As I was in the process of developing my new workshop and soon-to-be course, Journaling for Memoir Writers, I spent time revisiting all the reasons for journaling that reach beyond the cathartic. Not that there’s anything wrong about writing for catharsis—it’s just that journaling often gets pigeonholed, as if it’s good only for emotional healing and self-help. I would argue that the reasons to journal are so many that journaling could be considered a foundation for all types of writing.
Hear me out.
One such reason for journaling is to hold onto memories through story. When we write about something that happened in our lives, more than simply recording it, we are actively making sense of the event and bringing it into perspective with the overall arc of our life. We describe, explain, justify, and complain; we create a beginning, a middle, and an end. We develop themes and moral conclusions. The event becomes a story—whether we choose to share it with others or not.
These stories then become the lens or filter through which we view the world. They are the basis of all the memoir, fiction, and poetry we go on to write.
If you don’t journal, you still create stories about your life events—but only in your mind. There, they can get lost in the jumble of life stories; it’s like throwing memories in a filing cabinet without folders. When you write about them as they happen, you file those stories in logical places. You get to keep those stories in more vivid detail than the ones you didn’t write down. You can revisit them, revise and change them as your perspectives change, and you can share them in more details with others.
The same is true of stories we preserve by telling them (sometimes repeatedly) to others. Today, I came across a blog post and video by a young woman named Eve, titled How Storytelling Saved My Memories. Eve uses the art of live storytelling to reveal the kinds of events you and I might write about in our journals or memoirs.
One thing Eve wrote really stuck with me: “By actively molding my own memories for an audience, I found that I was creating small pieces of self-mythology; fairy tales, with insightful little morality nuggets.” As I read it, I thought, Yes, that’s exactly how I feel when I capture my life stories in my journal, and then later polish them into short memoir vignettes or scenes, personal essays, or my memoir in progress. By molding my memories for an audience—whether it’s for publication or for my family—I add to the story of who I am—my self-myth.
But what do I do with events in which I’ve played a less-than-stellar role, the times for which I feel embarrassment or shame? Do I journal (or not) about those events and hide them away, or do I use them to help learn how to be a better person? Is my self-myth honest and well-rounded, including all aspects of who I am, or do I try to present only my best side? And, if I’m determined to present myself truthfully, how do I get to those truths? My answer is to further explore the meanings of my behaviors and responses within my journal. They are part of my story.
Questions for thought: Do you write honestly about your role(s) in your life events? When you write your stories for an audience, how do you present yourself?
For the sake of conversation, I’m going to leave you with a version of Eve’s parting question: How have you turned embarrassing stories or shameful truths into helpful self-myths? And have you written them down?