On becoming a writer—keeping a journal

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People have asked me how long I’ve been a writer, how I got started, etc. The apparent answer is when I published my first article, back in 1996. But the true answer is when I made the decision to document my life with a journal, sometime in the summer of 1978.

If you keep a journal—or a diary—in any form, you are a writer.

By documenting your life, you are giving it meaning. At the end of the day, when you pen your thoughts, you are accounting to yourself for how the hours since sunrise were spent.

School boards who have phased out handwriting (penmanship) have it wrong—and they’re starting to realize that. They think that because we spend most of our time communicating via keypads and devices that handwriting is antiquated and unnecessary.

Wrong, wrong, wrong.

As Andrew Coyne points out, the act of writing by hand draws on a different part of the brain—the creative part—than that demanded by typing (i.e. motor skills). He points out that the brain needs the restraint imposed by handwriting. We also learn to compose thoughts in sentences, then paragraphs, in writing them by hand. Without the spell-check, cut-and-paste, and easy editing tools provided by the computer, we learn to think efficiently and clearly.

Therefore, to record your thoughts and experiences in a journal is to impose order and meaning upon your life. I think keeping a journal raises you to a higher plane—where you are seeking the meaning in every encounter. Conversely, in penning out your day-to-day experiences, it becomes easy to identify the things and people that waste one’s precious time.

If you are not in the habit of keeping a journal, try this—sit down tonight for 5 minutes and scratch out on a piece of paper an account of the worthwhile things you did today. When you close your eyes to sleep, imagine doing the same thing tomorrow night. In so doing, I think your day will have a different shape to it.

I’ve skimmed all kinds of how-to articles on keeping a journal. There are any number of different means. Over the years, I’ve documented my life in handwriting, audio, video, and sketches. We each will find our own way to document our lives. The important thing is to do it.

I write on three-ring binder paper every night. Sometimes, it’s a simple account of what I did that day. Other times, I explore feelings. I also use my journal as a means of working out decisions. If you can state a problem simply, then you are halfway to solving it. That is the power of a journal.

We homeschool our two sons, Spencer and Duncan. Aside from the Three Rs, I have insisted that they learn three skills—swimming, martial arts, and keeping a journal. My wife and I kept one for each boy, every day of their lives, until they were around 10 or 12. Thereafter, each son keeps his own. Filling a page per day in their little spiral-bound journals is as essential as mathematics, grammar, and science.

It’s fun, and enlightening, to read back through one’s journal. It’s also a poignant reminder of how short life is, and how precious every single day is. What gets written about in one’s journal tends to be the big-picture items of life. The longer the habit of keeping a journal is instilled, the more apt one is to focus on those big-picture priorities.

If you have never published anything as a writer, but kept a diary or journal, then you will find that you’re already well on the way. You don’t need a fine arts course in creative writing. You just need to have experienced life and had the desire to document it and extract meaning from it.


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