When my great-grandmother passed away, our family sifted through her house, sorting through all the things we would pass on or give away or throw out. Somewhere in that fray, someone found and moved to my grandparents’ attic a poorly-bound book with a faded cover. I don’t remember where I found this book– whether I was hunting around that attic or whether an aunt passed it along to me. All I remember is my incredible curiosity upon first holding it in my hands and reading the title.
I was looking at a book of poetry composed by my great-grandmother.
The first poems were written when she was a girl. They were almost a century old. They described life on the Kansas farm, nature, family, etc. She described the first time she saw a car– not because cars were rare where she lived, but because they were rare everywhere. Mass-produced cars had just been invented. Later on, she becomes a mother. One poem is a prayer her daughter doesn’t drive too fast down those country roads.
It took me a minute to realize that one particular poem about a new baby David in the family was actually about the birth of my dad.
Here’s a surprising thing: These poems– they were not good, per se. There is in none of them any astounding amount of literary merit. But I treasure them like nothing else, because I can’t help but be attached to this young woman, maybe about my own age, sitting in the shade of an elm tree and writing poems about the Kansas summer. I am part of what she left on this planet, and these poems are another, and it all feels a bit like I’ve found a long-lost sibling.
* * *
I have told a number of my closer friends that when I die, they are welcome to take my computer, figure out all my passwords, and go through the hard drive or whatever online accounts they can hack into. Should they choose to do this, perhaps the file that will be the most interesting (certainly the longest) is my journal– or, more appropriately, set of journals.
Almost every day since I graduated college, I’ve written in my journal. It’s become a gargantuan undertaking– every few month’s I’m producing a novel’s worth of narration. But I would say without hesitation that journaling is one of the most worthwhile habits I hold, and I fully intend to keep it up until I die.
Having thought some about what it is I’m spending all my time on, I’ve realized I don’t– or no longer— journal in a usual way. My journals are not a catalog of daily events and girl troubles, though both play mentionable roles. Instead, I’ve tried to make my journal into something a bit different– a work for many seasons.
Here are the rules I write by. Maybe they will make your own journaling a bit more useful or interesting.
- Don’t write about your day. I write no more than 3 consecutive sentences about day-to-day events. If something particularly noteworthy happens, I’ll mark it down. And I’ll almost always devote at least a few sentences to the day’s activities. But for the most part, I try to make my journal something more than a record of events. Instead, it’s filled with anything but that– thoughts, ideas, hopes, goals, reflection, introspection. The journal is a record of the vigorous life of the mind. Leave day-planning for the calendars.
- Journal for past, present, and future. A friend of mine asked me if he thought it was better to try and go through the effort of writing about the people and conversations and ideas that excite and inspire him, or if it was OK to instead take solace in the thought that he knows that those things– and their attendent excitement– will all come around again. I said that he should write, of course– but not simply so he can look back and say what a great chat we had that night. Instead, his journaling should be an exercise of the past, present, and future– the past, in that it allows you to remember fondly good times; the present, in that it is a chance to hone your writing, expository and narrative; and the future, in that if you fail to plan your own life, someone will plan it for you. I think the least considered dimension here is the present. I know that not everyone will be tempted to turn out page after page on a daily basis, but for those of us who enjoy wrestling with words and crafting stories, I can think of no better practice than forcing yourself to say something interesting every evening– except editing. But I’m having a good time– let’s not talk about editing now.
- Combine and create. If I didn’t journal, I swear I wouldn’t have a quarter the number of ideas I do. But I’m not an inventor; likely you aren’t either. Why is having a lot of ideas worth your time? I think any endeavor that involves uncertainty is best approached by first coming up with many ideas. So long as you don’t struggle with crippling indecision, you can’t go wrong. For me, I have ideas about what to write, how to live my life, how to accomplish goals, how to do my job well, and how to be happier. And better. And that brings me to the next point.
- Journal to live better. I have a theory about biographies. They talk an awful lot about what it’s like to be great and famous, but they whitewash the story of the way there. The crooked path is retrospectively straightened, and the gross and crushing uncertainty faced daily by the subject is criminally underreported. If I had a choice between reading a biography about someone pivotal or great or whatever they call it, and reading that person’s daily account of the thing they were the least certain of, shaking in their boots thinking if their great project or movement or work would ever make it– well, hands down I’d pick the journal. Every day, write the biggest thing you don’t know. Because when you do know it– when your project is completed and your business profitable and your work commissioned, you will understand better than anyone how an uncertain future is not a cause for fear but the only way to do something good and worthwhile. And in that you understand it, I think you will be better. But don’t just journal your confusions. Journal the advice you wish you could hear– and read it. Journal the person you wish you were– and be them. Journal to live better.
- Radical honesty. Maybe one day my great-grandchildren will be reading through my journals, wondering at how someone so laughably windy and hilariously quaint made his way through life. That day is far off. For now, it is absolutely imperative that I write for neither them, nor my friends, nor anyone else who might ever read my journal. My journal is a place to be radically honest with myself, and if I hold back a single word for fear of what people will think of me when I’m dead, then my heart is to be heaped shame upon and my friends given new instructions. Introspection, if it is to be worth anything at all, cannot be tempered by the opinion of crowds. Feynman had a different subject in mind, but the maxim holds: The first principle is that you must not fool yourself– and you are the easiest person to fool. My friend Kristi says journalling is looking deep– uncomfortably deep– into yourself, shining the light of day on your imperfections, and kneading them out. Your impatience and anger and callousness and fearfulness did not bury itself within you for a reason. Find that reason and grab a shovel. Before you write a single word in your journal, make a pact: no white lies, no gloss, no painted tombs. If you can find a single place where you vow not to fool yourself, the rest of your life will follow suit in the most beautiful way. That’s what I think, anyhow.
I write all these in a declarative way and call them rules not because I see no editing possible, but because I believe these things strongly. You are a person too– take up your pen and find what I missed.
In the end, it would be rewarding to produce something as meaningful to progeny and survivors as my great-grandmother’s poems are to me. A look into a soul. But even more rewarding would it be to produce something that helps me live better right now.
The Wind I’d Be
To sit in a soft upholstered seat,
While shock proofed wheels a swift rhythm beat,
Rushing over a ruthless asphalt road,
This is a modern transportation mode.
But I would like to be the wind at morn,
Sweeping over the shimmering corn,
Or rolling over the ripening wheat,
Then pausing where the woods and pasture meet.
Then mile on mile away, oh far away,
To ripple the gulf stream at break of day,
Then to tussle with the palm trees at high noon
And go to sleep on a tropic lagoon.
From the grassy pampas of Argentina,
To the Russians vast treeless tundra,
Raise dust-devils in ancient Sahara,
Toss the spray high of mighty Niagara.
Then I could travel all over the world,
Wherever the sun its rays had hurled,
Wherever wind-lashed clouds are unfurled,
Wherever the surging waves are curled.