In the long hiatus between my mother’s death on October 19th and her funeral last Friday, I wasn’t able to focus on work much at all, and that felt OK and appropriate. I slept a lot, dreamt a lot, read non-fiction books and wrote in my journal.
I was working through some of the exercises in Change Your Story, Change Your Life: Using Shamanic and Jungian Tools to Achieve Personal Transformation by Carl Greer one morning, when it occurred to me that anyone reading my journal after I died might not understand, as I do in the writing, that it’s an experiment, and not a report.
Actually, my whole journal is a perpetual work-in-progress. Every page I write is part of a creative exploration. It isn’t me – it’s a kaleidoscope of all the possibilities of me, and I’m aware of that when I’m writing in it in much the same way as when I’m gathering notes for a work of fiction, knowing all the time that many of my ideas won’t fit the story and will have to be discarded.
A journal or diary is a first encounter with ideas and events, before you’ve had a chance to ponder and decide what you think of them. To get a true sense of a person’s life, I guess you’d need to read their autobiography, because there you have a completed work. Where a journal is a mess of notes, often contradictory or inconsequential, an autobiography is an expression of the writer’s identity, his or her choice of what’s important and how they understand what’s happened.
I was struck by something in Natalie Goldberg’s book on memoir-writing Old Friend from Far Away last week; she says we shouldn’t think we have to be old before we can write a memoir. We don’t need the whole story all in one go, at the end. We can write memoirs from time to time throughout a long life, and each one will be the most complete expression of who we are and how we understand our lives up to that point.
In that sense, I guess autobiography could be seen as a work-in-progress too, but the difference is that in autobiography we are writing what we know about ourselves and our life, whereas in journalling we are feeling our way along the borders of our knowledge, and what we find must be judged as me or not-me, accepted or discarded, as part of the process of becoming.
If you read someone’s journal – as well as the obvious problem that it is private writing and they did not intend it to be read – you will not find the person there, and thinking that you will could give you every which kind of wrong impression, like listening to someone’s dreams and believing you can interpret them. A good dream therapist will simply hold the dream so that the dreamer can look at it from different angles, because only the dreamer can find out what it means.
I include all sorts of things in my journals – dreams, ideas, experiences, book reviews, quotations, drawings, writing exercises and creative experiments. I love them, just as I love my dreams, specifically because they don’t define me.
With both, there’s a feeling of infinite possibility, a continuously forming sense of direction, so that even at the end of a lifetime of journalling and dreaming, I’m sure there will be no conclusion, because the conclusion is always up ahead.
My children have strict instructions to burn my diaries without reading them when I die. What would you like to happen to yours?