One of the first things people comment on when they come
into my house is the number of books we have. 
We were lucky enough to have built-in bookcases in our living room when
we moved in.  We even had a set of
shelves in our guest bathroom, which was only one of the weird features that so
endeared this house to me when I first saw it. 
Since we first bought it in 1997, we have added three new built-in
shelves and three other free standing ones, and all of them are
overflowing.  You could say that our
family has a book problem.

Part of the problem, however, isn’t just books.  There are several volumes that appear to be
books, but are only books in disguise. 
They are my journals, and I have been keeping them since I was forced to
write every day in a spiral notebook for Ms. Simpson’s English Class in high
school.  Actually, now that I think about
it, I was keeping a diary (you know, the pink one with a lock and tiny little
key that you basically kept tied to the lock so it wouldn’t get lost in all the
other junk under your bed) from the time I could write and put together
complete sentences.  It seems that I have
been writing in journals for most of my life, and I have an appalling lack of
shelf space to prove it.

Of course, my journal writing has waxed and waned over the
years, but it seems that I always come back to it in one form or another.  It’s a very cheap form of therapy for
me.  I’m guessing that the amount of
money I’ve spent over the years on inexpensive journals from Wal-Mart and a new
pair of running shoes every four to five months pales in comparison to the
amount that some folks spend on therapists and mood-enhancing drugs.

I say it’s therapy because I can’t think of a better way to
work through problems than to write about them. 
Writing, as I often tell my students, is a long and often messy
process.  In fact, I think that if it’s
order you’re looking for, writing (at least the part that actually leads to a
finished product) is not a good option. 
It’s funny how often I begin writing with a plan, a perceived direction
in mind, only to find halfway through the paper that I’ve come upon a
completely different, and often better, idea. 
It’s this willingness to embrace the mess that I try to encourage in my
students, who are for the most part, victims of the state writing test school
of formula writing.  It’s a process that
plugs answers into neat little blocks of prose and that clearly delineate a
focused and well-developed thesis… in theory. 
In reality, what they get is a boring as hell essay, the likes of which
no one, not even the bureaucrats that design those crappy tests, have ever read
in any magazine, book or grocery store flyer in their lives.  That’s because it’s not writing. 

Real writing delves into the inner recesses of our minds,
and no three-point thesis or concluding sentence that restates said thesis can
truly do that.  It requires letting go of
that image of the perfect, one-draft wonder, and it’s one of the hardest things
to teach students who have spent the past few years trying to plug their main
ideas and supporting evidence into neat little blocks.  It’s one of the reasons I make my students do
a lot of free writing.  At first, they
are always hesitant.  To them, it seems
like one of those baloney assignments that teachers make up so they can take
roll or run downstairs to get a cup of coffee. 
It takes a few attempts at this before they begin to realize that it is,
in fact, one of the most important parts of the writing process.  Free writing means that you actually have to
think for yourself, that you have to put down in words what is on your mind
rather than what is on the board, that you have to question yourself and the
way you think.  This is often strange and
intimidating territory for the student who has either never done that type of
writing or who was discouraged from doing it once they reached a certain age.

Pablo Picasso said, “Every child is an artist. The problem
is remaining one once he grows up.”  It
is the same with writing.  I cannot tell
you the number of students who tell me they used to write but they quit in high
school because they just didn’t get it. 
I’ve also had several confess to writing poetry just for fun, but they
always quickly tell me that it’s no good. 
Somewhere along the line, they were taught that writing was the same as
memorizing the periodic chart or multiplication tables, that there was only one
right way.  So they either began to hide
their words in ratty notebooks stuffed beneath mattresses or worse, they put
the pen down altogether.  Their words
were placed in hiding.

Journal writing is a way to come out of seclusion even if
only for yourself.  Not every one may
have the talent or the inclination to become a great literary genius, but every
person has the capacity for both thought and language, no matter how different
those thoughts and languages might be. 
It is part of our human condition. 
We are creative beings by definition, and writing is creating.  Even those of us who do not consider
ourselves to be writers per se have an internal dialogue that is in constant
play.  A journal is simply an outlet.

When I am feeling overwhelmed or unsure of something, I
often look back through old journal entries, and I am constantly amazed at the
clearly defined patterns I find there. 
If I’m ever looking for an answer, I can almost always find it within
the pages of my journals.

Journaling, whether it’s a workout journal, a gardening
journal, an art journal, or a run of the mill, day-to-day diary, allows us to
chronicle our lives.  Maybe no one else
will ever read these pages, and in my case, I think that’s probably for the
best, but it doesn’t matter.  It reflects
on the past, both the happy memories and the painful.  It gives us direction and points us in the
right direction for the future.  And it
most certainly keeps us in tune with the here and now—the present moment and
what we are thinking or feeling at any given point.

*Try This:  If you’ve
never kept a journal, consider beginning one. 
Buy yourself a nice journal that strikes your fancy.  It might have a vinyl cover with bright
psychedelic flowers and peace signs, or it might be an understated black
leather book with no words on the cover, or it might even be a Hello Kitty
spiral notebook that any second-grader would envy.  Whatever it is, get it, enjoy the crisp
newness of the blank pages, and then set to writing about whatever.  It’s good for the soul!

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