I have just finished reading David Sedaris’s book ‘Theft by finding’, which is a collection of edited highlights from his journals written between 1977 and 2002. Earlier this year I enjoyed Alan Bennett’s ‘Keeping on keeping on’, half of which is edited highlights of his journals. So it’s safe to say I’m a sucker for journals and especially those written by erudite gay men who have a taste for the absurd. In both cases, I was left wanting more. More importantly, I felt nourished by reading them. It was as though I’d spent a glorious time with someone who shared a similar view on life and who knew how to make me laugh.
Writing a journal is slightly different from writing a diary. A diary is more often a report of facts with the occasional comment thrown in, whereas a journal is all about reflection and observation, the story behind the event. I’ve been writing a diary since I was a teenager and I often ask myself what they’re actually for. I mean, why did I need to record the tedious detail of what television programme I watched on 5th May 1977? Or why I wore clogs to school that day? Sometimes I dip in at random and nearly always I’m left thinking: who on earth is this person? I suspect my diaries are all about processing the day and putting it to bed before I do the same.
I write journals when I travel. They’re usually written in a notebook as opposed to a page-a-day diary and so there’s no limit to how much I can write. Because of that I write little bits throughout the day, or even set aside an hour or so in the morning to write about the previous day. They take time but because of that I have, for instance, an excellent record of my visit to India in 1995. On a slow 18-hour train journey from Bangalore to Trivandrum, I spent most of the time holed up on a top bunk. I read a novel, I snoozed and I gazed down on the people below me. My journal documents who I saw and what they wore, especially the beautiful family in fabulously colourful clothes who joined the train at Coimbatore. Then there’s the boring host of one of the little hotels we stayed in and who lorded it over the dinner table with long tales of his great past. There’s even a lavish description of the gentle ox at the ashram I stayed at that delivered the cartload of fresh coconuts each morning. I’ve written detailed journals on most long trips away from home, including the bleak and blurry visit to England to witness the last two weeks of my mother’s life and the aftermath. I delve into them only very occasionally but really, why write them at all?
I think writing a journal is not just necessary but inevitable if you’re a writer. You’ll know what I mean if you’re the type who wakes at night with a beautiful sentence rolling around in your head. You have to write it down. Throughout the day certain words catch your attention as do particular interactions with other people. You might find yourself on top of a mountain and a word strikes you as perfect to encapsulate the feeling of that moment. It has to be written down otherwise it’ll bother you all day long. Writers fear losing words, despite the fact that we chuck away so many during editing, but more than that, we fear forgetting something significant, even if it’s only the significance of the odd way someone served you coffee.
Sometimes, when I feel blocked and uncertain, it’s good to look back over the journals. They remind me of how I think (or used to think) and what grabbed my attention. They often inspire me. Sometimes, when I’m writing about a specific place or a building, they provide detail that I can’t find anywhere else. How else would I recall the colour of the pieces of glass embedded in the concrete at the Unite d’habitation in Marseille? Or remember the receptionist at a thermal baths in the Pyrenees who kept us waiting while she gossiped on the phone. “Oh la la,” she said. “Oh la la. Oh la la la la.” My partner Anthony couldn’t believe French people actually said that. As far as we could make out, this French woman could say nothing else.
That’s what journals are for. That’s why they’re worth keeping and why they’re worth reading. Diaries might remind me what I was doing (or not doing) in the past but journals fill in the gaps and tell a richer, fuller story. You end up with dozens, even hundreds of little notebooks: the idea of chucking any of them out is strictly verboten. But if you think you can have too much of a good thing, please don’t tell Messrs Sedaris and Bennett.
Do you journal?
I am neither gay nor a man but I think we share many of the same tastes and pleasures! You capture so well my enjoyment of a good book: “…as though I’d spent a glorious time with someone who shared a similar view on life and who knew how to make me laugh.” I journal, sporadically, but don’t keep a diary. I must confess to being somewhat jealous of yours though, as they provide a precious record of what you did when, and most importantly how you felt and what/whom you observed. Lately I find myself going on weekends and forgetting almost every detail of what we did, etc., so I’m vowing to keep more regular journals or photo records going forward. Loved this piece, Colin, keep ’em coming!
Oh it’s so worth doing, although now, with smartphones, so much is visually recorded, including the exact geo coordinates if you really want to be picky…I know we’re on the same page, but thanks for your lovely comments!
Have done a diary since mid 1950s, and now shortening them to 6 A4 sheets per year. TAKES A LONG TIME…..and only in 1988 now so unlikely to be finished.!
Wow, that’s a real archive! Good luck with condensing but it must be fun looking back. I’m all for looking forward to things but I love looking back…
I go through phases of doing morning pages which are different because they are basically filled with my anxieties and things I have to do or haven’t done. So I tend not to read back through them because it’s rather boring and repetitive. I kept diaries when I was a child I think my earliest was when I was 7 but those ones are filled with things like ‘Mince for lunch YUK.’ Although there is a stand out entry when I got my hamster which shows that I was wildly THRILLED!!!!!! I quite like the idea of scrapbooking sticking tickets in etc but have never done that. Do you draw in your journals as well? My father kept a 5 year diary which is quite interesting to look back on but it tends to be a more accurate report of the weather and the temperature but very little about his internal weather. Do you always journal in the same type of notebooks?
Morning pages are excellent mind cleansers and I sometimes treat the journal a little like that, noting the toddler having a tantrum at the next table at the cafe I’m sitting at or the way a sunbeam is heating my feet (treasures, such treasures). But I agree that factual diaries can become interesting the older they are. I have a morsel of my grandfather’s written when he was in Northern France in WW1 and there’s a wonderful bit about wandering through the ruins of Arras cathedral, and also meeting two men who are to be shot the following day for deserting…I rarely draw in my journals although there’s the occasional ground plans of a building I’ve visited, or a sketch of its location in relation to other features such as rivers and forests. The notebooks themselves vary but they’re always lined (not a fan of Moleskine’s unlined notebooks). Notebooks with end pockets are excellent for shoving in tickets and other little mementos including postcards. I have a new and deliciously bright red notebook sitting near my desk that keeps boring its eyes into me and whispering, “Write in me, Colin, write in me.” But frankly there are times when writing on the back of a parking ticket will suffice. That, I think, sums up the slight unhingedness of journals!
I found some fantastic notebooks a while ago in TKMax which were Italian school notebooks but because they were Italian they were beautiful paper and lovely bright colours. I can’t help noticing that when I couldn’t get them any more my enthusiasm for morning pages took a bit of a nose dive! I used to only write in blank notebooks – something about the lines I found a bit trapping but recently I’ve been back in lined notebooks. My handwriting however is terrible and often I just can’t read my own writing which is a bit pathetic.
I know exactly what you mean about the notebook itself being a kind of support. I have a particularly lovely (Italian!) notebook someone gave me in 1985 and I have saved it for deepest, darkest thoughts. Surprisingly it is only half full but it’s quite something to go from an event in 1986 to moving to Australia in 1996 and onwards all in one book. As for handwriting – hilarious, the act of self sabotage, writing what you cannot read! I find now, as I write less by hand and more by computer, that my hand actually aches after a few pages. Pathetic
Well, I think you know the answer to this already – No!
Though I am currently compiling a collection of affirmations in a beautiful book, if that counts.
That’s a lovely idea. And in a way, interesting to look back on because they will show your particular concerns at a specific time. Documenting, documenting…Helpful for when a researcher is preparing notes for your biography!
Oh, you are gorgeous! Hadn’t thought of it like that – the documenting, not the biography (!) – love the 💡!
I love the title of this blog!
I know how much you value your diaries. I really admire your ability to keep writing them!
I think sketchbooks are your journals.