As a somewhat younger man, I found myself one day having tea with a priest from a nearby Cathedral. He was an exuberant and deeply intelligent man, which made me content to allow him to do most of the talking. Among the thousand things we discussed—including his study of Zoology at Oxford with Richard Dawkins—was his advocacy of journaling. “None of that navel-gazing stuff of course,” he assured me, “but as a reflective exercise.” I explained that while I could imagine the value, every time I had journaled in the past I had not only hated the result, but even the author of it. Yet here I am some years later, not only advocating, but advising others on how to journal. What happened?
The Benefits of Journaling
This priest divided his day firmly, as many devout people do, into periods of prayer, study, what they call lectio divina (“divine reading”), other religious duties, and leisure. Whatever your opinion on religious practice, it has ever been my observation that the learned religious exceed most others in harnessing the power of habit in order to advance their abilities and senses of well-being and achievement. There is nothing new in this: Aristotle observed that virtue is attained, not by the singular, exceptional deed—great though such an exception may be—but by cultivation through habit.
To journal is to partake of a small part of that wisdom. And a small part is all one needs, for the habits which grow from it soon flow out into other areas of our lives, often in surprising, delightful, and even useful ways. The journal helps us to make sense of our time and our experience and, as Kierkegaard said, what we call our “knowledge” is in fact our (remembered) experience. (Do you know anything that you did not come to know through experience?) So it is by documenting and reviewing this experience that we allow ourselves the opportunity to see ourselves thinking, coming to knowledge of new and rich things, and growing as a result. What better way is there to follow the imperative at the center of philosophy, to “know thyself”?
But how to go about it?
There are many approaches. Today bullet-journaling has become popular, although those of us who seek something more substantial than mere box-ticking from such an investment of time know that this is just a popular fad which will soon fade while better, more long-standing practices endure. During the 17th–19th centuries, when general literacy was on the rise but still rare enough to be valued, the educated kept commonplace books. An odd name, you may think at first: but these books were the “places” in which they kept all the valuable snippets from their own reading, writing, and general experience which they saw as worthy of setting apart, recording, and re-reading years later. Such books formed the common place for the very best of their knowledge and experience. I actually picked up a 1790s commonplace book written in Latin and German whilst holidaying in Eastern Europe: it is an object of astonishing learning, richness, and beauty. — Imagine if you could produce a handwritten book which people might marvel at over two-hundred years later!
Of course, we do not all have gorgeous, calligraphic handwriting. And sadly that art, like so many other now-fading traditions, is extremely hard to learn for want of experts and teachers. But anyone can figure out a basically good cursive, which is based on italic writing (even this is not necessary for beautiful script) and parallel lines. The perfection of computer typography has made us impatient with the imperfection, the unfixed nature, of handwriting. But when one looks back through a physical book, filled with one’s own thoughts, expressed in personal idiosyncrasies of hand and phrase, the feeling is quite unique.
Of course, your book is subject to a house fire in a way that your electronic journal stored on a cloud is not. I see the advantages and disadvantages to both methods, and trust the reader knows what best suits him or her. Another option is video journaling, or vlogging, of which our own Trevor Freeman is a shining exemplar. For handwriters I would also suggest trying what one can to make the physical expenditure of journaling pleasant: perhaps use a good fountain pen and high quality, non-absorbent paper. Fine brush pens with firm nibs are excellent for imitating a calligraphic style, and generally force a slower writing speed. We will not list particular products here, but any readers are welcome to contact the writer for suggestions on what’s out there.
What is a journal for?
We are familiar with (at least the idea of) the “navel-gazing” diary which my priest friend derided: “Dear Diary, Today I,” etc., etc. That is a cliché, but it renders something true about how distasteful a journal can seem when it is nothing but a monument to the ego, and here lies an interesting contrary: that the journal is the record of an ego, an “I”, but is not about the ego itself; it needs instead to be about life, and needs in fact to capture what it is about life which first awoke our interest in the idea of recording some part of it. The Latin deponent verb “to remember”, “recordari” has, at its center, “cor” (heart). To remember and record is simply to love from the heart: think, for example, of how in English we speak of learning either by rote, or by heart. Mere information, we tend to learn coldly; but what we really esteem as valuable we learn sentimentally.
What should I aim for? What should I write about?
As I told the priest, I used to loathe the results of my journaling: those ego-stroking, useless nuggets of self-indulgence, trying to force importance out of unimportant things.—So what happened? Age is a major, albeit only partial, determiner. One simply becomes more interesting as one grows older, having added to the repository of his or her knowledge and wisdom. A direct result of this is that the ego shrinks: the young and immature are self-obsessed: this is because they do not yet have deep knowledge of anything other than themselves. But starting a journal, and even making painful errors in judgment as to what constitutes a profitable or worthwhile entry—these are hugely important factors in that development.
The most important factor is to give a journal a focus. The priest, for example, kept and recommended a dream journal. This I tried to do, but I hardly ever dream. You have to find what animates your interest. My 2014 journal, the first I esteemed worthy of remaining on my bookshelf for future reading, I started (as so many others) under writerly pretensions: there is good in there—places where one can see an ignorant youth laboring for knowledge—and an awful lot of bad has been torn out. Some even remains: although hugely difficult, bad writing can be re-worked into good. Interestingly, this notebook, though undated, very obviously became a journal: I can refer to any entry and give you a rough idea of when it was written (usually within the month or season), what frame of mind I was in, what I had been reading, and what other forces acting on me at that time had inclined me towards the style, mood, and content of that entry. This is the beautiful serendipity: this vanity project soon turned into something much more substantial, and the subject of that substance is not me, but my experience.
At the time of writing, it is late February 2017. This Autumn just gone, I began a much more sensible, less vainglorious three-year project. By Christmas, I was aware that all the work I had done felt like nothing at all, because I had not been recording the process. I immediately began a journal, filling in the three months’ work on a single page as best I could. Since then, I have filled in an entry for almost every day (some days, you will have nothing to report, and no one wants to do this every day without fail). The surprising thing on this occasion has been to find that, although the project is incredibly specific, still my entries sprawl out to concern other parts of life—holidays, incidental reading in unrelated fields, separate projects, and even items related to leisure hours which were particularly rich. This time, I tried to avoid myself completely and, in writing this project, have started writing about myself, but, in contrast to the 2014 journal, I write of my work, not myself. What to make of this? Make of it what you will: it is the beauty of the journal.