Living on Paper: Why Journal?

I’ve kept a journal since I was eleven years old. This is a very long time to keep a steady journal, and I’m rather proud of the fact that I’ve managed to make it such a consistent part of my life. When asked, I’ll happily talk about how long I’ve been at it, and proudly take whatever compliment on my diligence the listener is willing to give.

But this doesn’t mean that there’s anything in them worth reading. Not even for me.

My preteen years are a cringe-inducing conglomeration of my obsession with other people’s lives: both famous and unfamous. My older teens are a sort of neurotically detailed play-by-play of interactions and events, sometimes down to the hour, usually lacking substantive insight into my real thoughts (and a lot of poor quality printed-at-home photographs taped and captioned in such specificity you’d have thought I was documenting the most important moments of my life, which these, I would come to realize, were not). I seemed to have missed completely what a future version of me would have liked to see, all while trying to cater directly to that unknown adult. My college journals are more interesting, but still too fresh to read back — it’s not fun to watch myself do lots of things wrong; reaching and trying and being jaded beyond my years.

I’m still journaling, and the satisfaction of completing one is just as glorious as it ever was, opening up a blank notebook just as exciting. But sometimes I’m dissatisfied when I look back and see how I’ve represented myself. Occasionally I start an entry to try and fill in the blanks. Moments like that made me wonder: why do I, or why does anyone, journal? Has the anxiety of “quality” in a journal made others shake their heads like I did, or not journal at all?

It’s not hard to see why even a habitual journaler might feel a little insecure about their humble notebook. Some diaries are considered works of art. Whenever I read a passage from Virginia Woolf’s diary, I’m convinced that I’m doing it all wrong. Letters and diary entries of significant people are usually considered things of aesthetic beauty. Lots of writers nowadays would probably reel at the thought of their written conversations being published. All caps “LMFAO” and a unicorn emoji aren’t the kinds of personal tidbits you’d want your readers of the future to remember you by. A journal is even more rife with potential embarrassing exposures.

I was deeply affected, as a journaler and a young girl, by Anne Frank’s diary. I’d already read it twice by the time I was twelve. Our seventh grade history class read the diary as an assignment, and that was the first time I saw how other people might react to someone’s private thoughts. It wasn’t pretty. I stewed silently in my seat as a couple of kids eww’d and ahh’d when Anne Frank talked about her period. She never meant for anyone to see this! I wanted to yell at them. This is her diary!

My journaling life would never be the same. For years afterwards, a shred of something in my mind wrote for an anonymous, external audience. I kept things to myself. I never talked about periods.

I think many would-be journalers are affected by this, are perhaps worried about their eleven-year-old obsessions or high school melodrama being immortalized for the world to potentially see; whether or not they are casting themselves in the truest light possible. I would like to suggest that the real value of journals doesn’t come from the sentences or the embarrassing stuff. The content of your journals is really most interesting as a collective, through a self-referential lens: what it means to be eleven from the point of view of that eleven-year-old. They give me the opportunity to ask, why would an eleven-year-old be so preoccupied with other people? Why would a nineteen-year-old be jaded and anxious?

This perspective can help to pull people away from future suppositions and put the importance of a journal back on the day-to-day experience with it. I think people can benefit from reframing many parts of their lives back onto the present and how they feel right now. For me, my journal is where I keep sentimental pieces of paper and pictures, where I write to-do lists, doodle, vent my frustrations, meditate on my worries, and how I give my eyes a break from the computer screen at work. To answer my own question about why I journal, I would say it is an extension of myself: it’s where I live on paper. This seems to expand the possibilities. A journal can be a complement to your life, not simply a record of it.

Some ideas for a new journaler: Bring your journal places. Draw swirls and write “I’m bored” if that’s how you feel. If the thought of traditional journaling makes you lament your inability to write like Woolf, try doodling your experience, or writing it as a list. Print out and tape in your unicorn emojis. Make the pages your home. Someday, it will mean much more than you think.