Why Keeping A Journal Is Both Cool And Cathartic

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Why Keeping A Journal Is Both Cool And Cathartic

Words by Mr Chris Cotonou

10 May 2020

With all of the time spent in isolation recently, with nothing but our own internal monologue for company, we may be uniquely well-prepared to begin (and benefit from) keeping a journal. No longer just the pursuit of teary-eyed teenage love-me-nots, or even dissolute travel writers with a Moleskine, journalling has helped some very successful men make sense of the world around them. Mr Bill Gates has one; as did Messrs Thomas Jefferson, Charles Darwin and Henry David Thoreau (whose journal while in isolation at Walden became a classic piece of American literature) and some of history’s best ideas began life as inarticulate scribbles on a diary page.

As Mr Alan Ziegler, professor of writing at Columbia University in New York, and author of The Writing Workshop Notebook, tells MR PORTER, “a journal helps us understand the outer world, and explore our inner world. It is a journey of possibility”. He says, “in these strange times, you may find comfort recounting pleasant memories, or what brings you joy; or lay out doubts and unfinished aspects of your life. It can be very good for your mental wellbeing, too.”

In journalling, as in everything else, starting is the easy part. But how to carry on, even after everything is back to normal, is all important. Thankfully, the professor has plenty of advice on how to maintain, organise and make the most of your journal during isolation.

01. List, list, list

One of the first things Mr Ziegler teaches his students to do is to “write lists, lots of them; about anything, from the great meals of your life, to the people in your address book you’ve lost touch with. Lists will reveal things you may have forgotten, drop hints, spark ideas and shape routes to accomplishment. They can also inspire things to do.” While confined to isolation, your journal will provide material to develop when we are allowed to rejoin society. “Make a list of things you might do post-lockdown – make it fun by including projects that are unlikely or even impossible. ‘Thinking outside the box’ has come to represent creativity. Think of your journal as a box that exists outside the box.”

02. Don’t be afraid to write badly

“A blank page can be terrifying,” admits Mr Ziegler, “and scarier still when your first words don’t feel right. Instead of getting frustrated that the sentences don’t sound as good in your head as on the page, realise that good writing often grows from bad writing. Assign yourself sessions of ‘writing badly’. Once you let go of expectations, dazzling ideas reveal themselves in jest,” or, as he puts it in MR PORTER terms, “think of it like organising an outfit. Don’t worry about consistency: take some risks, find what works for you and you will develop a style from there.”

03. Find a pattern or ritual

“Flaubert wrote at 4.00pm, while Milton and Darwin began early morning (by noon, Darwin would announce: ‘I’ve done a good day’s work’). To maintain your journal and continue writing, consider a time or situation that works best for you,” notes Mr Ziegler. “Many writers develop a circadian rhythm, or their writing is triggered by sound and ritual. For one period, I used Law & Order reruns. I’d start journalling at the first boom-boom of the episode’s score and keep going until the final boom-boom. Kind of a Pavlovian trigger.” Whether it’s Law & Order, the twinkly keys of “La Lune”, or pin-drop silence, decide on a setting that feels right to write.

04. Write everywhere, but keep it organised

Your phone, your laptop, that notebook from Venice, or (if you’re Mr Tom Hanks) a typewriter, are all tools that will provide solidity to your thoughts. “I have three or four places I store notes at any one time,” says Mr Ziegler. It is likely that your smartphone’s note-keeping application is already piled with scattered reminders, or ideas: “When I’m ready to sit and write, I will consolidate notes from various sources. Try to have a writing medium near you at all times, even if it’s an index card stuffed in your pocket. Ideas are often as sudden and fleeting (and beautiful) as sunshowers.”

05. Write in fragments

If writing long “dear diary” narrative descriptions of your day sounds intimidating, Mr Ziegler has good news. “A journal should be full of fragments, ideas or things heard in passing, most likely your own inner mumblings these days,” he says. “Don’t worry about one long narrative. Instead, write small nibbles of inspiration, from this or that moment – much like repeated visits to a buffet.” Once you’ve gathered a mixed plate of observations and points, these moments will be easier to revisit and reflect on. “Writers often seek isolation, anyway. Stuck at home, you have all the time to think and feel away these moments without distraction. Make the most of it.”

06. Actually read it

“Consider your journal to be a place of quiet sanctuary, like the daily walk you are taking in isolation,” says Mr Ziegler. “Something that is completely yours, as opposed to all of those frightful Zoom calls. Remember to read your journal’s back pages occasionally – for passages to revise or simply to celebrate what you have accomplished.” One outcome of your newfound journalling skills is being able to measure how your writing has improved. “Being able to communicate through the written word is a priceless asset, both for personal satisfaction and worldly accomplishment.”

07. Just write

We know, it’s easier said than done. “Like dance, basketball or anything that requires hard work before excellence, writing in your journal will be a struggle,” admits Mr Ziegler. “But it leads to exquisite moments: the perfect plié, the long jumper. I remember when I was studying with Kurt Vonnegut. Once, he came to class and admitted having difficulty with something he’d been writing.” But when Mr Vonnegut went away and toiled with the sentence for over a week, presumably in his journal, he returned jubilant. “Few things are more satisfying than finding the right words,” says Mr Ziegler. “But it takes time… Have a break and let your subconscious do the work while you relax.” Just remember to get back to it.

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