I have over 30 journals chronicling my life from when I was seven years old to the present. Some are completely full. Some have only a handful of pages written upon. Some contain drawings, sketches, bits of a dried flower or two, a hand scrawled love note here and there, tear stains, angry pressured rants where the lines from the pen have dented the next few pages. There are prayers, conversations with God, joy and pain, despair and grace. They are my life in written word.
I laugh as I read the earliest ones with my one or two-line entries, “I love Geoff! He’s so hot.” Or “I hate school. I had a math test today.” Nothing inspiring, but it tells the story of my heart at the time. My heart aches as I read the later ones telling of my depression, anger at God, the bitter pain of divorce, the riotous conflict of an affair, the misery of miscarriage. I smile at the tender moments, the funny sarcasm recalling a night of passionate sex, a pointed commentary on my life.
Without those journals, I wouldn’t remember the majority of small and big instances that formed who I am today. The journals allowed me to express myself freely, without critics (except myself), and the freedom to run the gamut of emotions. Now, they offer the fodder for stories, memoirs, writing, articles, books. They provide the life lessons I pass down to other generations.
If you’re a memoir writer, your journals are goldmines in which the precious details of memory lie buried and waiting for excavation. If you’re lucky, and you’ve been a journal writer for some time, your past journal entries outline major events with concrete, sensory details, bits of setting and dialogue, and your emotional responses. But even if you didn’t write fill in all those details, your journal entries contain the kernels of your memories, and they will energize the memoir-writing process. It is by combining what you’ve written with what you remember that you arrive at a deeper, richer story. It is by listening to what your story wants to tell you, that you are doing the real work of writing memoir.
Journal writing is not the same as writing a memoir. However, journal writing (yours or others’) can be a wonderful research tool. When you become aware of the value of your journals, you begin to write in them differently, recording more of your life.
How to use your journal for research:
Amber Lea Starfire, author of Writing Through Life blog, offers some great tips on how to use your journal for research:
Writing for the future — Amber wrote a list of Things You’ll Want to Include in your journal in a blog post over at WomensMemoirs.com, including a record of daily activities, thoughts and feelings about relationships and family events, local and national news (our lives are lived in the context of our social and political cultures), and internal influences (things that are changing the way you think or behave). Other ideas contributed by readers included TV shows, news about close friends, coincidences, and places they traveled. One person said that she created timelines of events for each month and year, categorized by areas of her life, such as “social,” “work,” and “spiritual,” so that she could track trends and progress.
If you review your past journal entries with an eye to writing about your life at that time, you’ll most likely wish that you’d included more information about some of the above items. And though it’s true that your time is limited and you can’t include everything in every entry, some of these things can be jotted in abbreviated form. Just enough to help you when mining your journal for stories later on in life.
Mining past entries — When using past journal entries as resources for memoir writing, look for the following kinds of information:
- Information that informs scene: descriptions of your surroundings, the weather, who was there with you, action, and dialog, and evocative prose.
- Information that informs reflection: how you felt about the events at the time, questions you may have had, hopes and fears expressed. What you knew then about what happened.
- Information that informs context: surrounding journal entries (the before and after an event), political and social events, general emotional state.
On Friday, I’ll talk about 10o benefits of journaling. On Monday, I’ll share 7 steps of how to uncover the heart of your memoir from your journals.
Do you journal? Why or why not? What do you write in it? Is it a place to download your memories, or try out writing ideas? Do you draw, doodle, or vent? Is it a legacy keeper or a way to gather ideas for your memoir? I’d love to hear your thoughts!
- How Real Can I Be? (storycirclenetwork.wordpress.com)
- How to Heal Yourself Through Writing (authormeanders.com)
- Journaling and Other Writing Pursuits (creativityorcrazy.wordpress.com)
- the value of keeping a journal (chesapeakepilgrim.wordpress.com)