An unexamined life is not worth living, said Socrates, the great greek philosopher. That’s why journaling is a fundamental practice for your own personal development.
It took me a while to appreciate the importance of journaling and to experience the positive effect it has on my personal growth. For a long time, journaling was an on-and-off activity to which I was not committed.
During my teenage years I took up writing a diary several times, especially when I felt the need to express the sorrows of adolescence. But it never became an habit, which is something that, later on, I regretted because, for example, I don’t have a record of my key experiences like the one I had during my time in Sicily.
For a long time, my preferred mode to communicate my experience, and to reflect on it, was to write letters to family and friends. That was way before the advent of Internet!
Only in recent year, did I become aware of how important journaling is. The conduit to this awareness has been the practice of anthropology.
Journaling: an anthropologist’s fieldwork diary
When they are in the field, journaling is a defining practice for anthropologists. It’s much more than just recording conversations, stories and observations (most is generally known as data). Indeed, it’s an important way to record their experience, a way to keep their eyes wide open and to explore how thought and experience intertwine and shape each other.
It was Michael Taussig, a great anthropologist and my mentor, who introduced me to the diary form as a form of anthropology. Before my first fieldwork trip to Colombia, in the last Spring of 2003, in a cade near Columbia University, Taussig shared with me his way of keeping a record of his experiences in the field, a collection of stories, conversations, impressions, news clips, quotes and even drawings. The fieldwork diary as an art book, as an alternate form of knowledge.
When a few years later, Taussig visited me in Medellin during the summer of 2006, I saw the ethnographer/artist at work. For him, writing the diary was a fundamental daily practice, almost a sacred ritual. Sitting up in the bed of his room, he would write down his observations and reflections and he’d paint aquarelles in his field-notes book, representing something that struck his mind.
Some years later, in his book I Swear I Saw This, Taussig reflectively wrote about the practice of keeping a journal in the field:
A fieldwork diary is like a scrapbook that you read and reread in different ways, finding unexpected meanings and pairings as well as blind alleys and dead ends.
It is exactly this experience that makes journaling and reading your diary so rich and always new. It’s a constant experience of renewal. Thus, observing Taussig writing his journal changed not only how I took and jotted down notes but also the experience of journaling itself.
Journaling became a mode of pausing and reflecting about my life experience.
Journaling became a way to give an inward look into the mark that an encounter, a story, a book, or an emotional reaction had left on my mind.
What amazed me was to realize how even the most mundane and trivial event I had experienced revealed something to me about myself or a reality I was facing. Journaling opened up a way to live with greater awareness, with the eyes of my mind wide open.
Initially, this experience was limited to my fieldwork. I would journal almost exclusively when I was carrying out my research, but later I understood how limited and fragmented my view was, as if only my life in the field was worth taking notice and reflecting upon. Why should I have those insightful moments only when I am doing research?
Ethnography, or self-ethnography, if you want, should become a way of living, a mindset, I thought.
That’s when I started journaling in a more regular way, collecting, ordering and re-ordering my life experience. Journaling thus has become an effective tool for self-growth and understanding.
Reflecting on the meaning of keeping a journal, Susan Sontag in her own diary wrote:
In the journal I do not just express myself more openly than I could do to any person; I create myself.
To create and to recreate yourself, I would add, is the aim of journaling.
And Susan Sontag continues:
The journal is a vehicle for my sense of selfhood.
It represents me as emotionally and spiritually independent. Therefore (alas) it does not simply record my actual, daily life but rather—in many cases—offers an alternative to it.
If you are wondering how best to journal, here are some ideas based on my own practice:
#1: Make journaling an habit, but not (necessarily) a daily one.
You don’t have to journal every day, especially at the beginning. Journaling is not something you have to do but something you want to do and to enjoy. By the way, there is research showing that those who journal once a week have a more enjoyable experience than those who do it every day. Journaling once a week is an excellent start.
#2: Find the best time and space.
Not unlike meditation or self-hypnosis, journaling should be a ritual to which you dedicate the time and the location most appropriate to you.
Mostly, I like to journal in the morning, after I take my cup of coffee. That’s the moment when I focus on the day ahead. Sometimes, I also journal in the evening, recording observations and reflections about the day that is closing.
As for the space, I like to sit on a chair in my living room. In the evening I write my diary sitting up in my bed.
Opening and closing the day with journaling has been very helpful to authoring my life and to be more aware about my experience.
#3: What to write in a journal.
My journal is a collection of all sorts of impressions. It’s really a collage of stories, experiences, readings, quotes, images, etc. which I assemble on the page.
I write expressions of gratitude. I record activities (especially when I exercise) to record my progress (or my setbacks, so that I can re-motivate myself). I focus on what I am grateful for, and this always nourish my resourceful emotions. I reflect on the intentions for the day. I concentrate on my goals, so that my purpose, my goals and my actions are in alignment. I write experiences and insights. I look inward, and I try to make sense of emotions or reactions (especially when they are related to insecurity, sadness, frustration, etc.).
#4: Elaborate on your experience.
Just a dry chronicle of events will not do it. That’s not the most exciting part of journaling.
What’s surprising is the insights that emerge when you expand on your experience. That’s when the pen starts to flow. That’s when new thoughts, understanding and meanings surface. Journaling is also rich in surprises as it uncovers the poetry immanent in the mundane.
#5: More than just words.
As I mentioned, I don’t merely write words in my diary. Modeling what Taussig doe, I like also to insert pictures, news clips, drawings, doodles, brochures, quotes….
Rather than a linear description of what happens to me (since there is no such linearity in life), it’s a collage of elements, experiences, stories and thoughts, that I order in a way to give meaning, to create, like Susan Sontag wrote, my life.
#6: Handwriting or Computer?
I have two journals. Once is a Moleskine notebook which a graffiti artists in Medellin painted (see picture above). This is the notebook that I use mostly in the morning. I like to handwrite my journal because my thoughts have a better flow and my writing is more introspective. It connects me more with my true self and it supports my inquiry. Instead, I use the application Day One on my computer or iPad in the evening, where I record more the chronicle of the day.
What’s your experience about writing a diary? Please, share here below….