When I ask people if they keep a journal, they usually answer, “No, I don’t,” and the conversation drifts off to another topic. In this electronic age with computers, e-mails, recorded telephone calls, video tapes, disks and drives, and an endless arsenal of gadgetry, I suppose some technocrats consider journals obsolete, nearing even extinction. I must appear as a fossil relic from another age, but journal keeping for me has been one of the most satisfying and useful ventures of my life. I have faithfully maintained a journal for fifty-eight years.
Back in 1957, at Union College, in Schenectady, NY, Professor Codman “Coddy” Hislop taught a creative writing course. As a senior student there, I enrolled in this offering as an elective to fill in my schedule of classes. We fledging writers contributed either an essay, a short story, a poem, or a one-act play each week for Hislop’s scrutiny and class discussion and critique. After the classes had been meeting for a month, Hislop felt the quality of our literary output was lacking and sought to elevate our work. “I want all of you to keep a journal,” he said. “Then work in these written-down ideas and observations in your text while they are fresh in your mind, directly into your writing. Your journal will became a storehouse from which you can draw to enliven your prose or poetry.”
Hislop’s advice brought success. Our literary efforts vastly improved, almost like an athlete getting into shape. Once the course was over, I simply continued journaling, and have carried through to the present day. Coddy had given me, though I scarcely realized it at the time, the impetus, the stimulus, to pursue a worthwhile, lifelong activity. I was lucky. I had found a mentor. Coddy and I, by the way, became close friends, and I used to visit him at his Vermont farm hideaway, complete with a tour of his writing den.
During the years I have kept the journal, people might comment to me, “Dick, you have a good memory.” I would smile at the compliment, and would later look back through the pages only to realize that I had forgotten half the information I had recorded. I cannot overemphasize the importance of a journal to someone pursuing the liberal arts– writers, historians, artists, and other like disciplines.
In my notebooks, for instance, I include everything– ideas, daily activities, addresses, telephone numbers, lists of virtually everything, along with Scotch-taped-in both personal and business cards, newspaper clips, receipts, postcards, and even photocopied letters. Filing the original letter in a box frequently results in a long delay to find it, if, indeed, you do find it in a clutter of papers.
I also jot down bibliographical citations– titles, authors, publishers, and page numbers–as a safeguard against loss of the original sheets. There is nothing more discouraging than losing a reference. I am also vigilant in other ways. When I leave my home in the morning, I always place two or three blank sheets of papers in my hip pocket. If I think of something of interest or need to record some factual information, I do not leave it to chance or my memory. I jot it down on the spot. After two or three weeks, I go through my recent journal entries, page by page, and compile an index of each item. I now have a finding aid which delivers ready information. You now have your own private encyclopedia.
If you begin a journal and stay with it for a mere six months, you will readily see its value, its importance. If you maintain this calling for a year, this daily ritual becomes an addiction, an activity to which you look forward for an hour of fun and enjoyment. I embrace my journal daily as a religious person reads the Bible, or a businessman/woman consults stock exchange listings.
How does one get started in this pursuit, whether crazy or rational? You do not need to enroll in a college course, or take a three-day workshop at a retreat center, or read a do-it-yourself manual, or look for a mentor–these approaches amount to unnecessary delay–to launch this great adventure. All the tools you need are a pen or pencil, paper, a loose-leaf notebook, and an active curious mind. A little stamina also helps.
And when do you start the first page? Today!
In conclusion, I might suggest that you take good care of your journals, as historians may use them someday. Coddy made that observation when he wrote “The Mohawk” in the Rivers of America Book series. During his research, Coddy had located a valuable diary a journalist had kept while on a trip on the Erie Canal over 150 years before. Coddy found the trip account hard to read, as “the diarist notes on the last page, it fell overboard on one occasion.”
Thanks, Coddy, for creating a safeguard reservoir to retain my knowledge, advancing my interests, and, who knows, perhaps even extending my life in pursuing this daily resource-rich quest.
Editor’s notes :
A few items found in our collection to get you started…
The Artist’s Way: a Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity by Julia Cameron
Leaving a Trace: On Keeping a Journal: the Art of
Transforming a Life Into Stories by Alexandra Johnson
One Minute Journaling by Joanna Campbell Slan
- 5 Killer Online Journaling Tools You Should Try Out
- How to Build a Journaling Habit in 28 Days
- Journalate — free, private, secure online journal/diary
- PENZU – free, private, secure online journal/diary
Research Tips is written by Richard E. Winslow III, Local Historian Emeritus, who has worked in Special Collections at the Portsmouth Public Library for 30 years. He is a local historian and author on topics such as the Naval Shipyard, the Gundalow, submarines, shipbuilding, privateers, Frank Jones, and more.