Journal Keeping

As part of the process of downsizing prior to moving house, I had to go through a packet of parental artifacts passed from sister to sister to me. It was my sad job to off-load 1940’s dance cards, 1950’s business newsletters and letters. Letters my parents wrote to one another, letters that barely helped us piece together the mystery of their union.

I kept photos, postcards, newspaper clippings showing one or the other parent, my mother’s short fiction. The rest are gone. As I write this, I cringe about those old letters, but I know that, if I were to tell my parents’ story, it would be better to fictionalize it, than write a memoir that no extant family member will want to read.

In my mother’s writings I found a journal she started in 1991. While she neglected to date the notes by the year, I knew when she had written these things because I was a part of them, like the family trip to Hawaii in February of 1991. As I read, knowing the things she was going through, and how she could not bring herself to put that on the page, I saw the clue that she had made a New Year’s resolution to keep the journal, bought a pretty blank notebook festooned with flowers, and managed to keep it up for six months.

Then nothing.

I often debate with myself about the importance of journalism. Even with a gift of a diary, I didn’t start journaling until I left for college, and that step turned my life inside out. I have scraps from a cross-country trip with my boyfriend written on paper towels. I have a stack of spiral notebooks packed with cringe-worthy self pity and anger—mostly at the boyfriend and mostly at myself. I kept the scribbles up while finishing college and starting my new career.

Then they get rather spotty. Poetry took over the inner thoughtfulness. I abandoned yellow pad paper and took up a doc file. Now I make a note maybe once a year.

I typically don’t read journals published by writers—Anais Nin comes to mind. Unless they’re telling a story, I don’t enjoy them. Memoirs are different in nature because they chronicle a series of events—usually lurid, violent and strange—that grip the reader in the narrative. Autobiographies occupy yet another scale because these are generally penned by celebrities of media or politics and the lives of the famous or infamous are always interesting.

And there are blends of all these categories, describing self-discovery, weaving epiphany with story.

Honestly, rather than write about my life, I’d rather make up stories. Introspection is over-rated. I’ve been there, done that. These statements are made by my much older self—my younger self that bought self-help books and experimented briefly with LSD is horrified. I suppose this blog borders of self-absorption, and in the end we can only see ourselves as interesting subject matter because everything in our lives is filtered.

I really enjoyed reading my mother’s journal. Reading a family-member’s journal can be hazardous. There might be landmines. The boyfriend read my journal to find out the things I wouldn’t tell him. And then got pissed about it.

A journal, in my mind, is a private place of honesty, a sanctuary for those of us unable to say hard truths. But the argument stands that journals can be a gold mine for writers, a place to blather, perfect sentence structure, and not even worry about that ghostly editor breathing down our necks. As soon as a writer puts pen to paper in their journal, they risk the editor smudging the page with red ink if the writer thinks “Some day I’ll publish this”.

The journal can be a wall safe, a place to store loose gems until the perfect setting is found. Just make sure your boyfriend can’t open it.



About Jill Zeller

Author of numerous novels and short stories, Jill Zeller is a Left Coast writer, 2nd generation Californian, retired registered nurse, and obsessed gardener. She lives in Oregon with her patient husband, 2 silly English mastiffs and 2 rescue cats—the silliest of all. Her works explore the boundaries of reality. Some may call it fantasy, but there are rarely swords and never elves. More to the point, she prefers to write as if myth, imagination and hallucination are as real as the chair she is sitting on as she writes this. Jill Zeller also writes under the pseudonym Hunter Morrison


Journal Keeping — 2 Comments

  1. The only time I was consistently able to keep a journal was during my father’s final illness and my subsequent nervous break down trying to balance my love for him and my final acknowledgement that there had been serious emotional abuse and one incident of sexual abuse. It helped me more than 3 years of psycho therapy.

    But that was the end of it. Now I write long, involved journal entries in my mind, then post 1 sentence on FaceBook.

    You are right, a journal is very personal and shouldn’t be written with an eye toward eventual publication.

  2. I’ve never been able to keep a journal (except briefly as a teenager, when it was less journal than Wailing Wall*). When I encounter things that tell me how important “journaling” is to a writer, I’m puzzled. Whatever my process is, it doesn’t include using up my available writing brain to process my inner life–I do that otherwise, often through writing fiction. I am lamentably plot-driven, and journals (as opposed to memoirs, where there is generally an effort to create a structure that amounts to a plot) are by their nature unplotted.

    (*my mother, who had never shown any interest in the notebook in which I wrote songs, poems, and the occasional cri de coeur, one day after we had had a fight picked up the notebook, read the entry I had made about the argument, and responded, leaving the notebook, open to the page of my comment and her response, out on the kitchen table. I left an equally cutting response, also left out on the table. That was it for journalling.)