To Journal Or Not To Journal?

Woman holding pen writing on lined pages of a journal.
Author Judith Valente feels she missed a chance to record markers in her life as well as the simple pleasures of daily living by neglecting to keep a diary or journal.

A few weeks ago, I shared a few lines on Facebook from a poem I was writing called “To The Diary I Never Wrote.” It was a personal lament over the fact that I never kept a journal or even recorded notes about my life in a daybook over the years.

The poem begins by addressing my non-existent diary:

All the years I neglected you,

rebuffed your overtures, thinking:

little I do is worth recording.

Thinking: surely I will remember.

Then, of course, I forgot …

When I posted the lines, I expected to receive messages from dedicated journal writers — as faithful to their writing ritual as I am to my daily Zumba fitness practice— wanting to enumerate journaling’s many benefits. Instead, I received many comments from folks like me who never recorded on any consistent basis major life events and simple daily pleasures, and now regret it.

Perhaps it’s the pandemic, but I have been reviewing my life to a greater degree. I find myself trying to remember more precisely a wide range of things. What did I talk about with Bob Woodward, the famous investigative journalist, when we rode the elevator together to The Washington Post newsroom my first week as a 21-year-old reporter at the paper? What was that piece of music a piano student used to practice in the room next to mine in Paris that brought me so much comfort?

Perhaps my long-term indifference to personal journaling stems from the fear that my most intimate thoughts might fall into the hands of the wrong person. I convinced myself that if I wanted to express myself in a public way, I would do it in my poems, essays or books, meant, after all, for publication.

Still, writing a daily three-line poem — a Japanese haiku — has been a consistent practice of mine since 2009 as a way to record my quotidian interaction with creation. I also have hundreds of notebooks where I recorded passages from books I’ve read, films I’ve seen, research I’ve done. All of that, however, omits many threads of my life, like a quilt that is missing key panels.

Oddly enough, one of my most enjoyable literary experiences was reading the personal journals of Thomas Merton. The great spirituality teacher and Trappist monk began keeping journals from the time he was 16, long before he entered the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky. He kept at them until the day he died, in 1968, at the age of 53. Merton scholars often joke that the man never had an unrecorded thought. The personal journals fill seven volumes. But they are more than mere reportage — they chronicle the journey of a soul.

“Merton became a monk by writing about becoming a monk,” editors Patrick Hart and Jonathan Montaldo write in their Introduction to “The Intimate Merton,” an anthology of selections from the seven journal volumes. “He wrote about silence to become silent. He wrote about his being lost so that God would find him quickly. He hid himself from the world by fully disclosing himself to it.”

My mother-in-law, Helen Reynard Phoebus, died long before I met my husband. I got to know her just as if she were sitting beside me by reading her daily diaries full of mundane details spanning 30 years. She reflects on my husband’s teenage rebelliousness. She worries about the health of her second husband.

“Gordon doesn’t look good,” she writes in a passage from 1959. Then a few days later: “Gordon died,” stricken by a stroke as he sat on his front porch while my mother-in-law and husband were attending Mass.

What my mother-in-law’s diaries and Merton’s journals show is that no life is ordinary.

Green, red and brown leather-bound diaries with gold lettering saying 1967, 1965 and 1970 displayed on a table.
Green, red and brown leather-bound diaries with gold lettering saying 1967, 1965 and 1970 displayed on a table.
The author’s mother-in-law kept a daily accounting of her life in diaries spanning 30 years.

This is all to say that this past week I bought several old-fashioned composition notebooks for 59 cents apiece (the kind with the black-and-white marbly covers) to finally begin a daily journaling practice. Another main motivator for me was my friend the pharmacist and avid journaler, Ragheb El Assouad. Ragheb told me that in journaling he arrives at “a transcendent state that reconnects me with the source of my intellect, maybe God.”

He goes on to say, “Indeed, the ideas I talk about, the thoughts that I come up with, usually would have never been there for me without my reflecting on them in my journaling.”

Ragheb has a remedy for dealing with material he wouldn’t want others to see. He burns those pages.

“In essence, it is like giving back these ideas and thoughts to the ‘anima mundi,’ literally, to the soul of the world, which for me is God,” he says.

The challenge is whether I can make journaling a daily practice, as I do with Zumba and haiku.

“True behavior change is identity change,” writes James Clear, author of the best-selling book Atomic Habits: An Easy and Proven Way to Build Good Habits and Break Bad Ones. “You might start a habit because of motivation, but the only reason you’ll stick with one is because it becomes part of your identity.”

What are some of the “good habits” you’d like to become part of your identity? Is journal writing in that mix? Starting today, I hope to make keeping a daily record part of my identity.

Author of 4 spirituality books & 2 poetry collections. Award-winning reporter for Wall Street Journal, PBS-TV, Washington Post & 2 IL public radio stations.