Keeping the Facts of Your Life Straight

From a weekly email from Austin Kleon, who is a big advocate of journals, as are many creatives:

Here are 10 things I thought were worth sharing this week:

This week I tore through Tara Westover’s memoir, Educated. The book is about many things, but one of them is the power of journals and diaries to help you cope with trauma and keep the facts of your life straight. (Westover has kept a journal since she was 10. “My journals supplied me with a level of detail I could never have had if I relied on memory alone,” she says. “I recorded meals I’d eaten, conversations I’d overheard, work I’d done for my father in the junkyard or my mother tincturing herbs.”)

I’ve been writing stories since I was five years old, but I’ve kept a journal just twice in my life—once when I was a new mother, and then again during the run up to and after my divorce. I’ve got a journal somewhere of my most vivid dreams, too, because what there is to be grokked in a dream fascinates me.

Of course, Facebook could be called a journal, don’t you think? It’s a record of day-to-day events. And elements of this blog could certainly be called a journal. Even my daybook journals my daily activities. There are many benefits to keeping a journal (no matter where you keep it).

Now I’m an editor—I edit books—and I’ve noticed that even when I’m editing, all my thoughts get organized when I write. I write to figure out what I think. I’ve written about this before:

  • On editing: Writing clarifies thoughts, sparks creative ideas, makes connections you hadn’t seen, helps problem solving, unlocks intuition. I am often astonished at what is revealed to me when I start writing down my thoughts and ideas (from Whole-Picture Editing).
  • On asking questions: When I get stuck (editorially speaking), when I’m confused, when there are so many trees that the forest—er, story arc—seems obscure, I tend to fall back on formula. Meaning, I ask myself some standard questions and see if the answers, like bread crumbs, lead me … anywhere. Out of the woods (from Interrogatory Editing).
  • On outlining: Capture your ideas in writing. Sketch them out in a paragraph or briefly outline them. You will never regret this (from How a To-Do List Is Like a Book).
  • On process: I make a note about it so I don’t forget. Sometimes just a sentence or a paragraph, sometimes a whole outline. I might even research it a little. Now I’m conscious of it, but in an unconscious way. It is not on the front burner, just “rolling around in the back of my mind.” It can stay there for weeks or even months (from The Waiting Is the Hardest Part).

I haven’t needed my journals to cope with trauma, but I definitely use some form of writing every single day to make sense of … well, life. I’m getting ready to start a family history project, and I think writing it out—if my initial attempts are any indication—will help me make sense of the person I am.