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In Search of a Name

To name is a powerful act. Title your journal — and the years you live.

The top of the dune seemed unreachable. Treading through soft sand and sliding backward with every step, I could make no headway. I retraced my steps to seek another route and came upon a ridge of hard-packed sand that led me to the summit. From the top, I could see massive arms of sand radiating in many directions; I knew then why it was called a star dune.

Later, I wrote about this dune hike in my journal. Later still, when I finished the volume, I wanted to find an apt title for it. Rereading some of the entries, I found that this period of my life was filled with struggles that seemed hopeless, followed by ultimate success; I titled it, "Star Dune Treader."

I began keeping a journal in 1975 to record not only the events of my life but thoughts and emotions as well. I've filled 18 hardbacked record books, each one covering about a year and a half. Each one has a title, a word or phrase that distills the dominant mood, tone or theme of that time period.

The idea came to me as I was finishing my second volume. I discovered a family Bible that had belonged to my great-grandmother in rural Kentucky. On the inside cover she had penciled the date, "1923," and then "Locust Year" — a stark phrase of only two words, but words that spoke volumes about the threat to that year's tobacco crop and the well-being of her family. It inspired me to think of a phrase that summed up my life. I turned to the blank first page of my journal and wrote, "Into the Fire," then dug out my earlier volume and wrote, "Out of the Frying Pan" — titles that fit the frivolous mood of my early writing.

Title Searching, Soul Searching
Titling your journal allows you to reflect on the period of life the volume covers. Searching for a title urges you to a deeper level of self-awareness and might lead to a new insight about the direction your life is taking. Plus, it's an opportunity to be creative, even though what you've written is nonfiction.

Psychotherapist and author Kathleen Adams promotes writing in a journal as a valuable tool for personal growth. In her book Journal to the Self, she advises, "As you end your journal volume, give it a title which represents the themes [covered]." It imparts a sense of emotional closure, after which, she states, "It will be time to move on to another book of your life."

Dr. Jan Wright, an educator and journaler who began writing when her twin daughters were born 38 years ago, often titles individual sections of her journal but not entire volumes. She says, "Whether to title or not seems a question of context. If one's journal is more of a periodic diary as mine is, title by volume doesn't seem practical. If, rather, each volume is developed around a theme, a certain period of time or the exploration of a specific question, I think it would be helpful."

If you're a journaler who prefers dating your years, consider adding a descriptive title as well; to me, it's challenging and fun. Like a bright red cherry atop an ice cream sundae, a title is a finishing touch that provides a focal point for the whole work. And, even though the title appears at the beginning of the book or notebook, it's the last thing you write.

Writing a title gives you a satisfying sense of finality. A person's journal doesn't have the tight structure of a novel or a poem, but it's still a finished product, a literary entity. Can you imagine having a baby and not bestowing a name on your child? Journal writing may not be as intense and rewarding as childbirth, but it is your creation. Doesn't it deserve a name?

Journal titling benefits you twice. In choosing a phrase, you are reflecting on that segment of your life. Later, perhaps after years have gone by, you'll be able to look back at your array of titles and see the path you have taken. A well-chosen title can bring back memories of a particular stage of life. The year I wrote "Indolence and Boysenberries" was an aimless time, yet a time when I felt contented with my home and the bounty of its garden. "Facing the Math" was written during the year I celebrated a milestone birthday and had penned several entries about growing older and confronting my own mortality.

Laurel Wasserman, a teacher, poet and long-time journaler, sees an organizational benefit as well: "As a writer I sometimes want to revisit particular episodes in my life in order to recall an emotion or find a metaphor. Titles in my journal make it easier to find them. Titles also enable me to see what events I felt were important when I was a particular age, so I can look back and see how I changed priorities."

Finding the Name
Once you've decided to name your journal, resist the temptation to use the first thing that comes to mind. Don't write a one-size-fits-all title such as "My Life" or a generic one like "Day By Day." Your title should reflect your personality. It should grow out of the subject matter of the book you've written. That way, it will be unique — it couldn't go on anyone else's journal.

A good title is in keeping with the predominant tone of your writing, be it light-hearted, sad, angry, grieving or contented. The best titles are brief — one to five words. And they are evocative, even somewhat mysterious. I like a title with a double meaning, one that can be understood on a literal level, yet has a more symbolic dimension as well.

When writing my early journals, I didn't think about a title until I'd completed the volume. Then I would flip through the pages, searching for an entry that was particularly meaningful or a phrase that leapt off the page. For example, when I first heard the word "spindrift," I was so enamored with its meaning I recorded it in my journal: "spray blown from tops of waves by a violent wind." I later selected this evocative word as a title because, even though my life was surging forward, a part of me kept wanting to return to the past, like the crest of a wave being blown back to sea by an offshore wind.

In later journals, phrases occurred to me as I wrote them, or as I reread previous entries. When that happened, I jotted the words on the back page of my journal. When it was time to title the book I had a nice collection of possible names from which to choose.

A few years ago I visited Point Sublime at Grand Canyon's North Rim. It's not easy to get there, but at the end of a long dirt road you are rewarded with sweeping views up and down the canyon. When I finished the volume containing this trip log, I scanned the pages and noticed I had written the word "sublime" in several different contexts. In trying to find ways to live a more sublime life, my mental vision opened to a panorama of the past and future. "Point Sublime" became the title of that volume.

Your journals may contain gold mines of imagery if you write about your dreams, and vivid titles can often be found in the descriptions. The title of my latest volume came from a nightmare in which I saw a luminous, white gossamer curtain stirring in a gentle breeze. Somehow I knew an unspeakably frightening thing lurked behind it. I awoke just as a hand moved toward the curtain to draw it back. At the time I was considering leaving my secure teaching job to start a new career, and I felt a mixture of pleasure and fear at the prospect. The dream image captured the essence of those conflicting emotions and became my journal's title: "Beyond the White Curtain."

To name something is a powerful act. On the surface, a name is simply a convenient handle enabling people to talk about something. Even though your journal may be private, a title gives you a convenient handle for thinking about it and, by extension, the period of life it covers. On a deeper lever, naming not only adds value to the thing named, it also empowers the namer.

As a writer, you decide who can read your journals. You may be writing to a specific person, perhaps a child or grandchild. You may eventually want to publish your journals. Probably for most journalers, however, their only "audience" is their future self. Regardless of who hovers in the back of your mind waiting to read your words, you will want to proffer each volume of your journal as a completed work. Titling your journal shows that you take your writing — and yourself — seriously. You respect and value the work your journal represents. Give it the title it deserves.

This article appeared in the June 2001 issue of Personal Journaling.

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