Lost Among Words: Journaling Uncovers the Beauty of Mundane Life
September 29, 2011 by Christian Harder
Once, when I was young, I kept a journal with a tenacity and devotion not dissimilar to dedicated spiritual exploration. I had an image, at that age—possibly eleven or twelve—of an older me, wearing a tweed jacket and khakis, rereading (and reliving) the fantastic adventures of a childhood long since past. I also imagined a slightly younger me, a man freshly graduated college in business attire, about to enter the working world, only to stumble fortuitously across the journal I’d created in my youth as a stay against the winds of chaos; upon this rediscovery, I’d reform my stodgy ways, wondering how I’d managed to fall so far from coolness. Working a nine-to-five? Come on. Instead, I’d tear the suit off, and in a fit of transcendental proportions, run to the nearest rushing stream to baptize myself in the cool waters of freedom.
No matter how absurd these fantasies, my journal, at that age, represented for me a sober vessel of ultimate utility; a time capsule in one sense, but also a method of analyzing, discovering, and reacting to patterns in life inscrutable at the immediate time of living. I set out as the scribe of existence, wanting to make a holistic, cohesive, and unified portrayal of my young life, one that I might revisit in difficult times, reaffirming the character I thought myself to be.
Unfortunately, writing a journal is no easy task. Optimally, the process should be organic, entries appearing naturally out of a series of events that merit recollection. However, I quickly found my life too boring to record. I remember clearly thinking: This entry about Lego towers and video games is fairly similar to the previous four entries. I had not, at that point, found in myself any talent for noticing the poignancies, the beauty of mundane life. Instead of enforcing a rigorous schedule, say five hundred words written at 8:00 p.m. every night, I gave up. Life, it seemed, did not deserve to be documented.
Looking back at the earliest entries, I do actually find valuable insight into the person I once was; I entertained very severe ideas about life. Some gems in the rough: “Never dress poorly,” “Marry [Name], no matter what,” and “Don’t settle for a real job. Life doesn’t happen in a cubicle.” Apparently somewhere within me resides a sure romantic, irrepressibly stylish, and destined for poverty.
In many respects, journals provide an amazing opportunity to capture the capricious, transient moments of life that too often go unnoticed. Read on later dates, they give perspective on the mutable nature of day-to-day living, revealing that, whether or not we realize it, our values, beliefs, opinions and actions change as frequently as the date. However, I’m wary of the stereotypical journal entry. In writing, we hope to objectively document our own living, which is of course is undoable; autobiographies are, in some sense, impossible. We cannot possibly return to an entry, no matter how vivid, and experience or recall the ‘self’ that wrote it either. I prefer a journal to be a fragmented and flourishing account of events, objectivity and restriction be damned.
Mindful of this, I’ve started writing entries again. It’s been almost a decade since my last input, and the gap overwhelms me. So much has happened that I cannot hope to summarize or paraphrase correctly. Instead, I’ve decided to take myself less seriously, and write whatever comes to mind, whether I reference worldly events or imaginary ones. I believe that a linear record of the day’s happenings (“I went to the grocery store, saw mother”) is so much less important than the state of mind those happenings produce. Despite this leniency however, I’ve begun a schedule, one that I can’t pass up in favor of Legos or video games. I devote half an hour, late every night, to the project. If I find myself uninterested in writing autobiographically, I’ll instead make fiction or poetry in the belief that all artistic creation draws from the present mind, affected by surrounding events. For some entries, the only indication that the writing is not a fragment of a story or poem is the ubiquitous tag: [Date, Time, Place, An Object Near Me]
For a writer, I believe constant journaling can foster an interesting and oft-avoided ability: the ability to write plain events as if they were magically charged. My biggest qualm with some contemporary writers, myself often included, is that their writing has become too literal; too often, a trip to the post office remains a trip to the post office, without embellishment or insight. In reality, our neurons fire at unimaginable rates, supporting layers and layers of subtext, subconsciousness, and thought, each colored by the external world. No action is as simple as we’d like to think. Recognizing this, I tend to write strange, unobvious journal entries, hoping to continuously refresh my style. If I had written this way from the beginning, less restricted as a child to daily minutiae, perhaps there would be no decade-long gap in entries.
Every night at eleven, I close the door and begin again. It’s peaceful really, a moment of meditation amid an otherwise chaotic schedule; the process of writing is often as enjoyable as the produced text itself. I usually open a window and consider the crickets, or, in this late season, the wind as it shuffles the leaves, all the time capturing whatever boils up from below. Sure, sometimes the words hesitate. I may struggle to paraphrase my day too technically or simply don’t have the energy to keep writing. Most often, however, the results are wondrous. I have days written as shopping lists, e-mails, family trees, applications, sestinas, free verse, long-form prose. For the serious days with memorable events, I write from a first-person perspective, not necessarily my own. My writing already feels freer. I am less worried about adhering to a certain way of writing, instead happy to choose between any form or style that I prefer at the moment.
No matter how we manage to do it, I believe that all of us—writer or not—should write something daily, and make it as inventive as possible. This way, we are guaranteed a period in which we can unload the day’s heavy thoughts, discover ourselves, and move on, newly self-aware. The journal, for me, provides this opportunity. In any case, we should strive to encounter the world in its most important form—through our own eyes.
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About The Author:
Christian Harder lives in Blacksburg, Va., and writes for Escape into Life. He also regularly interviews writers on his website, Pages to Pixels (www.pagestopixels.com). Find him on twitter: @PagestoPixels.