Photo Credit: Tracy Raphaelson



October 2004

"Living's hard. It's writing that's easy." E. Annie Proulx


Why Keep a Journal?

Dear Reader,

As promised, this month's subject is "Why Keep a Journal?". I believe that one of the greatest benefits in keeping a journal is not necessarily found in the act of writing it. But before describing what that benefit is, I'd like to say something about what a journal is and is not. A journal is not a diary. Even though both are types of personal writing in which the language is informal, the point of view is distinctly first person, and the mood is reflective, a diary is the place to write about intensely personal things. A diary is private writing.

In a September email message, writer and musician Tom Ewart expressed his thoughts about what a journal is. He wrote, "I think the most important thing about a journal is having it be a place where you can let yourself go---no holds barred, no censor on your shoulder, damn the torpedoes and whatever damage they might possibly inflict. If that's not the case, it won't be you on the page; it'll be the you [that] you would be willing to let others see if they ever chanced upon what you have written." I like Tom's idea of the journal being "a place"---it sounds tangible, even though what ends up there are thoughts. Keeping a journal becomes a way to use writing to uncover, not discover, what's on your mind to write something for a future audience. That's what writers do: arrive at a point in time where what is on the page seems important enough to say to someone else. I use my journals to talk to myself about what's captured my attention and imagination, to write in that mixture of observed fact and response known as the personal essay. Because journals are rooted in Tom's "no holds barred" territory, parts end up in poems and/or paintings.

I keep three different kinds of journals going because writing is essentially need-driven for me. I do not write in them every day, but when the need arises (which it does almost daily), I have a place to go to fill that need.

DAY BOOK: Donald M. Murray (A Writer Teaches Writing; Crafting a Life in Essay, Story and Poem; Expecting the Unexpected) taught me about keeping a notebook dedicated to capturing thoughts, sparks of speech, phrases and descriptions from newspaper articles that radiate enough heat to write or paint about in the future. It's also the place where those middle-of-the-night thoughts go.

ART JOURNAL: This is where I make space to wonder. A look inside reveals thoughts or sketches about:
· my motivation (the question Why do I need to make art? comes up a lot),
· my process or someone else's (What makes me know it's time to paint over an earlier work, and that I can let go of it to make something new),
· an illusive goal (Where is the publisher for a manuscript?),
· a rejection (Why wasn't my painting or poem accepted?),
· a troublesome painting (Look at that whole area with nothing---or too much---interesting going on in it!),
· where I am in the process (I can't believe I painted forty pieces on the same subject!),
· notes from painting classes and lectures,
· plans for new pieces,
· predictions about revisions that are sure to solve some pesky problem,
· cartoons about writing and art that are clipped from newspapers and magazines.

MUSEUM JOURNAL: Here is the heart of my continuing art education. I received one as a gift in December1999. With a page earmarked for each museum and sections for sketches and notes, it is almost filled. At first, I was perplexed by the limited space I had to write about an entire morning or day of blissful looking. Being confined to a page forced me to say what stymied, stunned, or satisfied me about each museum or exhibition visit in a concise way. Because it takes only several minutes to complete, it gets done and not put off.

Writing in these journals fulfills my "need to know what I think," as Tom Ewart put it. Now, what is that major benefit of journal writing that I mentioned in the first paragraph? It comes after I write in them. I make a point to read through all that I've written two, four six---weeks, months, years ago. What seemed so important and/or stressful six months ago has either been resolved or taken its place among the I'm still doing the best I can about this or I couldn't do anything about this, so I let it go categories.

The advantage of having written the way I felt about an issue or problem is that it stares back at me on the page today. I remember writing the entry, and I know what has happened since. I see knowledge and experience building. Reading over past journals serves as a reminder that work and time will solve some problems, while those that are still unresolved will seem different in today's light. That helps me to get on with the work of creating. And I find that very useful.

November's journal will be my tribute to the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York. If you would like to email me your ideas, questions and/or comments about the creative process, please do so: