Saturday, January 15, 2011

Keeping a journal.

This morning, I sat down and somewhat spontaneously spent an hour writing a journal entry which fleshed out some of the odd things which have been swirling around my brain and heart recently and making me feel half-crazy all the time. And I did feel half-crazy when I was writing it, but then a remarkable thing happened. Once I'd gotten all that honesty out, I felt better. A lot better, and free to actually enjoy the rest of my day. This shouldn't surprise me, but it did.

I was always one of those dweebs who, obsessed both with my own emotions and with documenting my life, kept a paper journal from elementary school on. Even more dweeby, I've kept almost everything I've ever written; the most embarrassing tomes are sitting on bookshelves at my mom's house; others are in boxes somewhere or were dragged across the country with me during the move. I remember a moment during our family vacation to Hawaii after I graduated from college that I pulled out a notebook one night (I always ended up preferring plain, 95 cent notebooks from CVS instead of those endlessly cutely designed journals from bookstores, even though I kept buying those cutely designed journals--and never using them), and my sister remarked, "Wow. You are the only person I know who still does this." In actuality, though, my practice of putting pen to paper just wanes more and more dramatically each year. The best I've ever been at documenting my life on paper since leaving high school was the journal I used during the semester I spent in Europe back in 2003. During long train rides and restless nights at the Castle, I would scribble in that thing deeply and creatively. In the seven years since then, I often throw that blue journal into my bag anytime I'm going on an adventure, near or far, imagining that I will continue this travel-journal-ing, but I hardly ever do.

Other people I know who have the same journaling heart as I do often give a somewhat holy reverence to this act of pen and paper journaling. Although I do admit there is something comforting about that tangible feel of the pen in your hands (similar to the books v. e-reader debate), and also something to be said for the increased amount of time, and hence thought, it takes you to actually write down a sentence, I am increasingly starting to believe it doesn't matter where or how you write your words down--pen and paper, LiveJournal, blogging--I could even go so far as to say Facebook or Twitter or what have you (although I do believe people need more than 140 characters to express their thoughts), if you are brave enough to actually be honest and open in those places. (I still have yet to be persuaded on the e-reader thing, though.) As long as you are writing stuff down, somewhere.

I've heard over and over again, in my writing classes in undergrad and in my education classes now, that writing is thinking. Transferring words from our brain to their physical form clarifies our thoughts, cements them, and eventually reveals the words and thoughts we didn't even know were there. It is a miraculous, sometimes awesome, sometimes painful, process. I realized today that maybe I would be feeling less crazy and emotional if I just worked on writing more. I have been feeling a lot lately, but what I probably need to be doing is turning that into more thinking. Rationality normally helps mental health.

To get less self-absorbed with this train of thought, this has made me re-think once again how important it is to teach our children to write well. I've learned that it can be remarkably easy, most of the time, to get kids excited about books. ("This is the Graveyard Book! It's about a boy whose whole family was KILLED when he was a BABY! And then he grew up in a GRAVEYARD! Raised by GHOSTS!" Not a hard sell.) Teaching writing, however, has been thornier, a hundred times over. Not only do most kids not want to write, most of them I'm working with are writing at a much lower level than they should be at this point. It's hard to blame them; most of the things they've been asked to write at this point are boring and useless. And then when they do write something; we ask them to edit and revise? Unanimous groan from the classroom. It's frustrating to watch; you want them to write well so badly, and you know they all have a lot of important (and often, sad) things to say, but it's a slow process, writing. And you can't change it overnight.

But what I'm trying to get to here, is that these kids are feeling a lot of stuff. A lot of stuff. And maybe if they were able to get into the practice of writing about it, to help them think about stuff, and surprise themselves with how it makes them feel and the things it makes them understand, like myself this morning, maybe--just maybe!--there would be less violence in schools, and less kids growing up to be murderers. Less kids who grow up and beat their significant others. Less kids who grow up and get too drunk and drive themselves into telephone poles.

Of course, writing can't erase horrible parenting, traumatizing experiences, life.

But. I'm just saying. Maybe it could help.


  1. Writing is absolutely one of the things that I feel people take for granted. When you're a good writer, even if you just use it to write emails or respond to text messages, it's a skill you're going to use forever. It's criminal how many people in my graduate school (in a WRITING PROGRAM) just couldn't put a decent sentence together. It would be so exciting if schools had the funds and resources to teach writing in an engaging and practical way, so that these kids would not only have a way to express themselves creatively, but also to show them how important it is for daily life. /end rant

  2. Jill,
    I love how you share your journaling journey from the heart; so personable! I thoroughly enjoyed reading your point of view. Then I was touched and inspired by your comments concerning the benefits journal writing could bring to kids. I so agree with you on this issue.

    I have chosen your post, Keeping a Journal, for the #JournalChat Pick of the Day on 1/19/11 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 on Twitter for all things journaling.

    Thanks again for sharing your journal writing experience and your valuable point of view as a teacher.

    Be refreshed,
    Dawn Herring
    JournalWriter Freelance
    @JournalChat on Twitter

  3. Jill - Yes, yes, yes! I wish we could take your passion alone and put it into classrooms. It's a frustrating thing, for sure. I think we need more funds, and I also think, to be frank, we need better teachers. I know I'm not there yet, but I know I at least have more desire to be than some of the people I've encountered/talked to.

    Dawn - Neato! Thanks so much! That's awesome. Glad you enjoy journaling so much yourself, and glad you enjoyed the post!

  4. Oh I so agree. I think writing is so purely personal and everyone young and old benefit from this activity. My teenage daugther loves to write. She and I have a co-journal together which we love doing. We pass it back and forth and we write in it about our shared experiences as we desire.