Tuesday, April 29, 2008


OK. I promised to write about writing.

I was inspired to think about this by Lorianne, who was in turn inspired by her friend Mark. Mark referred to an excellent recent New Yorker article by Louis Menand called “Woke Up This Morning,” about why people keep and read diaries:

“Rationally considered, what is natural or healthy about writing down what happened every day in a book that no one else is supposed to read? Isn’t there something a little O.C.D. about this kind of behavior? Writing is onerous...writing feels like work because it is work -- and, day by day, life is pretty routine, repetitive, and, we should face it, boring. So why do a few keep diaries, when diary-keeping is, for many, too much?”

Menand distinguishes between diaries and journals, memoirs and blogs -- a distinction that I’m not sure is really warranted. I think the writing of any of those things comes from a common place. And what is that place?

Menand proposes three theories about why people keep diaries: The ego theory, which holds that you believe everything that happens to you is important, and therefore worthy of recording; the id theory, in which people use their diaries as storehouses of secret longing and admissions they would be pained to make publicly; and the superego theory, which holds that diarists are writing for imagined readers as “exercises in self-justification.”

In my own case, I have written habitually since the fifth grade, when I began keeping a journal. There are elements of all three theories in my writing: I do write for imagined future readers, even as I dread having them read all the id-related urges and disappointments of my life.

Initially, I didn’t record secret thoughts, though I had plenty of them as a middle schooler. Even as I grew older, I never recorded anything I thought would be disastrous if publicly revealed. (I'm not sure anything fits that category anymore!)

And though I imagined readers, I never expected anyone to truly read my journals. (In this case, blogging does diverge from journal-keeping.)

For me, keeping a journal was mostly an organizing tool. It helped me record the events of my life, give them some order and perspective, and reflect on them a bit. My journals aren’t really very deep. I don’t ruminate on the meaning of life or heavy philosophical issues. I mostly write about doing such-and-such, going to so-and-so place. Which, to me, is really what life is about.

I occasionally re-read my journals, but it’s only the relatively recent ones that interest me much. As the journals themselves age and I evolve, they lose relevance, and begin to seem like they belong to someone else. (And frankly, they’re sometimes not that entertaining...so they’re the really BORING journals of someone else.)

Also, many of my journals seem a little whiny. When I’m venting the sorts of things on paper that I might not bring up in conversation with others, I tend to complain. In fact, I think a need to complain often feeds the compulsion to write -- Menand’s id theory in action.

These days, I have abandoned the paper journals for the blog, though here I am obviously writing partly for the eyes of others. I like the blog, because it forces me to be brief and to self-edit (this long entry notwithstanding). It also feeds another urge, a purely creative one, perhaps more than the paper journals did.

As I’ve said before, I periodically entertain the thought of destroying the old paper journals. In fact, when I bought myself a shredder years ago, that’s what I intended to use it for.

But nary a journal page has been fed to the shredder -- at least, not yet.

(Photo: Upper East Side, March 2008)


Anonymous said...

Great post!

I think of blogging as journalism of a brand new variety. Journaling is a very different activity, at least I think so. I do keep a hand-written journal into which I put things I would never dream of publishing. It also provides space to sketch, doodle, glue cartoons, tiny pics and in which I can tuck flowers to dry, etc.

Maybe I'm more a scrap booker than a journaler, who knows?

So glad you haven't shredded the old handwritten books. They're precious, one of a kind, can not be reproduced.

Anonymous said...

Dennis loves this post! Dennis reads his old journals and thinks "Boy, was I ever a Dork!" or "My priorities have changed so much" or "Why was I acting like Doris Day back then???"
The only ones he saved were the drawing and sketch books which reveal as much or more as the journals and have dates on the illustrations and doodles.
But even doodles age--a friend of Dennis' showed Dennis some drawings he'd kept that Dennis had done when he was young, and they too looked like someone else had drawn them, there was zero recognition. so maybe we are different cats as we go along through the years!

Dennis is going to follow Reya, and just work on his scrapbooks and doodles more.

Anonymous said...

great post steve! I have been a fits and starts diarist (or journal keeper) since junior high school. during my last year in college on a flight home to visit my parents, I lost a bag that had all my h.s. an college journals inside - I was traumatized for years.

like many folks I often turned to my journal when I was going through a particularly difficult time or if I had 'issues' with people in my life....can you imagine finding a bag and discovering the writings of a young woman (and the era late 60s through mid 70s).... I often wonder if anyone opened up my bag and read the journals or if the bag just went to some warehouse for lost bags....I tried to find/track down this bag for the longest time...

I have long enjoyed reading the journals and diaries of people from different eras - coincidentally just a few days ago I picked up a new book from the library which I had on hold called: "the worlds best memoir writing" edited by eve claxton. so far it's absolutely marvelous - creatively organized by stages of life - from birth (trust st. augustine - often considered the father of autobiographical writing to write about his infancy!) to being an aged (100) person.

montainge said "every man has within himself the entire human condition"....probably why I've always been fascinated by the medium...and also probably why I enjoy so reading blogs (and blogging) - and like you steve, I find blogging gives me yet another avenue to channel some of my (creative?) energies....

look forward to reading menand's article. thanks for supplying the link!

Anonymous said...

I started my blog to record my thoughts for myself. It never occurred to me anyone else would read it.

Since I am not an accomplished writer or thinker, it clearly isn't to satisfy my ego. I find it to be therapeutic for me and something that forces me to take time to think about what I'm thinking about.

Anonymous said...

Mouse-- I'd be upset if I lost a bag full of journals too-- bad enough a friend of mine has kept all of the letters I wrote her over the years--I cringe at the thought of the contents of those letters (written from age 16 to 26) Yikes.

Steve--I still keep paper journals, only because people still give me gifts of blank books! I will follow your link now. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

No Journal shredding!

Besides...I have a good many of yours in MY house!

Anonymous said...

Interesting post. I find the whole question of "why keep a journal" rather odd, like asking "why think" or "why contemplate your life." That isn't to say writing a journal is the only way to think or contemplate your life, but it certainly is one way. So why to we have to denigrate that by asking (as Menand claims some do) whether journal-keeping is obsessive or narcissistic.

These days my notebook journals are a mishmash of deep thoughts, to-do lists, class notes, and other minutiae. In that regard, they aren't pretty, but they pretty accurately capture any given day in my life. And that's why I keep rather than shred them. I figure one day when I'm old, I'll want to remember what it was like to be a younger me, and both my journal & blog are memory-aids to that end.

Anonymous said...

I love to read about how others view blog writing/journal writing because I have so many thoughts on the subject myself. I have kept a journal since HS and I have always found it very comforting. Sometimes my writing was of the 'what's happening' variety and sometimes I only wrote about deep issues and big life questions.

These days I still keep a journal but do not write as often as I did before the days of blogging. I do think that there is a big difference between journalling and blogging, at least for me. I only began my blog after deciding on a focus. My blog is fundamentally about documenting my journey as an educator so that means I have chosen to restrict myself by remaining true to that theme. Although a bit of my personal life finds it's way to the screen I try to keep it to a minimum.

Steve, great post. I would love to keep writing but perhaps it is better to continue this conversation in person.