Journals As Repositories for the Soul

I’ve been journaling since I was a college freshman in 1988 (go ahead and do the math; I know–I’m old). In that time, I’ve filled various paper and electronic pages with my half-baked philosophies, wishful ambitions, and angst-ridden frustrations. Aside from various conversations with people I know very well, my journal is where I’ve been the most honest about who I am, what I want, and why I do what I do. This morning I’m meditating on what to do with all that content.

Why Keep a Journal?

Therapy

I’ve given serious thought to burning my journals before I die or (riskier) requesting in my will that they be burned after my death. Given that, one might wonder why I have not done so already or why I should get stressed out to learn that during my move from Virginia to Alabama or Alabama back to Florida, the movers lost (or gave to someone else) the first box of my journals.

The reason I refer back to them now is for reference or curiosity: what was I doing or thinking at X point in history? Do I want other people doing the same thing when I’m gone? Sometimes it depends on the day. Most of the time, I’m committed to burning the journals–ideally before any nosy people decide to dig into and publish them.

It all circles back to the same question: why keep a journal at all if you don’t expect or want others to read it? There are some obvious reasons. Writing in a journal (or diary–pick your word) is therapeutic, not just in the sense of relieving tension from particular situations, but often literally as a form of therapy. I started journaling in part as a way to sort out my own problems without resorting to talking to an actual therapist. I had a general idea of the sorts of questions therapists ask, as I’d been seeing counselors off and on from ages 8-18, so I figured I could ask those questions of myself and write the answers without talking to a professional. People in a great deal of personal pain are not eager to tell other people what they’re feeling or why–that’s how they ended up in therapy in the first place. Other times, therapists recommend keeping a private journal as a way to cope with ugly, nasty feelings.

So there’s a lot of therapy in my journal, which is to say a lot of thoughts and feelings that are private and nobody’s damn business.

Personal history

Occasionally I write about places I go or things I do. Some folks keep a journal so their children or future family members will know how they lived their life. Personal reporting for the next generation, as it were.

Mostly, though, I’ve journaled to map the contours of my soul. I don’t fill out the physical details much–also a failing of my fiction, which is why that remains unpublished. Should I just burn all that and leave my thoughts and my self mostly a mystery to others after I die?

Fuel for future fiction

I am a technical writer by profession. My fiction writing has fallen by the wayside in the last decade or two, but that’s not to say I’ll never try to publish my fiction at some point (150+ stories, 4 novels–it can’t all be crap, right?). I could probably sift through my journal for fiction ideas. I wrote down a lot of story ideas that I never actually completed. Or I could write fiction based on situations from my past. I was a different character in my 20s and 30s than I am in my 50s, by temperament and circumstances. Could I write about Younger Bart as a fictional character? Maybe.

Quite frankly, a lot of my journaling embarrasses my later self. I find it uncomfortable to go back and read about the feelings or situations Younger Bart got himself into. Sometimes I’ve written things down so I can get them out of my head. If it’s on the paper, I don’t have to think about it anymore, right? Again: therapy.

So why keep the journals around, especially when they’re taking up a substantial bit of space in one of my closets? Once I’m gone, I’ll live only in my works (training documents? engineering proposals? blog entries? Facebook posts?) and in the memories of others. Or I could create art, which is not my specialty. Right now my journals are the most accurate record I know of who I am. Some people have a significant other to share their life experiences with. I don’t manage such things well, so I have conversations with close family and friends. There are maybe half a dozen people I talk with on the phone regularly for purposes of baring my soul and letting my voice be heard in the world. I don’t write much fiction, and what I do write I don’t share with too many people. I suspect that’s on purpose.

For now, I still have the journals. Maybe I’ll share the contents with others in some form, maybe I won’t. Maybe I’ll just burn the lot and let my soul remain a mystery.

2020: Taking Stock

A couple years ago, I started keeping a “gratitude jar,” which gives you the opportunity to write down one good thing that happened in the past week. At the end of the year (or the beginning of the following year), you empty the jar and learn what good things happened to you.

2020 was a tough year for a whole bunch of us. I had a text discussion with a colleague who suggested that I look at the year from a personal rather than a global perspective. Looking at things that way helped. 2020 was not my worst year by quite a stretch–it didn’t make the top three, or maybe even the top four. So I’ve got that to consider.

Last year was also a major challenge because on the random date of January 29 I decided to stop drinking alcohol (for how long is still TBD, but at least a year). In the midst of civilization shutting down or acting crazy, sometimes the best thing I could manage for my weekly note was “X days sober.” I have 13 notes like that, and yes, I’ve kept going. Starting 2021 on day 339 of the non-drinking lifestyle and so without a hangover. Definitely a better way to start the year.

The next-most frequent good things I noted during my weekly notes were times I spent with family and friends, either virtually or in person. Introverted as I am, I still appreciate the opportunity to have personal talks here and there. I spend a lot of time alone, but I also had a few hour-plus talks with close friends, and those did my soul all sorts of good (calling people out: many thanks to Karl, Tim, Gwen, LaDeana, Katrina, Cal, Tara, Jeannie, and Tom). I joined a walk-around-Disney group this past year and ended up taking many of those walks places other than Disney via Zoom meeting on my phone. I also attended more virtual cocktail parties than I ever did in the real world…sober, of course.

I have a pile of “miscellaneous” notes of things I did that made me happy last year, such as getting a therapist (in January–I stopped therapy a few months later because the pandemic rendered a lot of my problems moot); buying art for my apartment; completing a short story; or doing something as frivolous as making pancakes for the first time.

Books were a major part of my 2020. I read 69 books of various sorts and couldn’t finish two. The reading was a defense against reading/watching the news. Plus, I think I discovered how much time I was wasting just drinking. Amazing how much I could accomplish if I wasn’t just sitting in a bar.

Work still had its place in my notes. The biggest work-related event for 2020 was finally publishing my technical writing book and getting it out on the market (and into libraries) for others to read. I still have some marketing work to do. Of course once you’ve written one book, people want to know what you’re going to write next. The answer is: I have no idea. The tech writing blog, however, will continue.

I plan to continue the weekly “good things” tracking jar in 2021. If anything, I need regular reminders that good things do happen, even if I’m having a cr@ppy day, week, month, or even year. May you find good things to celebrate in 2021!