Sunday, September 28, 2008

One Million Words

I’ve kept journals for years. In a roughly twenty year production, I estimate that I’ve written a million words in these journals. That’s fifty thousand words per year, or the length of one modest book per year. Compared to some well-known journal writers, mine might be considered a meager output. But the big question is, just what have I been writing about?

Writing, as much as it is about discipline, is perhaps more so about habit. Keeping a journal provides a ready source within which to get the ink flowing. I suspect this is why journal keeping smacks of self-regard, that such navel gazing is considered useless...that there is something both anachronistic and self-indulgent about keeping a journal. No matter, isn’t this what any writing essentially is--the projection of one’s ego?

Keeping a journal implies you are trying to be completely honest with yourself, as it provides a place to explore difficult ideas in an exposed form. I can find documentation on almost any major event in my life from the last eighteen or so years, depending on how frank or involved in documenting it I was at the time (or how legibly I wrote--it often requires a cryptologist to read these things). The lion’s share of a journal’s function is reflective, the inquiry into motives, actions and results. The writing aspires to a lack of self-consciousness. If the preconceived idea that these journals were to be published was a possibility, some of that honesty would be compromised perhaps, or couched, and it would cease to serve it’s introspective, ultimately (personal) archeological function.

I consider this journal writing meditative time that more often than not leads to my “real” writing. Maybe journaling functions like foreplay to the actual writing, what becomes fiction.

In recent years, I’ve gotten away from confession that dominate long periods of my earliest journals. Now I primarily use a journal as a documentation of my writing, to prod myself on the fiction. That and the occasional philosophical or psychological insight. In a journal I can work through problems in writing and imagine I am somewhat more clear about them. This also offers me the benefit of learning from the past when I re-read them later--a testing of hypotheses. My writing is my brutal pact with creativity, and journal writing offers a suggestion that I can get down to bedrock, that I can come away with self-knowledge.

I read Jean-Paul Sartre’s War Diaries: Notebooks from a Phoney War 1939-1940 with the voyeuristic notion that I am reading Sartre’s innermost, honest thoughts. Sartre, at various points, is so bold in his voice and his observations, that it is clear that he expected greatness. This voice impresses me, probably because it is projecting a kind of confidence and authority that I want to emulate.

This also highlights the line between the private writer and the public one. Sartre, while reading Andre Gide’s journals, writes a critique of them that revolves around Gide’s unwillingness to bear up his personal life. “His diary is essentially a tool for recovering possession of himself. Consequently, more the witness and instrument of tensions than of relaxations.” In other words, Gide avoids discussing his day to day life, from which Sartre sees in Gide’s journals, a kind of denial: “To allow Gide to write any old thing, when he doesn’t feel in the mood for work [...]” As Sartre says of his own writing, “this journal is a calling into question of myself.”

But even Sartre is circumspect enough to avoid delving too deeply into personal matters (other than occasional references to “the Beaver,” aka Simone DeBeauvoir, and their circle)--he does it only in the most superficial manner. And, as Gide’s journals were published, so too, eventually, were Sartre’s. He claims, “I’m not an important person nor do I meet important people[...]”. Yet Sartre, for all his dissembling, strikes me as fully aware, at the age of 34, of where he was going.

I suspect this literary journal-keeping self-consciousness in the French says reams about their value of the self-created mind and why their philosophical and literary traditions are much more expansive (it could be argued) than our own. Theirs seems a passion for digging about in the intellect and culling with impunity. I would guess most American writers are much more clearly directed, or dedicated to writing beyond ourselves (the confessional memoir--which is more about exposing others in the aims of self-revelation), because our publishing model is nakedly consumer oriented. The life of the mind is not populist; it is rather considered, if anything, elitist.

With the expediency of on-line publishing, the journal as a written form may become a thing of the past. The blog can give any writer of any obscurity the instant possibility of voyeuristic fame; confession or chest-thumping seems to outweigh genuine insight in this venue. Not for me -- what comes up here rarely resembles anything that’s in my dog-eared journals.


  1. I write on my online journal anything that crosses my mind. To be able to enjoy such a freedom of expression is a gift for which I am grateful.
    My dear blog, I love you (though I hate the word "blog")!

  2. Thanks, May. I guess my point is: how willing are we to really put our "innermost" thoughts out there, particularly in a blog? You may be an exception.

  3. I guess I am. But I keep my blog private.

  4. An interesting piece. I too am a compulsive journalist. I began when I was 18: burned two ten year plus collections, but have preserved all the volumes written since I began to write with serious intent in 1988. Now on page 5680. For years I wrote two line per space, so figure I passed the million word mark a few years back.

    I've never been able to settle on a satisfying explanation for what this is for. It varies. I tell myself, every moment is new, absolutely unique. Now matter how many times I ride the el, the same time of day, the same passengers: that it's not the same. In part, I've used the journals to challenge myself to see what I otherwise would miss--what is unique in the place, this moment? also come in handy winning family arguments about what happened when and who said what, ahem...