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Journaling

I've been keeping a journal for over fifteen years now, so naturally I have some thoughts about the process. The thoughts don't fit into any pattern that I can see, though … they're kind of random, so this essay may be kind of random, too.

Normally I write in my journal every day. I've known all along that that was the traditional method, but I didn't learn until recently that the method was built into the meaning of the word. Here's how my dictionary explains it.

ME < OFr. jornel < jornel, daily < LLat. diurnalis —see DIURNAL.

ME < LLat. diurnalis < Lat. diurnus < dies, day.

The word “diurnal” is probably more familiar from its other meaning, where it's the opposite of “nocturnal”. And, by the way, “diary” also comes from the root “dies”.

Anyway, as I was saying, normally I write every day. In fact, normally I write at night, just before going to bed; but sometimes I'll make a few notes before then, or even sit down and write a bit; and sometimes I'll skip a day or two. There's a funny little paradox there, actually. I tend to skip not only when there's nothing interesting to write about, but also when there's something extremely interesting, so interesting that I'm not ready to make it prosaic by writing about it.

Usually I only write about what's new and different, but sometimes I write about what's the same, because that changes, too, only so slowly that you don't notice. And, usually I write in a fairly sketchy way, but sometimes I write in excruciating detail, in the always-vain hope that when I re-read the words, the memory will become as vivid as it originally was. The detail does help, but the memory never comes back completely.

For the first few years, I treated the journal like a log file on a computer (although I didn't think of it that way). As program, I wrote in it regularly and verbosely, and as programmer, I never looked at it unless I was curious about exactly when or how some particular thing had happened. At some point, though, I had the bright idea that I could get a bit more perspective on things by making calendars, as I've come to call them. They really are calendars, actually, but instead of trivial reminders for the future, they show important events from the past.

What I do is, every month or two I sit down and make a grid of days since the last calendar, then I read quickly through the journal entries and make note of anything that seems noteworthy. When there are things that don't pertain to any particular day, I'll make a note off to the side; and when there are things that go together, I'll usually break out the crayons and draw matching blobs on top of them. That's not really very useful, but it's fun!

(By the way, the format isn't as rigid as I make it sound. I'm always trying out different approaches … I might draw a linear scale instead of a grid, and use the second axis to classify events; or I might go back and summarize over years instead of months.)

Then, once the calendar is finished, I look and see if there's anything I can learn from it, any pattern I can recognize. Usually there isn't … but the exercise is still nice. Before I started making calendars, it sometimes seemed like a waste to spend so much time writing down things that even I would never read, but now the exercise of looking for patterns makes it feel worthwhile.

One other thing that's interesting is that I don't just write about the events of the day (as I call them), I also write about any thoughts and plans that I may have, just as I do when making a mind map. In fact, sometimes I make little mind maps right in my journal. Or, if there's something going on that I'm confused about, that I'm not sure how I want to handle, sometimes I like to just write down all the questions that come to mind. That really gets things off my mind, to do all that.

So, to return to the previous point … although it may not always feel worthwhile to write, it always is worthwhile; it would be worthwhile even if I threw it all out the next day.

There are other activities that are worthwhile in the same way, that perform the same function. I already mentioned confession and psychoanalysis in the essay Convergent Evolution (toward the end of the third page); now I'd like to mention one more. If you rant to a friend about something that's making you angry, that's called venting, or letting off steam, right? I like the mechanical analogy, because it indicates what function the activities perform. A steam engine, for example, lets off steam when there's too much pressure, so that it won't burst. I wouldn't want to have to explain what constitutes mental pressure, or why turning thoughts into words reduces it, but I don't doubt that that's basically what's going on.

Finally, here's an interesting thought from Consciousness Explained.

In fact, not just spoken language but writing plays a major role, I suspect, in the development and elaboration of the virtual machines most of us run most of the time in our brains. Just as the wheel is a fine bit of technology that is quite dependent on rails or paved roads or other artificially planed surfaces for its utility, so the virtual machine that I am talking about can exist only in an environment that has not just language and social interaction, but writing and diagramming as well, simply because the demands on memory and pattern recognition for its implementation require the brain to “off-load” some of its memories into buffers in the environment. (Note that this implies that “preliterate mentality” could well involve a significantly different class of virtual architectures from those encountered in literate societies.)

 

  See Also

  De-Sentimentalization (1)
  Examples
  Fire, The
  In Other Contexts
  New Sound, The
  Routine
  Some Thoughts

o September (2004)
@ June (2005)
  July (2005)