Quite possibly the best description of keeping a journal as a prose form. I've always kept a journal, but only sporadically. Then, after Memorial Day, I filled 30 pages of my notebook in one session. Then I read the following short on keeping a journal and Annie Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, a book filled with essays overflowing with insight, depth and clarity. Essays which very likely started as musings in her own journal.

Everything is at that meeting point between journal and essay. Nodes, like essays, develop and clarify ones private thoughts and personal musings for the consideration of another. Like WolfDaddy says, "No longer do words come flowing out of my pen onto paper, only to be hidden away, seen nevermore. Now ... I have an audience. Now ... every thing I share may be someday seen by someone I might not care to have share."

After reading that, plus other high-quality essays I went to the trouble of requesting permission to retype this essay out of a book.

To articulate and shape experience in language for one's own sake, one may keep a journal. Literally a day-book, the journal enables one to write down something about the experiences of a day which for a great variety of reasons may have been especially memorable or impressive. The journal entry may be merely a few words to call to mind a thing done, a person seen, a meal enjoyed with friends. It may be concerned at length with a political crisis in the community or a personal crisis in the home. It may even be as noble as it was with some pious people in the past who used the journal to keep a record of their consciences, a periodic reckoning of their moral and spiritual accounts. In its most public aspect, the idea of a journal calls to mind the newspaper or a record of proceedings like the U.S. Congressional Record and the Canadian Hansard. In its most closely private form, the journal becomes the diary.

To keep a journal is to hold onto experiences through writing. But to get it down on paper begins another adventure. The journalist has to focus on what he or she has experienced, and to be able to say what, in fact, the experience is. What of it is new? What of it is remarkable because of associations in the memory it stirs up? Is this like anything I – or others – have experienced before? Is it a good or a bad thing to have happened? And why, specifically? The questions multiply themselves quickly, and as the journalist seeks to answer the appropriate ones, he or she begins to know what is being contemplated. As one tries to find the words that best represent this discovery, the experience becomes even more clear in its shape and meaning. We can imagine Emerson going to the ballet, being absorbed in the spectacle, thinking casually of this or that association the dancer and the movements suggest. When he writes about the experience in his journal, a good many questions, judgments, and speculations get tied up with the spectacle, and it is this complex of event and his relation to it that becomes the experience he records. The simple facts of time, place, people, and actions drop down into one's consciousness and set in motion ideas and feelings which give those facts their real meaning to oneself.

Once this consciousness of events is formulated in words, the journalist has it, not only in the sense of understanding what has been seen or felt or thought, but also in the sense of having it there to contemplate long after the event itself. When we read a carefully kept journal covering a long period and varied experiences, we have the pleasure of a small world re-created for us in the consciousness of one who experienced it. Even more, we feel the continuity, the wholeness, of the writer. Something of the same feeling is there for the person who kept the journal: a whole world of events preserved in the form of their experienced reality, and with it the persistent self in the midst of that world. That world and that self are always accessible on the page and ultimately, therefore, usably real.

Beyond the value of the journal as record, there is the instructive value of the habit of mind and hand journal keeping can assure. One begins to attend more carefully to what happens to and around oneself. One learns the resources of language as a means of representing what one sees, and gains skill and certainty in doing justice to experience and to one's own consciousness. And the journal represents a discipline. It brings together an individual and a complex environment in a relation that teaches the individual something of himself or herself, something of the world, and something of the meaning of their relation. There is scarcely a moment in life when one is not poised for the lesson. When it comes with the promise of special force, there is the almost irresistible temptation to catch the impulse, give it form, make it permanent, assert its meaning. And so one commits oneself to language. To have given up one's experience to words is to have begun marking out the limits and potential of its meaning. In the journal that meaning is developed and clarified to oneself primarily. When the whole intention of the development and the clarification is the consideration of another reader, the method of the journal redirects itself to become that of the essay.

Written by Peterson et al, originally published in the Norton Reader, Ninth Ed.

Retyped from the Reader here with kind permission from Arlene Phalon, Norton Permissions.

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