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Self-Knowledge • Know Yourself

Why You Should Keep a Journal

What should in an ideal world define someone as a writer isn’t that they publish books, or give talks at literary festivals or wear black; it’s that they belong to a distinct group of people who — whenever they are confused or in distress — gain the greatest possible relief from jotting things down. ‘Writers’ in the true sense are those who scribble — as opposed to drink, exercise or chat — their way out of pain.

The act of writing, especially in a journal or diary, is filled with therapeutic benefits. So deeply do certain ideas threaten the status quo, even if they ultimately offer us benefits, the mind will ruthlessly ‘forget’ them in the name of a quiet life. But our diaries are a forum in which we can raise and then galvanise ourselves into answering the large questions which lie behind the stewardship of our lives: What do I really want? Should I leave? What do I feel for them? 

We may not quite know what we want to say until we’ve started to write; writing begets more writing. The first sentence makes the second one clearer. After a short paragraph that was summoned from apparent air, we start know where this might be going. We learn what we think in the process of being forced to utter ideas outside of our swampy minds. The page becomes a guardian of our authentic elusive self. 

Here we can make vows and attempt to stick to them: No more humiliation! The end of masochism! Ordinary life can seem to have no place for stock-taking and moments of grand enquiry. But the page demands and rewards them: What am I trying to do? Who am I? What is meaningful for me? We’d never get away with such things at the dinner table, even among people who claim to love us — but here they make sense.

We can look back at what we’ve written and understand. The page is a supreme arena for processing. We can drain pain of its rawness. We can get used to disasters and stabilise joys. We can turn panic into lists. Five ways to survive this. Six things I am going to tell them. Four reasons not to despair. We won’t need to be so jittery in the world outside after we have told the notebook all this. 

The page becomes a laboratory in which to try out what might shock and surprise. We don’t need to honour everything we say. We’re giving it a go and seeing how we feel. It’s the first draft of a letter to ourselves.

Looking back at what we have written should be embarrassing, if what we mean by that is hyperbolic, disjointed, uncertain and wild. If we aren’t appalled by much of what we have said to ourselves, we aren’t beginning to be truthful — and therefore won’t learn.

If in ordinary life we make a little more sense than we might, if we are a bit calmer than we were, it’s perhaps because — somewhere in a drawer — there are pages of tightly compressed handwriting that have helped us to understand our pain, safely explore our fantasies and guide us to a more bearable future.

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