Other people’s words about … writing a journal
She put the card carefully on her knee under the journal, which she opened at the middle to a sprawl of furious and barely legible writing. There were circles and boxes and in some places the pen had been pressed so hard against the paper that it had torn. Clare snapped the journal shut and for the second time in as many days she put her head in her hands and cried.
There wasn’t, she thought, a single page in all the [boxes of journals] that was worth keeping. For twenty-seven years she had written the same things over and over.
from ‘Closing Down’
by Sally Abbott
Like the character Clare in the passage above, I was an avid journal writer for many years — from the age of about twelve years old, in fact. I began writing a journal because my Year 7 English teacher made the activity a part of our curriculum for the year: she gave us ten minutes at the beginning of each class to write in our journals. She saw journal writing as a way of encouraging us to learn to write fluently, spell correctly, express ourselves clearly and perhaps — as a corollary of the writing — to read widely.
Like Clare, I still have all my old journals, stored away in a plastic crate in the house at Aldinga. Those old childhood ones are filled with pages of neat handwriting in blue fountain-pen ink, drawings, doodles, comic strips I cut out from the newspaper and pasted in, pictures from old magazines, stickers, and notes other people wrote to me (on the odd occasion when I allowed someone access to my journal). They are bright and colourful and their tone is, mostly, chatty and cheerful.
But the later journals, which were written during my move from childhood to adolescence through to early adulthood and beyond, are filled with more handwriting and less colour. The writing takes over. It fills the pages. There is page after page after page of it.
It was a grief counsellor who had recommended Clare start keeping a journal … It was a way of beginning to articulate her feelings, the woman had explained, and Clare remembered her sad, earnest face and the huge weight she gave to the word ‘feelings’, as if they were something Clare could take out of herself and put on a table and carefully untangle and separate and tidy up. And perhaps, for a little while, it had helped. But what had she been thinking … to write over and over and over that she was sad or angry or okay? I only wrote what I felt, she thought. I never wrote what I saw. I never wrote what I did. I never wrote that I’ve made it this far.
In my early adulthood, like Clare, I was encouraged by various health professionals to continue keeping a journal as a part of my therapy; indeed, I was told I could see journal writing as a kind of therapy in itself.
And it was, I guess. For many years, it was.
Or at least I thought it was. I only wrote what I felt, Abbott’s character Clare realises in the passage above (my emphasis): I never wrote what I saw. These are wise words. There came a time, in my own journal writing, when I looked back over all those handwritten pages and was dismayed to see that what I had thought of as a process of therapy and healing was more like a process of emotional purging, repeated over and over and over again.
Reading (or rather, trying to read) those passages felt oppressive, overwhelming. Why did I always have the same feelings? Why did I always write about those feelings? Why didn’t writing change the feelings? Why couldn’t I find a cure?
I’ve talked before about my scepticism when it comes to dubious concepts like recovery and healing and cure. That’s part of my theme today (again), but what interests me more here is the way Abbott, using the character Clare, focuses on another dubious concept: the huge weight we place these days on our feelings, and therefore on our need to untangle them and tidy them up.
Meditators often talk about the practice of watching their thoughts and feelings arise and then letting them pass by without becoming ‘attached’ to them. Though, intellectually, I’ve understood the reasoning behind this for years, it wasn’t until I saw it expressed through Clare’s character that I actually got it.
Feelings are repetitive, yes: I hadn’t been wrong about that, in re-reading my journals. What I had been wrong about was letting this bother me. And measuring myself by it.
I never wrote that I’ve made it this far. Here, Clare realises that feelings, as measuring-tools of ourselves and of our worth, will always fail. They do not mark where we are in our lives. They do not necessarily affect what we see, what we do, where we go. (Or they don’t have to, anyway.) In this sense they are, ultimately, irrelevant. Our feelings accompany us on our passage through life, but they don’t determine the actual passage itself.
And they don’t have to be cured.
Interestingly, given the recurrent out & about theme of some of my posts on this blog, the character Clare in Abbott’s book is a great walker. She walks at night when she can’t sleep: she walks, and walks, and walks. And, in contrast to when she’s writing her journal, when she walks, she sees. When she sees, she learns. Her feelings, as she walks, are a backdrop. They are not the main event.
As for me? I took the pictures in today’s post on one of my recent walks through the Scrub, a day in late October when the Scrub was filled with flowers that were purple and blue and pink and white. I was feeling fairly gloomy at the time of that walk — unwell; stressed about being unwell; stressed about my jobs; stressed about feeling stressed about all of these things — but the pictures don’t convey that stress.
And that is as it should be. The feelings were a backdrop to the walk. What I saw was real and lasting. That’s what matters.