“Is not the poet bound to write his own biography? Is there any other work for him but a good journal? We do not wish to know how his imaginary hero, but how he, the actual hero, lived from day to day.” — Henry David Thoreau
While I am no poet, I have always meant to keep a journal. Once a year, without fail, I buy a brand new fancy one and tell myself this is the year – each time to no avail. Philosophers, poets, really any great thinkers in history seem to agree that journaling is immensely valuable for sharpening the mind. Consider this paragraph from Michel Foucault from a piece called Self-Writing:
No technique, no professional skill can be acquired without exercise; nor can the art of living, the technê tou biou, be learned without askesis that should be understood as a training of the self by oneself. This was one of the traditional principles to which the Pythagoreans, the Socratics, the Cynics had long attached a great importance. It seems that, among all the forms taken by this training (which included abstinences, memorizations, self-examinations, meditations, silence, and listening to others), writing —the act of writing for oneself and for others— came, rather late, to play a considerable role.
He goes on to refer to journaling as “a weapon in spiritual combat.” Reading Foucault – a notoriously difficult task, himself one of the more verbose thinkers in history – feels a lot like reading someone’s journal. His style echoes an endless stream of consciousness that bounces from one profound topic to the next until you hit the end of a chapter and feel an immediate urge to re-read. While the appeal of journaling has always been there, the discipline to do it has long evaded me.
Recently, I am giving journaling a better shot than I ever have before and can attribute my early success to an article I read. It is about the great divide in journaling between those who prefer pen and paper and those who journal on their various electronic devices. Personally, I have always romanticized the idea of a quill and leather-bound journal that I write in, next to candlelight every night. But because of that fantasy, the actual practice of journaling never came easy to me. There are too many nights where I simply don’t have it in me to put pen to paper.
To make a full 180 on my candlelit journaling dreams I downloaded Evernote, a pretty standard, free note-taking app that I can sync between my phone and laptop. With my phone on me 24/7 and my laptop open at least 9 hours a day at work, it is pretty hard to avoid. In a moment where I catch myself looking at my phone for no reason, instead of opening twitter and actively removing intelligent thought from my brain, I find it much more rewarding to open Evernote and add a line about whatever I am thinking.
To start, I needed to build a habit instead of trying to write something profound every time. I needed to make it more accessible – write a line or two a day, whenever I had a second, and keep doing so for more than just a day or two a week. One of the hardest parts about journaling in the past was remembering enough about my past few days to actually reflect upon. With daily writing, or at least close to it, if I write one sentence the second one comes much easier – and at times i find myself writing midterm essay length entries because it all comes back to me once I start.
The biggest change was getting away from that desire to journal in the most therapeutic way possible every time. The benefit isn’t the smell of the pages or the look of the ink on the page – my handwriting is terrible anyways. All that matters is the brain-dump; throwing a couple thoughts down so I can come back to them later or simply reflect on whatever it was that wrote about.
An unexpected benefit to using Evernote that I have grown to love is the ability to tag and search through journal entries. With everything I write down, I try to add a tag about what topics I mentioned, what mood I was in, etc. In doing so, I can look back in more ways than just chronological: sorting by mood, location, whatever. Until I come up with a more consistent hierarchy for these I am just slapping them on willy nilly – but the plan is to eventually narrow it down to the 5-10 tags I always come back to as broad organizers, and the rest can be by topic to serve as keywords if I remember what I am looking for.
Another fun upside is that it serves as kindling for my blog. This post actually started as a journal entry idea that I expanded upon later – and there are a few more in the works that all started as a brain-dump in Evernote. It’s no longer “I am going to sit down and write a blog post” but, “everything I think is a potential post if I remember to write it down.” While it has only been a month and change, I feel like the habit is settling in; and journaling no longer feels like a chore.
Are there downsides? Certainly – I have no clue what happens if Evernote closes up shop tomorrow – and I have yet to find an easy way to back up all this data. If I commit to this app for a few years and lose everything, I would be devastated. Normal pen and paper journals run the same risk but I just do not trust “the cloud” enough yet and would rather have my own negligence to blame if I left a notebook somewhere or lost track of it while moving. I also hate having another excuse to unlock my phone – but that hasn’t stopped me before so I might as well use the time for something positive.
My whole purpose for wanting to journal is so when somebody (me) eventually writes a book about how this no-name blogger rose to stardom (~100 followers), there is plenty of content out there to get a look into the mind of the genius. I mentioned it in a post last year, but one of my favorite books recently was the John Adams biography by David McCullough. What made it so fascinating was the extensive insight you receive from John and Abigail Adams themselves, because they wrote everything down either in journals or letters to each other. The idea of knowing how my brain works today vs how it may be working years from now when I look back would be somewhere between hysterical and terrifying I assume, but insightful either way.
Have any of you found a method for journaling that helps you consistently come back? I am open to all the tips and recommendations I can find. Or if you are inspired to start journaling, Read this piece from Ryan Holiday (a writer I mentioned on this blog before) called, The Art of Journaling – if anything, it is riddled with wonderful quotes including the one used to title this post.