Blank books and blank pages
“Life had accumulated, not nearly passed.” ~Annie Dillard
Today, I would like to talk about journaling in celebration of May Sarton’s birthday (5/3/1912). For those of you who are not familiar with her work, May Sarton wrote poems and fiction, but is perhaps best remembered for her journals.
In her book, Leaving a Trace, Alexandra Johnson said “a journal is how memory and meaning finally meet.” I believe this is true. A lot of life doesn’t make much sense until we are able to look back on it from a distance. Keeping a journal helps us do this.
My grandma (Grahamcracker) kept a journal that she filled with stories of growing up and stories that she made up. I took these journals, that were both written and recorded, and transcribed them. I had them made into a bound book for her and her children and her children’s children as a gift to her on her 93rd birthday. She had always wanted to be published, and I wanted to give her that. She passed away shortly after that, and I cherish the words that she wrote about her life. It connects me to her.
Now, many people of all ages keep journals or diaries, or at least feel that they should. There in, lies the problem. A journal should be loose, an extension of yourself. The minute you put the “should” in there, it becomes more like a noose around your neck. You start to feel like you have to put in a certain amount of pages or minutes every single day and that everything written there must be profound.
There should be no “shoulds” in journal writing. Loosen up a little! If you find that strict rules make you buckle down and put pen to paper, then ok, but I don’t know that the experience will be nearly as enjoyable as it would be if you approached it with a little less discipline. A little of this, a little of that, and in the end, you have a picture of your life, painted in your words.
I have always had a fascination with beautiful blank journals – the smooth leather, the fancy high quality paper, the heft and smell of them. But the problem I have with these blank journals is they usually stay blank. I find that when faced with the idea of marring their pristine pages with my meanderings, I am frozen. I end up not writing anything at all. So, I recommend buying a spiral notebook at your local drugstore. I go for college-ruled, three subjects because I like the smaller size. They are not too costly, come in pretty colors, and I don’t feel bad writing a lot of garbage in them.
Pens are the same. Fountain pens or expensive gel pens are fine if that is your preference, but make sure the ink doesn’t soak through the pages or have a lengthy dry time. If you don’t, you will end up with a lot of illegible words in the end.
Don’t worry about following a lot of rules. There is no specific format you need to follow – write letters, details of your daily life, make lists, use prompts, take a walk through your memories – it all works.
To get the most out of journaling, you need to turn off your inner censor and just let the words come. I think that is true of most things in life.
Never write with an eye toward a specific audience. You should write a journal only for yourself, or maybe to leave to your kids, but never with an eye to publication. Most people won’t be famous enough in life to warrant having their journals published, and that is just as well.
Leave grand topics for another day. Unless the meaning of life is burning a hole in your brain, you don’t need to write about it. You don’t need to solve all the problems of the world in your journal. Write about everyday occurences, things you do or dream of doing, people you know, places you go, and the little things that happen to you. These little things are actually the big things when you look back on your life.
As Jill Badonsky wrote in The Awe-manac, May Sarton “wrote about her daily habits, like gardening, washing the dishes, taking care of pets, and looking at the ocean. She referred to her journals as ‘sacramentalization’ of ordinary life. I think she made that word up, but I like it.”
I like it, too. Writing about the everyday things brings the extraordinary to the ordinary. It makes you open your eyes and look around you. It helps you to really see the beauty and wonder of your life. And it is only when we understand the little things, that we can begin to tackle the big grand ideas.