Wednesday, October 07, 2009

The Written Life (or, "What The Hell Am I Supposed To Do With This Blog?!")


"The unexamined life is not worth living" - Socrates

"Your freedom is a by-product of your day's triviality...
What then shall I do this morning? How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing...
Write as if you were dying... What would you begin writing if you knew you would die soon? What could you say to a dying person that would not enrage by its triviality?" - Annie Dillard (The Writing Life)

"No good for an old memory to mean so much today" - Night Ranger


At midnight last night, I stepped out into the windy autumn streets of my neighbourhood, lit with a nearly full moon in a mostly cloudless sky, and went for one of my many late-night walks, armed with a flashlight, phone, and pocket knife. The knife was a Christmas gift, given to me 25 years ago. I used to carry pocket knives around with me back then, mostly due to the bad influence of the books I had read as an adolescent - specifically Tom Sawyer, and The Outsiders. I remember once, in the autumn of '84, walking with Brian and Karen through the woods and neighborhood by their house late at night, when a car pulled up slowly by us. In a moment of typical teenage melodrama, fueled in no small part by having seen and read The Outsiders way too many times, I handed Karen my knife "just in case", thinking maybe it was a carload of Socs come to jump us or something stupid like that. I don't know what I thought she was going to do with it, but I vaguely remember us picking up the pace back to their house while the car pulled into the driveway it was headed for, probably only vaguely aware that we were even there...

I have countless memories from that, my 9th grade year, and they are among some of the best of my life. I have memories, but I have no written account of that year - none that I kept at the time anyway. I was simply living in the moment, unaware that those days would ever end. But end they did, as early as the following school year, which was one of the worst in my memory, and it was then that I came to the awareness that the times I lived and loved could and would end, that life didn't have a rewind button for us to go back and relive the best moments of our lives (or redo the times we really messed things up), and this was the seed that grew into my practice of journaling the days of my life. (it was also the beginning of my OCD music collection, as I collected nearly every song that was a hit on the radio during that year, discovering that I could at least relive a portion of those times through the music we listened to... but that is another blog entry). I miss those days sometimes and still wish, 25 years later, that I had kept some sort of record of them - something I could hold onto from that time, something to remind me...

My practice of journaling started out simply as keeping an outlined record of what I did that day, nothing too in-depth or serious. "went to movies w/ Brian & Karen, McD after, hang out at their house at night"...that sort of thing. In my senior year, I made a wall calendar with those little squares for the dates, and used that as my journal. The following year I bought a similar wall calendar, and for the next 7 or 8 years, with a new wall calender for each new year, my journal was right there on my wall for all to see, much of it abbreviated to fit in the tiny squares. The scrolls of my life story, which are still tucked away in my closet. If a day was particularly memory-worthy, I would dedicate a separate journal entry to it and denote "JE" in that day's square.

Somewhere along my early college days I was inspired to start journaling more as a spiritual practice. A friend from high school, Jill, was one of those people whose faith and life was of a kind that I aspired to, and when I asked her more about her personal spiritual practices, she told me that journaling was essential for her. After this, I bought a drugstore spiral notebook (college lined with yellow pages) and gave it a shot. It was the beginning of the reflective cultivation of an inner-life, a deeper awareness of the life I was living and the direction I was (and/or wanted to be) heading. I don't know that my journals have ever reached the promise of such a lofty description, especially back then when I was a teenage evangelical Christian (some of those early writings are rather painfully embarrassing to read now). But that was the path I started on back then, one which I still travel along and aspire to in my personal writings and reflections.

Along the way, there have been many other people who have inspired and influenced my own journal writing. My friend Rachael, another person who had the kind of faith-expressed-in-life that I admired, actually let me read her journals sometimes. She probably inspired me to start buying actual hardback "blank book" journals instead of just writing my thoughts in looseleaf notepads. Her journals were the first I read that sort of modeled what personal spiritual reflection looked like in another person's writings. Over the years I have enjoyed, been inspired by, and benefited from reading the published journals of many great writers, most notably those by Thomas Merton, Madeleine L'Engle, and Malcolm Muggeridge (whose book "Like It Was" was probably the first of such published journals I had read, and was a key influence on my own writings post-college, in it's style and type of substance). I also found inspiration many times from a book with the unfortunate title "How To Keep A Spiritual Journal" (by Ronald Klug). This book is simply a basic overview of just about everything a person might write about in a journal, and served many times as a good kick-start for those uninspired dry times.

For me, the best kind of journal writing is a combination of recording the day's events (by that I mean personal events, not necessarily "the news of the day"), along with personal thoughts and reflections on those events and the course of one's life in general, seasoned with writings of a topical nature wherein one works out one's thoughts and feelings on any given subject of concern or interest - a practice that sharpens the mind and (among other things) makes one's conversation more lucid and interesting. It is both a means of reflection and of remembering one's life and those who shared it with us. And it has to be a completely free space, where thoughts and feelings can be expressed and worked through without editing or censorship - without fear of others reading it. This last bit is of course the most dangerous thing about journaling, as the written word is powerful, and can not only be embarrassing if read by others, but has the power to really hurt those who are mentioned in its pages. But I feel that for a journal to be worth it, this risk must be taken. And the paradox here is that, while writing, it is often helpful to think of it as something being written to someone else - an unidentified "reader". This helps add clarification and some sense of narrative, rather than just throwing down a bunch of disconnected and half-baked thoughts and sentences.

I remember reading in one of the Harry Potter books, where Dumbledore has a bowl where he would store strands of his thoughts (a "pensieve"), so he could separate himself from his thoughts and concerns and view them objectively, and I remember this resonating with me immediately as the essence of journaling.

One of the most rewarding things about keeping a journal over the years is being able to go back and read what I've written (embarrassing though this sometimes is). It is amazing to read some of the moments I have forgotten about, the details I never would have remembered, and also the perspective I sometimes gain from reading what a younger me once thought and felt, the struggles I was going through that either seem trivial in the light of the years gone by (knowing what actually happened as compared to what I was worried would or would not happen), or are struggles I am still dealing with these many years later. I've looked back at things I've written so many years ago, and I can't believe that I'm still dealing with the same thing, still worrying or struggling with this very same problem. And this, too, gives perspective on how to deal with these persistent problems. It can make me realize that the way I've been dealing with it or thinking about it hasn't done anything to solve things...time for a new strategy...or perhaps it's time to accept things and let go the idea that they are going to change, let go the burden of worrying about it. Sometimes this is discouraging, and sometimes this brings a sense of relief - a burden I've been carrying around for years doesn't have to be the same kind of burden anymore...

In late '96 I bought my first "nice" journal from Barnes & Noble (beyond the cheap hardback blank books I had been getting at Meijers), and kept what I still consider to be one of my best and most coherent journals, which incorporated all the elements I talked about earlier. I was, at the time, planning to move to Nashville at the end of the year, and perhaps that somehow focused my mind in a way that led to better writing. I think also, perhaps in a shallow or superficial way, that the quality of the book one is writing in, the look and feel of the journal itself and the quality of its pages, affects the quality of what one writes inside... though this can work negatively in reverse, when the journal is too nice and you feel that what you have to say isn't worthy of the book you're about to write it in, and so you leave its pages blank.

The following year, at a seminar at Cornerstone '97, things got worse for my growing fascination with journals.  Carolyn Arends was giving a seminar with her friend Bernie Sheahan, mostly on "books books books" (probably actually on spiritual practices, I forget now).  Bernie showed us the journal she had been keeping for the past few years (given to her by a friend with the inscription "Write your heart out", or something like that), and this journal was thicker than any I had ever seen before.  The only "nice" journals I had seen before that were always thinner, somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 pages or so, and on the smaller side.  This one was a full-sized book, thick and blank (save for what she'd written in it herself).  And ever since then, I've been on the lookout for nice thick journals.  They've become more widely available since then (and I've purchased more than my fair share of them over the years), but for some reason I couldn't for the life of me find anything like that in the mid-to-late 90's and wondered where the hell she got that thing!  A journal the size of a real book! 

And so these were the beginnings of the snowball that started rolling down the mountain...

I realized the other day, after buying another beautiful black leather-bound journal, that I seem to have a journal fetish (I can already hear some of you exclaiming "no shit Sherlock"). I have at least 25 journals of various quality on my shelves - some of the early ones no more than drugstore notepads, some just cheap small hardbacked books, all the way across the spectrum to a few beautiful leather-bound ones that cost between $50-80. Some (at least 10) are filled with my life and thoughts, and some are still waiting for the story that will be written in their expectant pages...

Which brings me to this blog, which I started over 3 years ago, and one of the reasons why I haven't written anything here for a while. Among other things, I've been struggling with what exactly I do and don't want to post here. I'm quite frankly not interested in adding another collection of "op-ed" opinion pieces to the blogosphere pile. Many others do that, and do it well, much better than I could. I'm not interested in pointing out the faults of others, using this as a soapbox to show how right I am and how wrong "they" are. I've hurt too many people along the way doing just that, and when I put my mind to it, I'm too good at tearing others down in the name of speaking the truth. and in those moments I'm not very good at all at realizing that I "see but through a glass darkly", nor am I very sensitive to the damage I cause when I rail against the place another happens to be in on their particular journey through life. We're all just groping in the dark, and for me to bash another for not holding the whole truth, when I myself don't hold it either, is just ugly arrogance at best. and I don't want this to be an exercise in vanity.

I also don't ever want my writings to be divorced from my life (which many "opinion pieces" can be). I want something of who I am to bleed through in these writings, for people to get to know me, a sort of invitation to join me along the way, perhaps by relating to or resonating with something I say, and feeling free enough to share something of themselves in response without fear of ridicule or judgement or argument (Lord save us from the shouting match). I have no interest in hitting people's "hot buttons" in the name of more "hits". I am interested in conversation, or more specifically, in relation. (That's kind of an odd way to put it, I know...) I guess I'm more interested in the kind of writing that could be called "personal reflection / meditation", with a healthy dose of memoir thrown in.

...and yet, I don't want to fall into the exhibitionism of spilling my guts out for everyone to roll their eyes at, where I vomit my feelings all over the reader so that they know just what I've been going through! I look over my entries from the past couple years and realize I've crossed that line too often. And this is where the practice of "keeping a journal" for others to read is contrary to my very foundational belief of how to keep an honest and worthwhile journal - complete freedom and lack of self-censorship. Writing with an audience in mind is a whole other ballgame, and I'm not sure that, as far as this blog is concerned, I quite know how to walk that fine line between the two extremes, while staying true to what I do - and do not - want to do.

But, when it's all said and done, I do think it's pretty cool to be able to "publish" ones writings to a potentially wide readership in a way that has never before been possible. and so I will continue to plug away at this (as time permits) and struggle with just what I might have to say here that is worth another's time to read. and I hope that you, dear reader, will feel welcome and free enough to offer your thoughts and opinions on what I share here as well (I'm pretty sure all bloggers, like all good indie rockers, love feedback!), while hopefully putting something of yourself and your personal story into the mix. I like to know why people think and feel the way they do, and not just exchange disconnected points of opinion. It's much harder to disagree with someone's life-path that leads them to a certain opinion (or "way of thinking") than it is to disagree with the disconnected opinion they put in front of them.

4 comments:

Steve H. said...

Great entry bro... read it all and it was insightful for me. I am a "lazy" journaler (sp?) I am truddging through the same journal I bought in 2002 and am about 3/4 of the way through it. I wish I was disciplined to do it everyday, but I do "di it" consistantly irregularly

I want to see more on your blog and I wrestled with the same feelings about always railing against something like you. Thats why ...I don't. I try to keep in varied and fun

I want to see more classic rock & classic Christian music news & reviews from you...just my 2 cents

Bernie said...

Hey, Brook--
So glad I stopped in here! It took some vanity on my part, but what a way to hook me "there's something in there about you..." Music to a writer's heart. Or anyone's. There is much to ponder here...my favorite thing was reading the Annie D. quote first thing. I love that quote. I'm reading Annie D. again right now. I used to have her on the shelf for regular check-ups but I'm far from my books, which are in TN. Thank you, Cupertino Library. Hey, do you by any chance remember the color of that big, fat journal at C-stone? Was it dark blue? If so, I'm sad...that was a real book, given to me by a friend who worked for a publishing company. It was a blank, a mistake. Lucky me! Sad, because I didn't write enough in it. I was living in Oxford, MS at the time, for two years, and I could have filled the book with my exploits and memories. Didn't. Don't know why. Maybe because that's when email was just getting big and, frankly, I used to tell Carolyn EVERYTHING everyday via email. I sure wish I had her hard drive from that period. That would be my journal. Cool blog. I'll read more. Mine's Bernieville.com. Big fat one entry so far. Keep writin', Brook!

Brook said...

Bernie -
yes, it was a blue one, and it looked just like what you described! an actual book. that was my thought when I saw it, when I looked at it in wonder when you held it up and I thought "whoah, that's cool, that looks like a real book!". I had never seen such a journal before. no wonder I couldn't find any like it! thanks for sending me on a wild goose chase for years...

Brook said...

and, even though I like the Dillard quote and it's been one of my favourites for years, I have to say my favourite quote here was the Night Ranger one. I put that up after the deep Dillard quote and then said to myself "that's genius placement of a quote right there" :-)