Yesterday I had a Skype visit with high school students. Their teacher had asked me to talk about my writing process and to listen and respond as her students read their “Where I’m From” poems. I enjoy teaching in this new way, and it makes author visits more affordable in a time of shrinking school budgets.
I began, as I always do, by asking the writers if they kept a journal. One person raised her hand. Somebody called out, “We do blogs.” I asked the teacher how this worked, and she explained that she’s the reader for their blogs but she guessed anyone could read them if they wanted to. I’m not sure whether she meant anyone in the class or the school or the world.
Perhaps a blog seems cooler than a journal. Perhaps it’s exciting to post your words knowing that you just published them. What I’m writing right now is intended to be a blog, the first I’ve ever done. Though I may change my mind, so far I’ve not started a blog because I’m afraid it would take energy away from my journal. And I don’t want to do that. Here’s why.
A blog is public, even if you limit access to it. A journal is private. A blog imagines an audience. A journal has the writer for its audience. A blog is about communicating with the world. A journal is about communicating with yourself.
You don’t have to choose. You can do both. But let me tell you what you will miss if you skip the journal and go straight to the blog. At this moment in our culture we have so many voices—in person, in advertising, on all our screens—telling us who we should be, how we should act, what we should want, own, wear, feel, that it can be almost impossible to hear our own voices. And if we can’t hear then, we don’t know what matters to us, as opposed to everyone and everything outside us.
A journal is a place to listen to yourself. To calm yourself. To know yourself, to take care of yourself. It’s a tool to connect with the deepest part of yourself and learn who you are and what matters most to you. If you don’t know those things, how can you choose your path?
In your journal, you can write down your dreams, hopes, and fears. What makes you mad or curious or ecstatic. If your life feels out of control, you can write about that, too, and while it won’t change the outside situation, it can change you inside because you found words for it. It’s not all bottled up.
When I look back through my journals—I’ve got more than a hundred and twenty now—I realize I use them primarily for four things: collecting, reflecting, connecting and creating. The collecting phase is what I just talked about: setting down what happens and how I feel about it, copying quotations, keeping a list of books I’m reading. And I collect things besides words that relate to my life at the time: I tape in concert tickets, photographs, newspaper articles, postcards, leaves, feathers, rocks, bark, even seashells if they’re flat enough. If an article is too large for the page, I just fold it so that it can accordion out when I want to read it again. Recently I was speaking at a school and one of the students noticed that my journal wouldn’t quite close. “How did your journal get so fat?” he asked. “I fed it,” I told him.
And it feeds me, too, because I’m not just taking an inventory of my life: I dreamed this, I did that, I felt another way. I’m reflecting on it too. What was it about the sandy-haired guy on the elevator wearing a black suit, red tie, and flip-flops that made me afraid? Why wasn’t he funny? Why did he give off such weird vibes?
Or, written under a sandwich wrapper which is taped in, why did this pimiento cheese taste like San Francisco when I got it in the Detroit airport?
Why did it make me so mad when Libby called me Jelly-Belly? I thought I was a grownup. And so forth.
Answering these questions helps me make connections and understand myself, the person I really am and not the one I may want to be or feel expected to be. When I asked why it felt so good to lie across the car seat looking for a CD underneath, I discovered that it felt like hanging upside down from the elm tree, which I loved to do as a kid. Upside down, the sky became the ground, and the backyard was a green sky interrupted by spiky iris and the coal pile.
Sometimes this reflecting and connecting leads me into creating a piece I might want to share. For example, writing about the guy on the elevator, I might imagine what he could have been thinking, and out of that could come a poem or story in which we are each afraid of the other. Or he could turn out to be the son of the woman who invented Peeps. I don’t know. But I could imagine.
Keeping a journal lets me decide if something I’ve written might speak to other people—and if I would want to share it. If I do, I type it up and begin revising, working to let the reader in on my experience. Many poems, picture books, stories, plays, and novels have begun this way.
But they wouldn’t have happened if I’d been writing for an audience all along. I would be too self-conscious, too external and self-critical to get to the deep place where creation begins.
As a teacher, I understand the advantage of the blog in that it’s evidence that students are writing, and it provides a piece to be read and considered. When I’ve had students keep journals, I’ve asked them to show me a certain number of written pages, just so I know they’ve been done, and then give me one excerpt to read. That way the writers have privacy but also accountability, and I have examples of their work to read.
I know some folks keep journals online, which is fine if it works for you. If you do, you could scan or photograph special objects that you want to include. You could embed video, too, of course. But you wouldn’t have an actual leaf to touch, the impress of a writer’s hand on a note you’ve saved, the silk of a jingle shell to transport you back to the beach. A journal is a gift you give yourself. A gift of yourself. Give it a try. Someone wonderful is waiting for you.
George Ella Lyon is the author of four books of poetry, a novel, a memoir, and a short story collection as well as thirty-seven books for young readers. Her honors include an Al Smith Fellowship, fellowships to the Hambidge Center for the Arts, numerous grants from The Kentucky Foundation for Women, a Pushcart Prize nomination, and a feature in the PBS series, “The United States of Poetry.” A native of Harlan County, Ky., Lyon works as a freelance writer and teacher based in Lexington. For more information, go to georgeellalyon.com