I have been a passionate advocate of writing a personal journal for a long time. I have tried many of the techniques suggested in books or learnt in workshops: unsent letters; lists; dialogues with my Self, my body, my favourite writers, and my mother; daily entries and accounts of my dreams—and many others. I also spent much of my time writing rants, vehement outbursts from a young woman struggling with motherhood, a career and the results of a difficult childhood. Positive entries followed these passages: testimonies of the good times and quotations from the books I was reading, but positive entries were interspersed with passages relating my guilt and despair. I wanted to know why I wasn’t a better mother, teacher, daughter, wife and friend.
I did not realise, during my twenties, thirties and forties, that what I was trying to do was write myself into being.
My journals also contained attempts at short stories, outlines for novels and endless poems that would never progress beyond adolescent, angst ridden embarrassments. Was it me? Was I doing something wrong?
Several weeks ago I opened the boxes containing my journals. I placed the notebooks on the dining table and surveyed them. I remember thinking, ‘What am I going to do with these versions of me?’ They sat on the table, my tatty corpus, and glared at me, mocking me with what lay behind their gaudy faux-leather covers.
I was reminded, as I glared back at them, of a day, about six years ago, when I was a brand new post-graduate student. At the time I was living alone in a one bedroom unit that, despite having seen better days, I loved from the moment I moved in. The first storey unit overlooked the gulf waters that lap gently at the beaches of my home city. It was a cool afternoon, the sea breeze had arrived and because the unit was draughty I had shut all my windows and was sitting on my sofa reading my journals. I was writing an early draft of the creative section of my thesis, and I hoped to find material in my journals to use in my memoir. When a sound from my bedroom distracted me, I laid the journal I was reading on my sofa and went to investigate. A bee had crawled through a bee-sized crack in the rotting, shrunken rubber seal surrounding the window frame. Having found its way into my eyrie, the bee was trying to escape, buzzing and pushing itself against the glass it could feel but not understand. It had crawled into captivity but was unable to find its way out. I sat on my bed and watched it, trying to imagine what it might be feeling. It could see the world beyond the hard invisible barrier, it could remember the smells and sounds of that world but, with each frantic flap of its wings, those memories were fading. The bee dropped to the windowsill, gathered its strength, rose up and pushed once more against the merciless glass. I knew it would continue to do so until it died on the sill and I knew it would take a long time to die.
The woman in my journals was like the bee. She had crawled into a space she called her life but she could see a world beyond, a world she thought might have been her world. Like the bee, she pressed against barriers real and imagined, barriers that stood between her and the smells, sounds and sensations of a world she longed for. She had almost worn herself out, writing her journals, staying trapped in an endless cycle of visualising change but never really changing. Even her eyrie could, if she let it, turn into a trap. Unlike the bee, however, she didn’t have to wait for someone to open the window. She could open it herself.
I returned to the sofa and packed my journals away, leaving the woman I had been to languish between their scabrous pages. I had confronted the whining, melodramatic creature I’d found trapped in the entrails of those journals and decided to become a writer instead.
I wrote my memoir, leaning on my memories, and not my journals, to substantiate who I was … after all, what memoir contains every single truth, and every scurrilous lie, about a life? While I was researching therapeutic writing I discovered reflective writing, and realised my journals lacked reflection, the art of analysing, rethinking and criticising what I wrote (not how I wrote it, which is the concern of a writer who wishes to publish her work).
Journal writing is, of course, a form of reflection but writing about a stressful situation, as I often did in my journals, can add to the stress. When we record an experience and reflect on it, we are reflecting on the experience. When we are stressed, our reactions to, and assumptions about, an experience might be wrong. I believe this is what happened to me and is one of the reasons why re-reading my journals was so unsettling. Would my life have been different if, thirty years earlier, I jotted brief notes about the situation and returned to the entry when I felt calmer, stronger and more likely to think clearly?
Recording and bemoaning an experience does not change anything, and may stop us learning about, or healing from, a situation. I am not recommending we exhaustively examine every journal entry, censor ourselves or give ourselves a hard time. I am suggesting we can gain fresh insights and change our perceptions of life by confronting our assumptions, our prejudices, and our oppression. By casting a cool objective eye across the pages of our journal we separate the person from the record of an experience. The words on the pages of my journal represent me, but they are not me (which is where journal writing and creative writing do dovetail).
It is not just experience that teaches us about life; interpreting and examining the meaning of an experience enhances our learning.
Whether we write a journal entry, an office memo, a letter to a sick friend, a term paper, a dissertation or a blog post, one of the easiest ways to reflect on what we write, is to stop, sit back and ask ourselves:
- ‘So what?’
- ‘Now what?’
- ‘What if?’
What do you think? If you try reflecting on a journal entry, I would be interested in your reaction.
David Boud, ‘Using journal writing to enhance reflective practice’, New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education 2001.90 (2001), pp. 9-18.
Christopher Johns, Becoming a Reflective Practitioner (Oxford: Blackwell, 2004.)