Whenever I get a chance to make new acquaintances, I always end up asking them if they keep a journal. Most I've met do, yet admit stumbling upon the familiar problem of how to keep it going. I can only remember one person who said he hadn't tried to record his life in some fashion. He was a raggedy young man at a Greyhound bus station, who was headed with his backpack to the dusty canyonlands of northern Mexico. He said he didn't have time for all that documentation. That to document it would somehow ruin the experience. That he just enjoyed living the moments and making mental images of his many adventures as they occurred.
I could appreciate his position. It even got me wondering why I had spent the last 10 years feverishly trying to get down all those seemingly sacred moments that came rushing by like some brakeless roller coaster.
But after a day of contemplating his position (and making notes about it in my journal!), I have to say I felt sorry for him. Sorry because I could see him as a frail, old man someday. Sitting in a rocking chair wondering where his life had gone. He would only have those mental images that, unfortunately, with age become vastly clouded.
My journaling companions and I, on the other hand, hope to be spending our waning years not only filling empty books but studying all the stories and long inky lines that we composed years earlier. Being able to relive all the glory of our youth and our time spent here on this lovely garden of a planet.
So the real question I should be asking seems to be not if we journal, but how we can journal better. How can all us avid journal-makers of the 21st century and beyond break down those concrete walls of fear, those cages of conformity, that keep us from simply making a free-flowing and engaging document of our lives? Why is it so difficult to be a consistent journaler?
Sure we've all heard expressions like "Loosen up!" and "Learn to play again!" But we are adults now. And playing isn't something we do any more. What would the neighbors think? Only on vacations do we seem to let our hair down, roll up our pant legs and run freely at the water's edge.
As adults, we truly have forgotten that maybe the reason our diaries are boring is that our lives are boring. I would be so bold as to suggest that if you want to create interesting pages, you'd better go create some interesting days, then sit down to write about them. I would even go so far as to say you probably need to bust out, to turn left instead of right on your way to work. To call in sick from a phone booth. To turn off your cell phone and enjoy a long day drawing flowers and trying to explain how they smell. To make long, lazy notes from up in that cool treehouse you've driven by how many times, but never went to explore.
And on subsequent days (if you haven't been fired!), to really learn to observe children—those uniquely pure and fascinating little creatures who, as a friend pointed out, "haven't erected their walls yet." Teach yourself to think and see the world through their eyes. Begin to draw in your journal. Glue things in it. Mess it up a bit! Stop thinking it's so darn precious. It's just a bunch of paper. Cut loose and do some real scribbling for crying out loud! When my kids were young we'd make big scribbles on paper when we got frustrated, and calm down by coloring in all the shapes.
How about trying to write every first page of the day with your other hand? It's slow. It's tedious. You won't think it's possible. But slowing down is probably what you need to do. Really watch that ink as it pours out the end of your pen. Bite your tongue in concentration. Get totally gone. Write whatever comes to mind.
One day last spring I observed a preschooler ambling up the sidewalk. I was waiting to pick up my own children from school. Like most adults I had squeezed in this task between all the afternoon appointments. And I noticed that it took this youngster 15 minutes to walk just two blocks!
Instantly I was transported back to my own childhood. How amazingly different those times were. For the rest of the day I kept realizing how incredibly busy I was. Running from Point A to Point B. Thinking about Point D while I was still at Point C. Yet here was a being who was living in an entirely different world. He acutely observed everything he came in contact with. Shuffling along with a heavy book bag, he walked circles around and through a muddy puddle. He petted a little brown dog. And stared at the birds and the sky. He was being a totally free spirit.
This past fall I joined the local gym and worked out every other day for two months. And I noticed that I'd do the same routine every day. Someone said we humans like to create routines because they allow our minds to go on to more important matters.
Routines may be OK for the gym, but I'd keep them to a minimum when working in your journal. Within those pages you are the master, and only you can decide what goes in. If you spend too much time reading what you should or could put in your journal, you won't be listening close enough to find out what you want to put in it. This empty journal may be the only thing in your whole entire world that is absolutely yours. So rejoice in that. Make it wholly a reflection of you.
Try to imagine reading your diary had you documented your younger years when you were a child. Written from, say, an 8-year-old you. It would be free, nutty, whimsical, unique and unusual. But mostly it would be fun. And it would be all you, having that fun. Remember, you're not writing the Great American Novel here. You're just trying to have a little fun. Just like you used to do when you were a kid. Do you remember the feeling of the hair standing up on the back of your neck when you were about to get caught on a summer's eve while playing hide-and-seek? That's the same feeling you should be trying to capture when writing your journal. And to do that, you're going to have to go have some new kinds of experiences.
It shouldn't be a job (you've already got one of those)! It should be FUN. And when it's fun, you'll want to come back again and again to those blank pages. To smear your experiences all over them.
So change your thinking. Change your life. Turn left instead of right. Carve a comfortable place out of your busy life for your journal writing. Close your door, and hang a note on the knob: Gone Journaling!
This article appeared in the August 2001 issue of Personal Journaling.