On Journals

In one of the essays included in his recent collection, In a Cardboard Belt, Joseph Epstein reflects on the nature of journal keeping. He begins:

I have been keeping a journal for more than thirty years, and if you were to ask me why I continue to do so, the best answer I can offer is that I cannot stop now. I consider scribbling a paragraph or two each morning in the notebooks that constitute my journal part of my intellectual hygiene…As for the contents of my journal entries, they generally have to do with events, incidents, thoughts (more like notions) of the day before, though I am not above writing something genuinely vicious about something I’ve read, someone I’ve met, or some piece of gossip I’ve heard.

Long ago I stopped keeping a journal. When, from time to time, I went back to read a few pages, I was overcome with embarrassment. Such adolescent stuff I thought. I could not bear the thought that someone might read it one day. So with a sigh of relief, I tore the whole thing up and deposited it in the trash. These were the days before recycling, you see. I have no regrets now about doing that, unlike the great regrets I have for stupidly throwing away all the letters I wrote to my parents in the days when writing letters was about the only way of communicating with someone who did not live nearby.

It is sometimes said that keeping a journal composed largely of therapeutic ruminations is therapeutic. In light of recent research, I find only limited support for this claim. I also agree with Epstein that:

Some benefits may accrue from setting out, in the plainest, least self-dramatizing prose, one’s troubles, if only to gain greater clarity about them. But it makes for dreary reading.

If you keep a journal, you may find it helps you get through the day or the night as the case may be. But whether or not such recording keeping benefits you in the long term remains an open question in my mind.

As usual, Epstein ranges over a variety of topics in this essay. Those that have some relationship with journal keeping are listed below.

My advice on journal keeping is…keep it light.

I take a subject and attempt to illuminate it in some rough way through the light of my own particular experience.

…my current state of mind—fatigued but tiring fast.

…writing at much greater length…allows so much more time for confusion, self-hatred, and deep doubt.

The thirty-three notebooks that constitute my full journal must by now run to nearly a million words. To the question who is ever likely to publish them, the short—and I suspect definitive—answer is: no one.

When Alan Bennett began keeping his diary in 1974, he decided straightaway not to record his emotions and thoughts, because “they make you cringe when you read them again.”

“The reason I write is because there is no one to talk to and I might as well build up a completely private life.” Dawn Powell.

One can say to it [journal] things one wouldn’t dare to say to anyone else.

“One stops being a child,” Cesare Pavese wrote in his diary, when one realizes that telling one’s troubles does not make it better.