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. 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 a recent bushwalk, a day in late October when there were spring flowers everywhere, 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.

7 thoughts on “Tangled

  1. I loved reading this, Rebecca. It highlights a common practice of so many of us. I’ve journaled since the 70s and it is interesting to note that the same ‘problems’ recur over and over. You’re right, there is no cure for feelings!
    I only started journaling my walks and what I was seeing a little over 10 years ago. Even those tend to mirror one another as the seasons repeat. I wonder if we’ll ever get to the point where we don’t bother writing at all? Will we get to the place where it seems unimportant? Time will tell.
    I read my mother’s journals after she died and like the generations prior, they did not write about feelings, but what they did and who they saw. I was disappointed that they didn’t help me know or understand her better.
    My kids will probably toss mine in the burn pile! It really makes me wonder why we wrote and kept them? It is definitely our ego’s desire to leave a mark that states, “I was here.” The older I get, the more I realize that life goes on and within a couple generations no one will remember the person I was. I guess that is why writers write, to be remembered.

    1. Hey Eliza, thank you for such a lovely, considered response to my post :). My grandfather kept a journal, too — and like your mother’s journals, it was all about what he did, and what the weather was like, and there was nothing in it about his feelings, and I would LOVE to have known how he felt. So maybe there is place for writing down our feelings, after all! I hadn’t thought of that angle.
      You’re right, too, about the way recording walks and seasons becomes repetitive, too. I know I post photos of the same plants on this blog every year, too! It’s interesting that I don’t see that as repetitive in the way I view my feelings in my journal as repetitive. I think it’s because I think of the seasons as a natural cycle, and I like the sense of being attuned to, and noticing, that natural cycle. Whereas feelings, though probably cyclical, seem wholly ‘created’ and seem to me to have nothing to do with the natural environment at all.
      Although then again, maybe we should just be kinder to ourselves about what we write in our journals! Your comment has certainly given me pause for thought xo
      PS And yes, I think that writers do write, in some cases, to be remembered. But also I think writers sometimes write in order to feel valued in a way they don’t feel valued in the everyday transactions of their lives … Or at least, I think that’s one of the reasons I myself write (both on my blog and in my books, though of course currently my books are out of print). Such food for thought! 🙂

      1. I think maybe as a part of nature, we, too, cycle. We certainly could be kinder to ourselves!
        Did I mention how much I loved seeing the photos of plants flowering along your walk? Different from my own, I am curious about what grows there and never tire of it. 🙂

      2. Thanks Eliza :). I feel the same when I look at your photos of your world. It’s wonderful to dip into someone else’s natural environment and see what grows there, isn’t it? 🙂

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