For most of the events I've written about in History As You Experienced It, my personal journals (some of which I'm holding in the photo to the right) have proven invaluable as a reference. However, keeping a journal is a leisure pursuit that most people aren't well-suited for because it requires dedication, an affinity for writing and a fascination with the details of one's day-to-day life. I've kept a journal since the late 1970s, and friends often ask in wonderment about my discipline. If I were to conduct a class about the journal-keeping process, here's how I might outline it:
- Start Simple. Your goal isn't to write a best-selling memoir. I enjoy writing in my journal because, once I've written down a thought, observation or experience, I no longer worry about forgetting it, thus, freeing my mind. My early journals were relatively dry as I tended to express myself in headline fashion without going into a lot of detail. However, as the years went by I began going into more detail, something that just happened. (This early stage is where most people stop because they lose interest.)
- Write About Day-to-Day Life. I start each day's page with a brief description of the weather (another hobby of mine) and then proceed from there. I write about whatever strikes my fancy, e.g., interesting things that happened to me or to friends/family; personal milestones; dreams; arguments; news events; movies I've seen; vacations and business trips; health issues; even activities of an intimate nature. It's the sort of stuff you might find yourself writing as Status Updates on your Facebook page.
- Make it a Habit. Choose a set time when you write in your journal; ideally, when there are few distractions. For me, that's around 11PM. And try to do it every day - it doesn't take very long, usually 10-15 minutes. Many aspiring journal keepers stop when they let days go by without making any entries.
- Tell-All or Self-Censor? Because keeping a journal enables you to get things off your chest, it can serve as an inexpensive form of therapy. However, you might find yourself censoring your entries if you're concerned that others may one day read what you've written. (For example, my father discovered I was gay when he read some entries in my journal during a visit home.) Of course, it's up to you to decide if you want to air your dirty laundry, but don't obsess over it because it somewhat defeats the purpose of keeping a journal.
- Pen & Paper or Computer Keyboard? Most of my journals are the paper-and-pencil kind, but I've done a few years in the form of a Word document. Doing it in Word frees me to write more because there are no space limitations. However, one advantage of keeping a pen-and-paper type of journal is that you don't need to fear snooping by the NSA (snooping by friends and family is another matter).
If you keep a journal for an extended period of time in book form, you'll have to contend with storage issues (I've managed to find places to store 30+ years of journals in my tiny Greenwich Village apartment.) You don't need to find an official journal with dates on each page, but try to get one with a sufficient number of pages (I aim for at least 400 pages).
- Opening the Time Capsule. The payoff comes when you revisit what you wrote. You may be surprised by what's slipped your mind; how recollections differ from what actually happened; or how your handwriting has changed over the years. These journals can also serve as great resources for settling arguments (or used, gulp, as supporting evidence in a trial).
Now, Get Started!