessary for me to become a published writer.  Or even just a ‘successful’ writer, in which ‘successful’ means ‘she finally freaking finished a damned story.’

One technique for developing good writing skills and habits that’s often been recommended to me is journal-keeping, which perversely I’ve resisted.

During childhood and my teenage years, I was too mistrustful of the world in general to record my most-secret thoughts ANYWHERE, for fear that someone would find my journal and expose my super-soft underbelly to the world for ridicule and ritualistic killing.  A short while after my teenaged years, I was reluctant to keep a journal for fear someone would find it and expose my super-evil id to the world, upon which I’d be arrested or drawn-and-quartered to curtail my vicious mind.

It’s tough hiding one’s psychopathy from the world in general.

Suffice to say, I’ve had a lot to write about during my long life, but I haven’t always done it, either out of fear of discovery or laziness or just plain inconsistency.  Occasional writing to find a resolution to problems has been cathartic for me, but it’s an exceptional process rather than a regular habit.  When I’ve had a really difficult problem I wrestle through it by pondering, processing, and then writing about the whole mess, and the problem is resolved.  These emotionally-charged missives rarely get shared with anyone, though.  Looking back on them after the process, they seem too raw, too personal to share.  I guess I’m still very guarded.

One thing I DID do, however, was to keep a paper Franklin Planner.  From 1992 to 2003, I kept (with amazing inconsistency) a record of my schedule and daily occurrences.  Using a zippered binder and usually a fountain pen, I’d plan my day, make notes of entertaining stories or jokes worth remembering.  Sometimes I’d jot down a dream, or notate a significant event.  Sounds kind of like a (gasp) journal, doesn’t it?  Except for the “amazing inconsistency” part, that’s kind of what it was.

In 2003, I moved to using the Franklin Planner on a Palm Pilot, which is electronically much more efficient, but soulless at the same time–there’s no method for saving ephemera, no ink colour changes, and my address book is changed forever whenever I update an address, so I can’t enjoy seeing the addresses of friends and family follow a time line through my records.  Yes, I’m an infogeek.

So for the past 19 years, I’ve lugged 11 of those years around in paper format.  Sadly more than 2/3 of those planner pages were empty of any mark at all, let alone anything interesting.  Rather than being a valuable reference for me, they became a paper albatross, a symbol of my failure to be productive or consistent, and a glaring reminder of my packrattedness.

This past weekend, The Wonderful Pumpkin suggested we work in our almost-two-car garage to try to clear it out and make it useful as, well, an actual structure in which to store cars.  I agreed, and we went down there with an optimistic attitude toward purging.

We shifted items around the garage, organizing and storing some, and placing others on a discard pile for a future garage sale.  We jockeyed items around the garage, ending up dancing around that one last box in the middle of the floor: The Box of Yearly Binders.

With the Franklin system, one purchases a refill at the beginning of the year which contains monthly index pages, daily pages for the entire calendar year, and other useful record-keeping paperwork like address book tabs and budget planning pages.  Most of the pages, except for the current month, are stored in a thick binder that is kept at home.  The current month’s daily pages, along with the index pages for the rest of the months, are kept in a smaller binder that travels with you wherever you go.  The index pages for the months are used for future planning, and the daily pages are used for prioritized task lists and note-taking for each individual day.  At the end of each month, one removes the daily pages for the previous month and replaces them with the daily pages for the following month.

Then one obsessively guards all this paper, fretting about its well-being and security and developing hernias from lugging it around because one cannot bear to think of shredding all that history, but recycling it/throwing it away are much too risky.  One’s super-evil id may come to light at the recycling center, and really, who wants that?

Since both The Pumpkin and I have been working on overcoming our mutual packrattedness together, we decided Sunday was The Day to sit down and finally winnow through all those Franklin pages together, to shred the damning evidence and information which might be used to steal our identities and recycle the chaff.

The Pumpkin was done in about 45 minutes—he’d never really gotten into using the Franklin Planner system because it’s absolutely at odds with his horizontal filing system, so he only had a few yearly binders to sort through.

On the other hand, I was sitting on my bottom on the garage floor (in the sunlight, so it wasn’t as dire as it might sound) until 7 p.m.—right around 3 ½ hours.  I skimmed through most of the pages, picking out notes I’d made which contained account numbers or credit card purchases, prescription drug labels pasted in and employment notes scribbled, and set those aside for shredding.  I also found some noteworthy jokes: “Q. Where does Napoleon keep his armies?  A. Up his sleevies!”  Heh!  That’s GOLD!

I read through mundane scribblings which marked the time immediately after my first wonderful husband had been killed in an auto accident, through jobs and birthdays and birthdates, through meeting my current Wonderful Pumpkin, through illnesses and the death of my mother and some wonderful pets and some awful jobs and wonderful achievements and insights, and some amazing and terrifying dreams.  When I traded in my ’86 Mustang, the first car I ever bought myself, I peeled off my Rogers City Fire Department sticker at the car lot, and through tears I pasted it to a clear zipper pocket used to hold receipts in my binder, and I saw that for the first time in about a decade.

I cry at the oddest things.

In essence, I relived 11 years of my life in about 3 ½ hours.

It was exhausting, but good.  My only regret is that there wasn’t MORE of it all, that there wasn’t more detail, more attention paid to daily happenings, more description of what I felt and thought and observed.  I have a fear of forgetting things, and using the Franklin was one way of bolstering my memory.  I didn’t use it very well, but the little bit I did record provided me some poignant glimpses back in time.  I understand now that those details, those memories, are what makes journal-keeping so valuable.  Instead of reading about someone else’s life, I was recording my own, and that, too, is a valuable reminiscence, even though I didn’t see the value at the time I recorded it.

So now I get it.  I understand now how keeping a journal can enrich my memory and help me to be a better storyteller.  After all, how can I be a good storyteller if I can’t tell the story of my own life, let alone a life I’ve made up as I go along?

Rick says I should keep a journal on my computer, but knowing how wordy I am while  typing, I think it’s better if I keep one on paper.  Typing is very fast for me, and like a roll of quarters, typed words are easily “spent.”  Maybe if I hand-write my journal, I will think my thoughts more thoroughly, and being more deliberately considered, they’ll be richer for the additional thought.

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