Why I Keep A Journal by Margaret Scarborough

Friday, 1 January 2016

A brave and poignant piece on journal keeping by writer Margaret Scarborough.

I wish you all a Happy New Year.

Warmly, Sally

            I keep a journal out of necessity. Perhaps that is not really the right sense. I keep one and I tend one badly, but it is still necessary. If it were a garden plot it would be full of weeds, rarely fecund, its rows crooked and its seedlings in wonky bunches, or: your dried-out house plants after a trip abroad. Fortunately journals don't need water or undivided attention, unless you are very disciplined. My unfaithfulness or my casual faithfulness, that of the "lover of convenience" who comes and goes at whim and according to geography means that I don't call my journal a diary, to do so would imply that it were a daily practice, which it only sometimes is.

            I started one failed journal after the next in my childhood. They ended in the drawer of the dwarfish secretary that was never good for anything but collecting. I think I was always disappointed by my inability to say, by my own tedium. My first I named Iris. She was supposed to be a friend, but she abandoned me the way other fickle children did, because there was nothing that really bound us in the first place, and because her entire presence was contrived. When you don't really like your friends they become chores and so she was like my useless porcelain doll I grew disgusted with for being glass-eyed and inanimate.

            The necessity came in the winter of a long illness, when I'd been cordoned off from the world, after high school. Returning to it is not pleasant, because it seems to have been an exercise in filling emptiness, which words do quite well, and of filling time, of which I had whole houses full. Thus, there are a lot of "days" in it, and a lot of descriptions of nature and a lot of self-criticism and a lot of boredom stacked up in petite script. There are also the contents of future journals — mentions of what I am reading, reflections on past and future, pep talks to the non-existent.  Two months after I begin that journal I took out a survey on Woolf entitled Virginia Woolf: Becoming a Writer from the local library, and there is my academic inclusion of a long "excerpt", which I copy here in full because Woolf says it better than I do and because it says something about why I still keep a journal:

I feel that I have had a blow, but it is not, as I thought as a child, simply a blow from an enemy hidden behind the cotton wool of daily life; it is or will become a revelation of some order; it is a token of some real thing behind appearances and I make it real by putting it into words. It is only by putting it into words that I make it whole; this wholeness meant that it has lost its power to hurt me; it gives me, perhaps because by doing so I take away the pain, a great delight to put the severed parts together. Perhaps this is the strongest pleasure known to me. ("A Sketch of the Past").

That very grey journal becomes increasingly colourful where there are other people involved, noticeably when I enter a hospital and comment on the nurses and the doctors and such like. But that suggestion given by Woolf, of making my own life and the lives of other real, of taking away the pain of blows merely through a journal, I must have had some inkling of. I still do. It's an absurd notion, but somehow writing a journal gave me a second, whole body at a time when I was desperately in need of one. That body could watch the goings on, make acerbic comments, relish its own bemusement at the hypocrisies and contradictions of the normal, share subtleties and shame without fear of retribution or accusations of arrogance. It made, in retrospect, a jumbled teleology of things —a teleology that I always felt was false and is the kernel and tragedy of all writing— but that nevertheless calmed my discomfort and restlessness. That journal gave my fading self a vocation, something to hold on to, something to do.

The one of my illness died when the world's (which was my own) chaos and turmoil became too much for language and then my next journal is quite boring when I begin about a year later, at the time of a great family crisis. I should thank the second cousin who gave me that one. Her foresight was impeccable.

Then there are loves that chart my skewed journal history, the first and the second and counting. And it is the second, the landmark love, where I begin to tend with great urgency, because there were things I could say to no one and I was going through a Saint Teresa Dark Night of the Soul, replete with torturous moral questioning and mystic sayings. I wanted to know the essence of love and somehow the exhaustive anthropological approach was the only one that came close to providing (again) distraction, seemed capable of rescuing something whole, of giving meaning, of making sense, or if not that, of steadying what felt on the verge of collapse. It meant also that I could deceive myself about certain things. I needed an accomplice in self-deception and the wise were unhelpfully frank. Lies aside, my journal saw me through my lyric phase without too much indecent exposure. I am grateful to it.

I write all of this because the history of my journaling explains in part its perennial if patchy maintenance, its bushy persistence. With the second love, my journal's faithfulness to me made me respond with fidelity in turn, as when the identity of an admirer has become known. We were mutually at ease in one another's company and writing became a pleasant exigency, a mode of regulating time and space without the pressure of a public. That is not to say that I do not judge the quality of my own writing, do not loathe my own voice at times, regret word choice, haphazard beginnings; I do. It is to say that my life begins to suffer when I do not keep a journal. It is drastic intervention, stop-gap measure and leisure, is inexpensive and has no known side effects.

Once, as I sat writing on a long bench at a shared table on the leafy sidewalk of Berlin, a middle-aged man commented: Yes, the world needs observers. My journal is, in light of that statement, an album of images and portraits. But, lacking the precision and decisiveness of the visual, it's also where I store what I call "homeless knowledge". It's a repository of miscellany where experience goes unclassified. That is very much my way, since I am rather unsystematic, but as a race we're obsessed with classification and categories, which I mistrust and find intellectually dangerous. So there you might find long quotes from books, half phrases, complaints, notes on current events, recollections of friends, dreams, obsessive investigations. There are no qualitative judgments passed about how valuable or productive a thought is or whether its form is persuasive. It's very anti-capitalist, I guess. It has no ulterior motives. It's like a very long holiday somewhere warm: it is nowhere and at no time, or everywhere and anytime, depending how you look at it, as when strangers rub shoulders, as at a dinner party, and sometimes they laugh.  I do self-adjudicate, and I partly need that judge, especially when she's honest, but this is not science, it's contemplation, the German nachdenken, thinking-after. Postscript the day and preface the next or punctuate the midafternoon slump, get through it, ponder.

When I speak of journals to friends, their responses are varied. One, a novelist, concludes that love notebooks or historical journals are acceptable but that anything else is whining Whitman panegyric. Another views her own journal writing as a purge. I wonder if she is bulimic.  Sometimes she writes and throws her entries away. Another, a scholar: diaries are not a genre. All this to say that the journal is maybe a shadow self but it doesn't really matter what it is. It's not for everyone. In my case, I have the sense that it draws me out, follows me, if not to the end, to the further consequences of thoughts, and when none of these things, it at least confronts me with a fullness that is external and independent, even indifferent. I like to keep in touch with old friends because they provide a security that feels like coherence, a counterweight to itinerancy. My journal also feels like this: it meets me where I am, weeping and maudlin or loquacious over tea, and then maybe even teaches me to love in the Miloszian formula: "to learn to look at yourself/ The way one looks at distant things." The last is the hardest, but alas, it's a hard fact that the proximity of distance we create to ourselves is more important than the closeness composed of others.

Of course, keeping a journal comes with inevitable risks. For starters: you might wind up sounding like a blue-stocking. Duly noted. All things considered, though, this seems a small price to pay. Or, you might write, as Barbellion did, sentences like this: "It flatters me to know that at least one person takes an unremitting interest in all my ways." I like to think these can be tended to if and when they arise.

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Published
Publication date: April 2016
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