Monday, 31 October 2016

The strangest things happen when you read your own journals

Catriona Ross was merely hoping for a tidy shelf when she decided to catalogue her diaries – not a harvest of pearls 

When I moved into my new house last year, there were a few things I promised myself I'd do. Hang a mini gallery of photographs around my desk so I'd be surrounded by my favourite people while working. Install a bird bath so I could watch white eyes bathing from my desk. Er, finish writing my novel. And unpack and catalogue my journals.
The first two I did immediately, and after a three-and-a-half year writing journey, I finally completed my sci-fi mystery/romance, The Last Book on Earth. But the journal organising? Man, that was work. Having written in a journal for thirty years, often daily, I had boxes of books containing pages and pages of my thoughts, impressions and experiences. And they were just sitting there, dead weight.
Finally, I mustered the energy to get started. I bought a box of little sticky labels and cleared out two shelves in my workspace for the journals. I decided I wouldn't try to do it all at once; instead, I'd aim to catalogue five books a day until it was done. After dinner one night, I began. I sat with a glass of wine and wrote the label for my first journal, from the year I was age 12: '1/1986-12/1986.' Label stuck onto the spine, the book was placed in the shelf. After a couple of weeks, the job was done.
The sight of all my journals and notebooks arranged in chronological order from the past three decades of my life was unexpectedly satisfying. And the strange thing is how useful they've become. Now that these Books of Me are accessible and visible, I mine this database of wisdom and self-knowledge regularly.
Journalling is a way of staying connected to oneself, recording significant events and tracking one's progress. 'Writing may have healing powers you've never thought of,' wrote Sue de Groot in a piece entitled 'Keeping a journal could give you a happier life' while we were colleagues at Cosmopolitan. 'Writing down your thoughts is a way of releasing unconscious stresses. Writing about your life, your confusions and your desires can be therapeutic. It can help you to see yourself more clearly.' Besides tracking our emotional states, 'you could take the power out of whatever scares you by putting your fears into words. You could use it for goal-setting, writing down where you want to be and breaking that down into concrete steps that will get you to that place.'
Indeed. And now my collection of journals is a living, growing, ever-changing source of inspiration. Recently I opened a journal at random and discovered notes I'd made seven years ago from a Deepak Chopra book. Stirring stuff! It was exactly what I needed to read at that moment. The next day in a second-hand bookshop, I spotted a Chopra book I hadn't yet read, and bought it, and that turned out to be just what I needed to read at that moment...
Looking back can help you let go. I'm able to see how the me of today is wiser than my younger self. I've opened journals and had tears well up to see where I was seven years ago in relationships compared with where I am now. Sometimes the long way round is the only way round...
A certain challenge may come up, reminding me of something I experienced years ago. I can now look it up in the relevant journal and compare notes with myself. How did I handle it then? What will I do this time? It's awoken me to the fact that we always get opportunities do things differently – and reach a better outcome.
Yesterday I looked up entries from the time I left permanent employment in magazines 11 years ago in order to freelance and focus on writing novels. With The Last Book on Earth finally finished, I know that major step has been worthwhile.  
Reading my old journals has given me an appreciation of the difficult decisions I've made – leaving a career, leaving a marriage – and an appreciation of myself: I've opened journals and screamed with laughter over scurrilous tales and hilarious experiences I'd forgotten about.
If you don't write in a journal, consider buying yourself a beautiful blank book and a fine pen and starting. And if you do, it's worth spending time organising those journals and displaying them like treasured books, as a way of celebrating your life – because if you don't, who will? Being oneself, I think, is life's greatest and most underrated privilege.

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  1. Hello Catriona, you're up early :)
    My own journalling has always been limited by my inability to read my own writing, sadly, but this is a lovely and thoughtful post, and I'm happy to think of you writing your future while surrounded by the words of your past. We must meet up soon. :)

  2. Hi David, that's well put - the past and the future. Hm yes, reading one's own, deeply personal writing is a bit like watching a video clip of oneself - cringey and awkward. But get over that and there's a rich vein to be mined. Maybe there's a writers' support group somewhere for those who can't bear it? ie. Read Your Own Writing 101 Bootcamp...