Paging through my old journal a few weeks ago, I came upon an entry describing the delicious home cooking of a dear friend. She grew up in the 1950s, a time before the advent of prepackaged foods. Her meals were real, solid food: thick, juicy cuts of beef and light, creamy mashed potatoes, garnished only with a dark, velvety gravy. Salad was simple: lettuce and tomato covered with a tangy homemade thousand island dressing brimming with chopped hard-boiled eggs and zippy relish.
I had written this entry as I grieved my friend’s passing over 15 years ago. Reading the entry now brought not only the sensory delights of her cooking, but also the sound of her laugh and the feeling of family at her over-sized dinner table. It reminded me how much I miss her and how grateful I am to have had her in my life. That entry in my old journal was like a little gift from my past self.
As a writing teacher, I know that keeping a journal has incredible benefits. Journals let you practice word flow; they help boost creativity; they become a depository for promising ideas that straggle out at inopportune times. Overall, journals produce something teachers call “metacognition” — thinking about your thinking. In this age of information, when livelihoods depend on how much thinking we can produce, who wouldn’t want their own in-home thinking factory?
Lifehacker also lists some unexpected career-related benefits of keeping a journal, including monitoring your problem-solving ability and thinking through arguments to help you ask your boss for a raise. In spite of all these benefits, I still find it incredibly difficult to consistently keep up my journal. I write sporadically. Months (or years) might pass without any entries at all.
And yet, when I look back over the pages, I find small nuggets that help me make sense of things. I kept track of daily itineraries during a trip to Barcelona with a longtime friend. In one entry, I described our foray into La Boqueria — a colorful, bustling open air market. I wrote about the apprehension I felt when I realized that I couldn’t read the language on the signs or on the food packaging. The brightly colored photos I took couldn’t bring back the exhilarating uneasiness of totally foreign surroundings the way that my journal could. I understood the importance of that kind of free fall in my normal, inside-the-box life.
Rereading that entry made me realize that I need to recommit to my journal to be sure that I can pick up the small threads of my life that would otherwise be lost. To do it, I’ll have to take my own advice. I’ve taught hundreds of students about the value of daily writing. So, here is the advice I’ll take myself in getting reacquainted with my journal:
1. Write for small amounts of time.
Journals are not filled overnight. They are filled over a lifetime. Knowing what our lives are like these days, writing for more than 10 minutes a day might not be realistic. In 10 minutes, though, you can record a significant memory or blazing insight.
2. Use “describe and reflect” to knock down those writer’s blocks.
I get stuck sometimes with the feeling that everything I write has to be something earthshaking; in truth, though, the things I value most in my journal now are the simple things: a description of one of my students or a short prayer of thanks for someone in my life.
When you are stuck for something to write about, think about two active verbs: describe and reflect. Description will evoke sensory memory. Describe a physical place you found yourself in today. What did this place look like, sound like, and feel like? Describe what happened in this place. Describe a person you encountered today. What did she look like? What did he say?
Reflection is meditative. It encourages you to think about the meaning of what is going on around you. Reflect on something that happened or on someone who made an impact on you that day. Think about what caused some emotion. What made you happy or sad? What are you thankful for? What do you wish had been different?
3. Do it now!
With the new school year upon us, it is a good time to either recommit to your journal or to start a new one. If this is a banner year — your senior year or maybe your freshman year — think about all of the important experiences you will capture. You can get started with one of those beautiful, hardbound-book-style journals, or you can simply grab one of those spiral notebooks that are always on sale at this time of the year. If you prefer typing your entries, the iPhone App Storm website has a list of 50 different electronic tools to help you easily stay committed to your journal. You’ll be sending a little gift to the future you — who will laugh, cry, and reminisce about this year’s milestones.