Kids, Style

On Keeping a Journal

“Here is the diary of a book, and it will be interesting to see how it works out.”

The book here is The Grapes of Wrath—the diarist, John Steinbeck.

“I have tried to keep diaries before,” Steinbeck wrote in 1938 as he began the novel, “but they didn’t work out because of the necessity to be honest.”

My lifelong habit of journaling—and my attempts to be honest while doing so—made “The Diary: Three Centuries of Private Lives” at the Morgan Library & Museum of special interest to me. While in New York City earlier this month, I had the good fortune of visiting the exhibit.

On display were more than 70 journals and diaries: Bob Dylan’s concert tour journal; Albert Einstein’s journal (of equations); John Ruskin’s diary of his chess-playing progress. And Steinbeck’s diary—oversized, almost ledger-like. It was “an attempt to map the actual working days and hours of a novel,” he wrote. “If a day is skipped, it will show glaringly on this record and there will be some reason given for the slip.” It was self-discipline via diary—honesty in the service of efficiency. “This must be a good book,” he wrote. “It simply must.”


Manuscript diary of Albert Einstein (1879–1955), 1922–23. Gift of The Heineman Foundation to The Dannie & Hettie Heineman Collection, 1981. © 1987–present. Princeton University Press and Hebrew University of Jerusalem. (All exhibit photography by Graham Haber, 2010. Images courtesy of The Morgan Library & Museum.)

 


Manuscript chess diary of John Ruskin (1819-1900), ca.1880’s. Bequest of Helen Gill Viljoen, 1974.

 

Here are some lines from Charlotte Brontë’s 1836 journal when she taught at Roe Head, an all-girls school: “I now, after a day’s weary wandering, return to this ark which for me floats alone on the face of this world’s desolate and boundless deluge. It is strange. I cannot get used to the on goings that surround me.”


Manuscript diary entry by Charlotte Brontë (1816-1855), in miniscule hand, 1836. Bequest of Helen Stafford Bonnell, 1969. Image courtesy of The Morgan Library & Museum.

 

While not a diary of a novel’s progress, Brontë seemed to be privately honing her literary voice. It’s easy to hear echoes of Brontë’s Jane Eyre here, her confessional “dear reader,” and the “strangeness” surrounding Rochester and Thornfield Hall.

And then there was Tennessee Williams’ blue-with-white-polka-dotted journal, featuring the lines: “A black day to begin a blue journal.” At the time, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof was a success on Broadway and A Streetcar Named Desire was about to debut in New York. Williams’ career was enviable, and yet his journal is a catalog of melancholy and self-doubt. He was painfully honest in its pages: “Nothing to say except I’m still hanging on,” he wrote. Upon reading that line, I was reminded of Williams’ Blanche DuBois in Streetcar who has “always depended on the kindness of strangers.” A tragic line in the play, I suddenly saw it as desirable—maybe even what Williams wanted. Or I wanted it for him after I read the lines in his journal.

For those of us who journal, it always comes back to “I.” As Joan Didion writes in her essay “On Keeping a Notebook”: “Remember what it was like to be me: that is always the point.”


Illustrated manuscript travel diary by British travelers Mary Ann and Septimus Palairet, 1843. Gift of Arnold Whitridge, 1962.

 

I started journaling when I was eight. My earliest entries were about overbooked afternoons and looking forward to Fridays when I could “watch television.” (Today, I do not have one.)


My first diary. By “Unfortunately” I meant “Fortunately.”

 

Ten years later, my friend Jen and I occasionally read aloud our journals’ first lines, which were at once mysterious and revealing, never giving away too much. We had no trouble with honesty in our journals. If anything, we were too honest, verging on overdramatic. Reading our first lines aloud, and hearing how absurd some of our experiences sounded, was the best way to get perspective.

Some of my first lines from that time: “I’ve been scrubbing my favorite dress for the past half-hour—my ‘Juliet dress’ was savagely defiled at Saturday’s Special Dinner.” (There had been a Caligula-themed dinner at the student co-op I lived in—an arranged food fight with 150 people. I still remember the stain on the sleeve. Mustard.)

And this: “I was going to write this morning—at 2:30 a.m., to be exact—but, in retrospect, I think I was too caught up in the whirlwind of consuming emotions that would have surely made for a confusing and emotionally trying entry.”


Some Chronicle journals I have used over the years. I plan to use the Garden Blossoms Flexi Journal and the Sis Boom Flexi Journal next.

 

There it is—that struggle to be honest, the internal conversation played out on paper. Steinbeck professed to failing at diaries due to the “honesty” issue, but it could be that no matter what is written—even when a journaler sets out to be dishonest—an honesty is always there. It is unavoidable. The honesty is implied.
For me, past journal entries encode messages. While journaling, I may have left some (or even many) moments out—but what I did put down is always meaningful.

On some level, I always know I am writing for a future self, the “me” who might one day read the lines with some relief—relief that the time is now past, or even relief that I lived the entry’s elements just once, if only so that I don’t have to live them again later.

Journaling has never been about getting it all down just right. It’s about capturing a mentality at a moment, and either knowing it will pass, or seeing it through. Steinbeck did that when he wrote The Grapes of Wrath; his diary fueled his writing, kept him honest, made sure that his characters breathed. But when it comes to living honestly—to embracing daily sorrows and triumphs, to owning a day, no matter how mundane—writing a few lines in private pages can be the best way to do that. Sometimes, that is all we can ask of our journals, and all we can ask of ourselves.

Naomi Kirsten
Associate Editor

“The Diary: Three Centuries of Private Lives” is on exhibit at The Morgan Library & Museum in New York City until May 22, 2011. Visit themorgan.org for more information.

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9 Comments

  • Blythe Hill February 24, 2011 at 4:17 pm

    Great post! I have a few Chronicle journals myself (my current one included), and there's always a bit of a dance between an artistic, (at least partially) honest retelling of events/emotion and over the top melodrama sometimes. All the more reason to keep trying, right? :)

    Reply

  • Rachael Herron February 24, 2011 at 6:04 pm

    What a lovely, lovely post. Thank you for this. I find the more I have to write professionally, the more I want to journal, but I don't (writing of one type takes time from the other). I miss it. Great reminder.

    Reply

  • lynneGB February 24, 2011 at 6:39 pm

    After my mother found my highschool journal and left it wide open on the page outlining the day I lost my virginity, I have been hestitant to write in a journal. My trust in blank books was smashed. However, I journaled weekly, if not daily, while I was pregnant. I am so glad that I did! That journal serves as a wonderful reminder of the joys and challenges pregnancy brings. It is honest, brutally honest. Yet, it was also a great way to release worries, fears and the little joys that pregnancy brings. Bravo to those who journal. One day I hope to pick up that black leather journal waiting in my nightstand and create another story.

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  • Candace February 24, 2011 at 7:34 pm

    I can totally relate to your borderline overly dramatic diary entries. I had a LiveJournal (and I'm not ashamed to admit it!) throughout high school and half of college, and some of those early entries are so melancholy I'd make Eeyore look positively peppy. (Seriously — one entry was titled "Another dread-filled Sunday.")

    Nowadays, any journaling I do focuses more on what's cooking in my life — terrible pun intended. I bought Chronicle's Food Journal last week, which has been so great for jotting entry ideas for my website, Collegiatecook.com, while I'm on the go. It's so amazingly handy.

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  • @whatbooktoday February 25, 2011 at 10:26 am

    I kept a journal religiously from the age of 9 until the end of college. Whenever my old friends and I get together for Thanksgiving or Christmas, they love to read aloud my anguished sixth grade words about the competition for first saxophone or my unrequited love for a high school freshman. It's far enough back so that I'm no longer embarrassed, but it makes my journal-writing now all the more spotty.

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  • Dawn Herring February 25, 2011 at 3:56 pm

    Naomi,
    I was truly intrigued by what you share here about honesty in journaling. I love what you say about capturing a mentality at a moment, either knowing it will pass or seeing it through. Journaling is such an excellent way of moving through life on record, so we can see the truth about ourselves.

    I also loved how you weaved examples of famous diarists and journal keepers with your own experience with keeping a journal.

    I have chosen your post, On Keeping a Journal, for the #JournalChat Pick of the Day on 2/25/11 for all things journaling on Twitter. I will post a link on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and my blog, Refresh with Dawn Herring.

    You're welcome to follow my @JournalChat account for all things journaling on Twitter.

    Thanks again for showing the value of living honestly through our journals.

    Be refreshed,
    Dawn Herring
    JournalWriter Freelance
    @JournalChat on Twitter for all things journaling

    Reply

  • Megan Oteri February 26, 2011 at 1:21 pm

    Part two of my first comment –

    A journal is a delicate thing, the most intimate companion, sometimes more intimate and honest than a lover — that ethereal space, where words are as comforting as a cup of hot tea and a warm blanket. I love reading old journals to see reflections of myself from years gone by. And when I feel like I shouldn't write down a thought, for fear of someone reading it (namely my own child), I think what a window and gift for him to peek inside the heart of his mother. I wish I had diaries and journals of my own mother and father, especially my father. My one wish is that he kept a journal of his time in the Korean War. Or my mom's journal of her first year with me.

    Anyway, thanks for such a well written and researched post on journaling. Journaling is such a valuable tool.

    PS – Chronicle has the best journals! Love love love them!

    Megan Oteri http://www.memomuse.wordpress.com
    Creator of The Original Journal http://www.facebook.com/#!/pages/The-Original-Jou

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  • Sol March 1, 2011 at 8:00 am

    I keep a journal as sort of a short-hand account of what I experience. I actually went back and looked at the journal I wrote about my wife's and my cross-country trip and ended up writing a 300 page book about it. It was helpful to have chronology and food items all written down.

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  • Elise March 7, 2011 at 11:04 pm

    Naomi, Samuel Pepys would be proud. I always think of you every time I take out my journal (and not just because you gave me the cute animal journal I am writing in now). Your commitment to journaling is more than inspiring. It is truly incredible. I remember you journaling when you were little, and how much it meant to you to capture the moment even back then. I looked up to your journaling then, and I look up to it now. Whether it was to be honest with yourself, to mark an image in time, or to just write it out, your ability to just do it, because it felt right, is an ability I am working on. Those journals lined up! WOW Naomi! I love that photo. We’ll have to read through some more entries together when I get back. Always good for a kackel ;)

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