On Keeping a Journal

[frame align=”right”][/frame]This morning I sit on my porch and gaze across the bottom lands and pastures of the James River valley. I open up my journal, swipe my fingers across its soft green leather cover, the embossed Celtic design like a brail pattern slides beneath my fingertips. A green satin ribbon curls in the journal’s crease. The pages measure five and a half inches wide from the seam of the spine to the paper’s edge. No more, no less. Lined. For a long time I would not write in journals with lines. Lines forced me to write certain ways, say or not say certain things, seeming to dictate my thoughts that an unlined page would never do. But the journals whose covers comfort me seem to be lined, at least the ones sold at Barnes and Nobles in Barracks Road Mall in Charlottesville, and so I live with lines.

Below my house and across the road down by the railroad, a dog barks. I wonder if that squatter who camped down there in the abandoned old railroad hotel has decided to come back with his malnourished hound. I write in my journal that if this yipping continues, I will have to investigate. I’m a little leery to do this. Shall I untie or cut the dog’s rope where he is tied to the rotting steps? What if I run into the person who tied up the dog?

It has only been in the last year that I write in the journal to the very last page. I have a box full of journals whose last pages are blank. Before the last pages I would stop and buy a new journal. I wonder if there is a psychological equivalent to this habit. I suppose so—a kind of T.S. Eliot’s objective correlative. Because I now write to the last page should, I hope, mean something’s improved in my character. Maybe.

Out in the barn are boxes and boxes of my mother’s journals–boxes bulging with her spiral notebooks. I check periodically to make sure that the rats have not torn into the boxes and made nests of her words.

Joan Didion in her essay, “On Keeping a Notebook” writes, “The impulse to write things down is a peculiarly compulsive one, inexplicable to those who do not share it, useful only accidentally, only secondarily, in the way that any compulsion tries to justify itself.”

A therapist commented that as long as I write in my journal, I’m not writing what I should be writing–the novel. A writer friend, not long ago, confessed to me that a celebrated author (who just happened to have been a colleague of hers in their MFA program years earlier), chided her, told her that keeping a journal was a waste of time. After this, my friend told me that for several years she dared not write in her journal, but then like a repentant lover lusting for the abandoned self, returned to her journal. We write not just to remember, but to suture self back together, to perform an act of self-redemption.

John Cheever’s son said about his father’s ritual of writing in his journal,“My father had to create himself each new day.” And Didion writes: “Remember what it was to be me: this is always the point.”

This morning I sit with my first cup of coffee and green leather journal and remember when I first moved to Nelson County. At night I lay in bed in one of the upstairs rooms under a wallpaper of demented pink ferns and gray feathers in this 1854 farmhouse, wondering what was I doing with my life. Why had I moved from California to this rural outpost in Virginia? When I heard the dog bark, it was very late and it wasn’t the first night that the dog had awakened me. This time I called the sheriff. He told me that a deputy would call me back. At midnight the deputy called. (I’m reading all this from a journal.) He knew about the abandoned hotel on the railroad tracks. He asked me where I lived. I gave him the address.

“Do you live in that house on the hill with the two big porches?”


“I used to come up with my grandfather when I was a little boy and paint those porches every summer.”

I wrote in my journal that I tried to make a joke. “Do you want to come up and paint them now?” (They were in pretty bad shape when I moved into the house.)

But he went on. “Have you noticed the color of your porch ceilings?

“No, I don’t think so.”

“They’re blue. And I always wondered why we painted those ceilings blue. I asked my grandfather. And he told me, ‘Blue ceilings mean welcome.’”

And now on this May morning, I sit on the porch and want to remember what it meant, then, to be me. I want to remember myself and that midnight barking hound tied to the steps of the abandoned hotel. I want to remember the deputy’s call and the porch ceilings’ blue welcome. That was the moment. And I wrote it in my journal.


 -Trudy Hale, co-editor-in-chief

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One thought on “On Keeping a Journal”

  1. Your essay is a poem! At least I, who know nothing about poetry,feel it works like a poem. You gather these resonant details into a narrative which we don’t even know is a story until things come gently together at the end. Beautiful. My only question: are the porch ceilings blue. I should know, but I don’t. I need to remember to look next time I’m there. Jane

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